Last week, I spoke on the PBS “NewsHour” about Iraqis who worked for our civilians and military before we left the country — and who now face death threats because we betrayed them.
I’ve received a slew of email from Iraqi interpreters who are in hiding because Shiite militias have pledged to kill the “traitors” who aided the Americans. I’ve also received email from U.S. military officers desperately trying to get their “terps” out of the country. And I’ve heard from ordinary, concerned Americans.
All ask the same question: How can we get the U.S. government to issue the visas it promised to Iraqis who risked their lives to help us?
I’m ashamed to admit that the U.S. government has abandoned these people. No one seems eager to bring more Iraqis into this country in an election year.
President Obama has failed to keep his 2007 campaign pledge to rescue these Iraqis. A group of concerned senators, mostly Democrats, including Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey, has made inquiries, but gotten no answers from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta or Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. Nor has a peep been heard on behalf of the “terps” from Republican senators who backed our war in Iraq.
State Department officials say they’re working hard to expedite the visa process. Yet the number of visas for Iraqis who helped us slowed to a trickle just when they were most urgently needed, as U.S. troops quit Iraq.
Nor has the Pentagon made any move to rescue Iraqis who worked with our soldiers. Many U.S. officers moved mountains to get their Iraqi aides out, but others have been thwarted. Moreover, individual officers can’t organize the large-scale evacuation that’s now needed.
Official figures show that 39,000 Iraqis (including family members) are in the pipeline in the Direct Access program for Iraqis who worked with us. Only 153 of these visas were issued in December. There are about 15,000 (not including family) in the pipeline for the Special Immigrant Visa program. Only 50 SIVs were issued last month.
The supposed reason for the freeze is new security regulations imposed after two Iraqi refugees in Kentucky were accused of having terrorist connections. But these bad apples never worked for Americans. Those who did went through numerous security checks before getting their jobs.
A few of the emails I’ve received since the PBS show will give you a feeling for the Iraqis we are betraying.
Retired Col. Richard Welch, who served 77 months in Iraq, is trying to help a young Iraqi widow who worked on a U.S. base. She and her family “are getting direct threats from JAM,” a radical Shiite militia. The widow completed all the formalities and should have long since received her visa. Yet, her case has been on hold for a year. “This is a beautiful family, and I don’t know what I will do if they are killed while waiting for approval,” Welch wrote.
Madeleine Marx, a New York sculptor who voluntarily helps Iraqi visa applicants, emailed about a translator and his family who have been living in hiding for three years: “The translator, after having his SIV application accepted completely (handshakes at the embassy, ‘stand by for travel instructions’), heard nothing for 10 months, then had his approval withdrawn in August ‘for security reasons.’” Never mind that he’d worked for two years with the U.S. military and had outstanding recommendations from his officers.
Bizarrely, the embassy then told the translator to reapply, then rejected him a second time, without explanation, even after Marx’s two congressmen made inquiries. “Now he doesn’t want anyone to even mention the U.S. to him,” Marx writes. “And everyone is still in danger.”
I’ve received a sheaf of similar stories you can read on my blog at www.philly.com/worldview. They all send the same message: The United States cannot be trusted to keep its promises to its allies. Afghans, take notice.
On Wednesday, I spoke with my former translator/fixer/driver in Iraq, Salam Hamrani, who also worked for other U.S. media outlets and should have been eligible for a U.S. visa. Threatened with death because he helped U.S. troops finger radical Shiite militiamen in his neighborhood, he fled with his family to the Greek Republic of Cyprus. There, he was told by the Interior Ministry he would soon be granted refugee status. Several months later, he hasn’t received it and is extremely worried.
Salam asked me, if his Cyprus hopes fall through, should he apply here? I told him, grimly, he’d better keep trying in Cyprus. It seems my country won’t repay those who risked their lives to aid us.
• Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.