US Immigration law is denser and longer than the US federal tax code, and likely screws over more people. We’ll offer you today a short history of the programs to give visas to the Iraqis who worked with the US Government as translators and ‘terp (interpreters). The story is amusing, as changes to once-obscure visa laws mirror the situation on the ground in Iraq. For those in a hurry: most Iraqis who helped us are marked men and women at home, targeted as collaborators and the visa program isn’t going to help many of them.
The images from the end of the Vietnam war are iconic: desperate Vietnamese, clambering to board the last helicopters off the roof of the Embassy, followed by thousands of boat people fleeing Vietnam. An enormous number of Vietnamese were resettled abroad, many to the US, many for their own safety after having been accused of being American collaborators.
This is not what the Iraqi visa program was supposed to be about.
During the first few years of the war, the official vision in Washington was that the war would transform Iraq into a happy land of prosperity and democracy. Iraqis hired by the US to translate for us were the lucky ones, nailing down a job that paid cash while getting their foot in the door for the new system. Since almost no Americans spoke any Arabic and thus could only conquer Iraq via mime, these early translators were very important to the effort.
Congress, imaging these early ‘terps as our own Gurkas, loyal brown people serving our fat white asses, wanted to thank those who provided such service. They created an early visa program modeled after the existing Special Immigrant Visa (SIV).
The SIV had been used by the State Department abroad for many years. Locally employed nationals, say a French accounting clerk working in Embassy Paris, who provided loyal, exceptional service to the US Government for more than 20 years could be rewarded with a Green Card, immigration to the US. The idea was that such a prize would encourage locals working with us to stay around for the full 20 year career. A perk.
Congress had the same plan for Iraq. The Iraq SIV would encourage long careers of good service. Section 1059 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006, authorized the issuance of up to 50 Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) annually to Iraqi and Afghan translators and interpreters working for the US military. The cap was set at 50, because the visa was intended as a prize for the very best, and besides, the ‘terps would mostly want to live in their newly prosperous and democratized countries of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Oops, what seemed like a good idea in the hazy early days of the wars turned out to not make any sense given events on the ground. Military leaders saw their Iraqi (and Afghani) helpers murdered in their homes, labeled traitors by the growing insurgency that they acknowledged, even as Washington pretended it did not exist. The limit of 50 a year was a joke as soldiers helped their ‘terps apply by the hundreds. An early decision was made in DC that the 50 visas meant 50 actual visas, not visas for 50 families. Thus, if Mohammed (not his real name) the ‘terp, his wife and their six kids were approved, the yearly quota dropped behind them to only 42.
Political winds in Washington went round and round over the issue. Changes were made that saw SIVs issued to a ‘terps’ spouse and children as not counting toward the 50 limit. An amendment to Section 1059 expanded the total number of visas to 500 per year for FY 2007 and FY 2008 only. Still, to help keep the pile of applications in some form of check, lower ranking soldiers could not supply the critical “Letter of Recommendation.” That still had to be signed by a General, Lieutenant General, Major General, Brigadier General in the Army, Air Force, or Marine Corps; Admiral, Rear Admiral in the Navy; or the Chief of Mission in Baghdad or Kabul.
As awareness that the wars of terror were nothing but a huge cluster fuck seeped into the heads of Washington lawmakers, something needed to change with the SIV program. Designed to reward 50 of the best ‘terps, the program quickly evolved into a pseudo-refugee route to save the lives of locals who helped us conquer Iraq and Afghanistan.
Therefore, largely through the efforts of Senator Edward Kennedy, Section 1244 of the Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, authorized the issuance of up to 5000 Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) annually through fiscal year (FY) 2012 to Iraqi nationals who have worked for or on behalf of the US Government in Iraq (Afghanis got no such relief). The Act opened the SIV process to Iraqi employees and contractors who have been employed by or on behalf of the U.S. Government in Iraq on or after March 20, 2003, for a period of one year or more, and specifically added the dubious requirement “must have experienced or are experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment.”
