Last week I wrote a column about the plight of Iraqis who helped U.S. troops and civilians but face death as “collaborators” after we leave.
Since my column appeared, I’ve been receiving emails from Iraqis who fear that we will betray them. A special immigrant visa (SIV) program to get them out has been virtually frozen — supposedly, for security reasons — even though these Iraqis have undergone security checks in order to work on U.S. bases.
Many who had been issued SIV visas now face long delays or have been told their visas are canceled. According to State Department figures, fewer than 3,500 of 25,000 special visas authorized in 2008 have been issued.
Reading these emails makes my blood boil — at our betrayal of our Iraqi friends and allies. (You can read excerpts of several of the emails at my blog: www.philly.com/worldview.) If you feel as I do, I have suggestions at the end of the column about how you can help.
One emailer, A.M. (I use his initials for safety’s sake), is a 26-year-old interpreter who has worked with a U.S. combat unit and with a U.S. contracting unit that checks on Iraqi subcontractors.
“My job was to coordinate with the government of Iraq to prevent waste, fraud and abuse,” he emailed me. “We made these companies to pay hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars they didn’t pay in previous years.” A.M. got recommendations from the brigadier general heading his unit and several other senior officers in the command.
But, in doing his job well, A.M.’s face became known to Iraqi contractors and ministry officials. He began receiving death threats. “In 2010 my car windows were broken in front of my house and a red ‘X’ was taped on my driver’s side window,” he told me in a phone interview. For safety, he moved onto the U.S. base.
Now he must move off the base when it closes next month. But he was told in June that his special visa is on hold for eight to 12 months because of new security procedures. This leaves him open to assassination.
He certainly can’t expect Iraqi authorities to protect him. “In Iraqi culture, if you worked for the Americans you are a ‘spy’ and a ‘bad guy,’” A.M. said, glumly. “Our police don’t work in a proper manner. Every single police or army unit has its own loyalties, and if they knew I worked as an interpreter they would hate me.”
As if this weren’t bad enough, radical Sunni and Shiite militia groups have publicly pledged to kill Iraqis who worked for Americans. “I don’t know what I will do,” A.M. admitted. “I have to leave.”
Even many Iraqis who have received visas are in jeopardy. A.M.’s good friend, her parents, and two other families were pulled off a plane for the United States at Amman airport, SIVs in hand, and told they had to wait for further security approvals. The families had already sold their homes and possessions and could not go back to Baghdad.
After a month in an airport hotel, and a brief return to Iraq, A.M.’s friends regained their visas through the intercession of a U.S. senator.
But the other two families — both headed by widows — had to seek refuge in northern Iraq, living on dwindling savings. To their horror, they’ve recently been told their visas were revoked because of “derogatory information.” They cannot find out what this means, nor can they appeal.
Iraqi and U.S. contacts tell me this Kafka-esque revocation of visas for “derogatory information” is becoming more common.
Becca Heller, who directs the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) in New York, recalled another hideous case: A longtime interpreter for the U.S. Marines who was a victim of a targeted shooting and who lives in hiding, has also been rejected for “derogatory information.” Never mind his sheaf of background checks and military recommendations. Neither his military supervisor nor U.S. lawyers from IRAP have been able to get any U.S. government agency to explain the denial.
Readers have asked how they can help. Here’s what I suggest:
1. Contact your senator or representative. Send letters to Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Get your churches, your veterans’ groups, and any group you can muster to send letters, too.
Ask why we don’t have a transparent SIV process that expedites visas for those in danger, and why we haven’t hired enough staff to process their applications.
You may think such letters won’t help. But six senators, including John Kerry, D-Mass., and Republican Richard Lugar, R-Ind., have just sent a letter to Homeland Security requesting answers about why the SIVs are stalled. They should be urged to press the issue.
2. Fund groups such as IRAP, which provides volunteer U.S. lawyers to help SIV applicants. The Philadelphia law firm Reed Smith L.L.P. and students at the University of Pennsylvania Law School are helping with some of these cases.
Most Americans may want to forget about Iraq, but the betrayal of our allies shames us. I will write more on what’s to be done in another column, soon.
• Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.