Many Iraqis who helped US still awaiting visas

In July, I wrote about the plight of Iraqis who worked with U.S. soldiers and civilians but face death as “collaborators” when we leave. Their situation remains unresolved.

Congress set up a special program in 2008 to grant these Iraqis 25,000 special immigrant visas (SIVs) over five years. Only 3,629 have been issued thus far; at least 1,500 are pending.

Yet, some Iraqis who have virtually completed the process have been told they must wait an additional eight months while more security checks are conducted.

Senior administration officials are working to speed up the process (more about this below). But, as our troops come home and bases close, time is of the essence. Many Iraqi interpreters can no longer remain on bases where they have lived for safety; some SIV applicants are moving from house to house under death threat.

Simple decency — not to mention a moral obligation — demands we get these loyal Iraqis out before we leave their country. Read some of the emails I’ve received from desperate SIV applicants and you’ll see why:

“Ma’am: I am writing to tell you about the situation of the Iraqis who helped Americans here in Iraq. I have worked with the U.S. Army as a linguist (translator) for 17 months in Mosul, which is one of the most dangerous places in Iraq. I have been threatened by terrorists many times because of my job and I lost three members of my family as a result. I’m waiting to get the visa since March 2011.

“It’s very dangerous for me to stay in Iraq; now I can’t see my family, I can’t finish my school, and I can’t have normal life as a human because too much people in Iraq think that everyone who helped the Americans is a traitor and should be killed. Please, if you can tell anyone to find a solution for us, because if the U.S. Army leaves Iraq by end of this year, we are all going to get killed by the militias.”

Yours sincerely,

Eric (his nickname)

Dear Miss: “Since the date of my SIV visa interview 31 October 2010, till now, we have got nothing. My family and me are living in very bad conditions (they had to leave their house after the bombing of churches in their Christian neighborhood.) You can imagine the view of my 15-months son when an explosion happens near our house.

“We Christians are very easy targets for anyone because nobody is defending us. We fear the imminent U.S. troop retreat that will definitely lead to big chaos in Iraq and we will be easy victims. We are hearing that it is the security check that causes all these delaying, but what security check is taking 11 months without completion?” (Especially since he has a host of relatives who are already American citizens, including his parents, two brothers, two aunts, and two uncles.)

Thank you, also from my wife Basma & Gerard (my little angel).” S.

You can read more of these emails on my blog (www.philly.com/worldview). The point they all make is the urgency of the situation.

One translator who helped carry out a U.S. investigation of fraud in Iraqi government ministries wrote that two attempts had been made on his life; he’s had to live on U.S. bases since February for safety, but his unit is leaving. Yet, he was told in June that it will take eight to 12 months more to get his visa, despite recommendations from U.S. officers.

Senior administration officials tell me they are focused on the visa issue “at the highest level of government.” They say the process has been streamlined, and personnel shifted to speed the additional security checks.

“We are working through the current backlog with a serious sense of urgency,” one official told me. “We don’t anticipate this will take eight months.” He said there were procedures in place to expedite particularly urgent cases. “We know that the United States has a special responsibility to Iraqis who worked on our behalf.”

However, none of the desperate Iraqis who’ve contacted me since July has had an update about their visas. One who tried to expedite his case was told, again, he’d have to wait several months. That’s a potential death sentence. (I’ve also received emails about Iraqis who thought they’d been approved for SIVs and were suddenly rejected for unspecified “security reasons,” no details given, no right to appeal.)

We have to rescue these Iraqis. And there’s a precedent. In 1996, the United States evacuated 6,000 endangered Iraqi opposition activists from northern Iraq to Guam, then did security checks there. The British and Danes evacuated their Iraqi staff when they left southern Iraq.

Might we do the same?

“There is no plan to institute a mass evacuation,” a senior administration official told me. But if our bureaucracy can’t get the SIV backlog cleared before our troops leave, we must get those Iraqis out. There’s only four months left. I say: Start planning the evacuation now.

• Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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