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Visas for Afghans, Iraqis Who Helped U.S. Forces Get Small Reprieve, But Program Needs Big Fixes ASAP

Between FY 2008 and FY 2012, only 22 percent of the available Iraqi visas and just 12 percent of the special visas available to Afghans were issued. Out of the 8,000 visas available to Afghans over that time period, just 1,051 were issued. Out of the 25,000 reserved for Iraqis, 5,500 were issued. This wasn’t for a lack of applicants, as the Washington Post reported nearly a year ago that more than 5,000 Afghan applications were backlogged.

Blumenauer noted that in Fiscal Year 2013 only 339 special visas had been issued to Iraqis out of 5,000 available, a "staggeringly low" number in comparison to the 1,655 processed in FY 2012.

As of June 30 in Afghanistan, just 144 of the FY 2013 visas were issued to Afghans who face threats from the Taliban in return for working with the soon-to-withdraw American forces. Out of the 1,500 annual available visas, that's the least issued out of any prior year despite the backlogged applicants.

He also noted how the State Department lauded renewal of the programs as sending a message not just to those who help the U.S. abroad "that we are committed to those who place their lives on the line to assist our national interests," but to people around the world "whom we may ask in the future to do the same."

"Clearly the same logic applies -- and the same message is sent -- if we're unable to make the SIV programs function properly," Blumenauer wrote.

The congressman asked for an opportunity to confer with the agencies to come up with a comprehensive plan "about who should be responsible and how we can make the Iraq and Afghanistan SIV programs function."

Some applicants have taken bullets for the U.S. cause. Most come with multiple recommendations from military personnel and have served up to eight years alongside the Americans. Lawmakers have noted there’s little transparency in how the Baghdad and Kabul embassies make their decisions, and the applicants have no route to appeal. If the family of an Iraqi who helped U.S. forces is also under threat, they can also apply for visas under the program. Under the Afghan side of the program, though, only a spouse and children under 21 are eligible.

The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project offered examples of the human toll of the special immigrant visa backlog in both countries.

"An Iraqi who owned a company that supplied the U.S. military mission for five years, from 2003 to 2008, was threatened repeatedly and had to flee to Jordan. He applied for an SIV in 2011. He received final approval and was granted a visa in July 2012.Yet, his visa was inexplicably cancelled at the airport, but the U.S. Embassy suggested that he reapply. However, in March 2013, he and his family began to receive dozens of threats via phone and text message, referencing his work with the US and threatening to kill his family.  Weeks after the threats began, his family's home in Iraq was firebombed, and his entire family had to flee. Their cases remain pending," reads one case from the project.

"Mr. Mashal applied for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) in June 2012 and was given an interview date on September 18, 2013 at Embassy Kabul. His case is currently in administrative processing, as he undergoes security checks. Mr. Mashal worked alongside retired Army Captain Matt Zeller in Afghanistan. Mr. Mashal is in urgent danger as he is no longer working for U.S. Forces, and is therefore no longer afforded a special layer of protection. Mr. Mashal has been living in hiding at his family’s house in Kabul. One month ago, Taliban fighters knocked on the door of his father’s house looking for Mr. Mashal. While his father was at the door, Mr. Mashal was able to escape by jumping over the fence into his neighbor’s yard. The Taliban threated Mr. Mashal’s father and said that they were planning to execute Mr. Mashal for his assistance of the U.S. Military."