Importantly, the critical “Letter of Recommendation” no longer had to come from an inaccessible big shot per se. Officially the Letter still had to be signed by the Ambassador (Chief of Mission, COM) but in fact would be based on something written by a lower level supervisor. The recommending supervisor would normally be the US citizen who directly supervised the ‘terp, or even one who supervised the company that employed the ‘terp (most Iraqis worked for a middle man contractor, and not directly for the Army or the Embassy). Spouses and children were not counted against the 5000 yearly limit.
The Letter needed only to include a description of “faithful service” to the US Government, nothing more formal. Better yet, the standard of proof required to demonstrate the “ongoing serious threat” was only that the ‘terp write a brief statement describing the threat faced as a result of US Government employment in Iraq. Visas out of the 5000 not used in one year could be rolled over into the next year to increase the pool. Procedures allowed for documents to be submitted by email, ending the almost impossible task of accessing the fortress Embassy inside the moated Green Zone, a deal breaker for common Iraqis. The final, required, in-person interview could be done either in Baghdad or for those who lives were too much in danger to visit their own capital city, Amman or Cairo.
Though not a refugee program per se, Iraqi special immigrants are eligible for the same resettlement assistance, entitlement programs, and other benefits as refugees admitted under the US Refugee Admissions Program, for up to eight months after being admitted to the United States. SIV families could also participate in the Department of State’s Reception and Placement Program, which covered their first 90 days in the United States. The State Department would even loan them, interest free, the travel cost to the US.
As a special treat for the ‘terps whose lives were in danger, under some circumstances their spouses and kids could still get the visas even if the ‘terp was killed before the family completed processing.
The State Department has a helpful PDF summary of qualifications; be sure to scroll down to the end, where family ties are illustrated with stick figures with happy smile faces.
The SIVs for Iraqi ‘terps are wholly separate from other US programs, including US programs to admit Iraqis as old-fashioned refugees. As with the SIVs, however, US refugee policy mirrored US views of the war. In fiscal year 2006, just 202 refugees from Iraq were allowed to resettle in the United States. The US finally kicked the program into high gear under Congressional pressure, and admitted over 18,000 Iraqi refugees just this past year.
So it seems like everything was pretty sweet for those Iraqis who, despite their country now being a democracy and all that, were under death threats.
Except it didn’t work.
The Times reported that what should have been simple steps devolved into dead-ends. Minor issues — like whether the applicant provides two letters of recommendation or one letter that is co-signed, or whether the letter comes on the appropriate letterhead — have delayed applications for months. The regular delays in immigration processing were magnified given the communication difficulties with Iraq and the increasingly desperate situations of the applicants. A ‘terp being helped by his American supervisor to navigate the bureaucracy could suddenly find himself alone when the supervisor rotated back to the US and forgot all about the problems of Iraq.
The recent arrest of two Iraqis in Kentucky on terror charges have reportedly also caused delays, as gun-shy Embassy bureaucrats grow more reluctant to grant security clearances.
Things are no better, in fact they are much worse, in Afghanistan. The NY Times reports since the SIV program began in 2009, about 2,300 Afghans applied for visas, but the American Embassy in Kabul has finished reviewing only two cases. One was rejected. “The record is not great,” said David D. Pearce, deputy chief of mission at the embassy in what has to be something of a record for State Department understatement.
It can be expected as the US winds down the current chapter in Iraq, with the bulk of the Army leaving by the end of this year, that the bad guys will have more of a free pass on settling old scores and killing off ‘terps who worked with us. All-around bad guy Sadr has pledged to kill Iraqis who collaborated with the US, albeit via offering those who only played minor roles a pardon if they swear new allegiance to his cause. For the ‘terps left alive in Iraq, as their American supervisors pack up and go home to their wives Betty and Wilma, getting those all-important Letters of Recommendation will become more difficult.
We may yet end up concluding another war with people on the rooftop, scrambling for the last helicopter out of Dodge.
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