“No one left behind” sounds nice, but in America’s wars it usually only refers to Americans. Foreigners who risked their own and their family’s lives to help the United States are optional.
But a small victory. After extraordinary outside pressure from Congress and veterans’ groups, the State Department agreed to undo a change to visa procedure that would have condemned even more Afghan translators to their deaths.
The idea was that Afghans translators who loyally served the United States and who were at risk in their own country could apply for visas for themselves, their spouses and their children, to live in the U.S. These were never called refugee visas or anything that might imply our freedom war was not fully successful, but were pitched as a kind of parting gift for good work.
And so we learn that the latest blunder in the government’s management of a special visa program for Afghan interpreters was fixed this week.
In recent months, Afghan interpreters were told, without warning, that their visa applications were denied as a result of the way officials at the State Department were implementing a change to the eligibility criteria set by Congress. Lawmakers said that as of September 30, in order to qualify for resettlement in the United States, interpreters would need to provide evidence that they had worked for American personnel in Afghanistan for at least two years. In the past, they had to prove only one year of service.
Inexplicably, the government began applying the two-year standard to applicants who had submitted petitions long before the rule changed. Applying laws retroactively is not how things generally work in America. Not that that stopped the State Department from unilaterally just doing that. The State decision slam dunked hundreds of the more than 10,000 applicants with pending cases.
As they learned of State’s action, various Congressional leaders demanded change, and hauled John Kerry up to the Hill to answer for his Department’s decision. Kerry “conferred” with this underlings and this week State reversed itself, and will not apply the new rules retroactively.
New applicants are still screwed, but then again, this is Afghanistan.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
A good friend of this blog asks that I include this “guest” posting, following up on my own articles about the situation facing Iraqis who worked as translators for the US military and State Department during the Occupation, and who now face death threats in free Iraq.
I also wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times on this same sad subject.
The List Project, which was founded with the belief that the United States Government has a clear and urgent moral obligation to resettle to safety Iraqis who are imperiled due to their affiliation with the United States of America.
The List Project has been the main organization that has advocated and helped Iraqis come to the U.S.
The Executive Branch has no contingency plan in place to help Iraqis, adopting a policy of wishful thinking.
Due to the lack of progress in bringing threatened Iraqis to the U.S., the List Project has embarked on a new project. They are now reporting and making public recent threats and killings against U.S.-affiliated Iraqis.
Learn more at The List Project.
(The photo above is for illustration purposes and does not depict any Iraqis who worked for the US)
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
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.
If you had to reduce diplomacy to a single function, it would be “talking to foreigners.” The Department of State talks to foreigners. We talk with them about nuclear treaties, we talk with them about Americans in jail abroad, we talk with them about who the President will visit with and, in Iraq, we talked with them about reconstruction. We talked about what we thought they needed, we talked with them about whose brother-in-law would get the next contract, we talked with them about not killing us at checkpoints. We talked a lot; it is what we do.
The problem is that we talked to Iraqis almost exclusively in English, or at least we spoke English, and relied on a rogues gallery of so-called translators and interpreters (the Army called them ‘terps and therefore so did we). The fact that very, very few Americans involved in either destroying Iraq or rebuilding Iraq spoke any Arabic was a huge problem. No one will ever know how much of our failure in reconstructing Iraq was caused simply by bad translation, but it would be a decent percentage.
This was and is a significant problem, with two nasty sides to it.
The first side is that even now, ten years after 9/11, very few people in the Department of State speak decent Arabic. Of the approximate 7600 Foreign Service Officers, only 380 speak Arabic at a “general professional level,” a language test score of 3/3 for you Foggy Bottom insiders. This score means that the individual is “Able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics. Nevertheless, the individual’s limitations generally restrict the professional contexts of language use to matters of shared knowledge and/or international convention.” So those folks speak Arabic pretty well, but nobody is saying fluent. In fact, in US Embassy Yemen’s example, a senior official complained that a level 3/3 proficiency in Arabic is not enough for mission officers to participate in debates about US foreign policy in Arabic.
(How does the State Department test languages anyway?)
However, on average, only 64 percent of FSOs are overseas at any one time, so of those 380 Arabic speakers, only 243 are outside the Beltway today. Because of State’s whacky assignments system, there is no assurance that an Arabic speaker will be assigned to an Arabic speaking country, or a Chinese speaker to China for that matter. All sorts of things can affect assignment, including that many native speakers of a language (say a naturalized Pakistani-born FSO) often are not assigned “home” for security reasons. Whatever portion of those 243 Arabic speakers who are abroad are spread across 23 posts in the Middle East. Lastly, of the subset of officers, statistically over 35 percent have less than five years of service with the Department—so-called entry level officers—and typically are assigned visa work or other junior tasks. That knocks out a few more, leaving us an estimated 130 or so FSOs who can have a semi-professional conversation in Arabic.
No one knows the numbers, but you will need to also deduct a few for people not medically qualified to serve overseas, those in jobs that limit them to inside the Embassy and a couple who might have gotten the right test score but don’t actually speak Arabic all that well in practice, book learners.
That latter variable is no joke—the Government Accounting Office (GAO) found substandard skills in 31 percent of the approximately 3600 FSO jobs that require a certain level of language proficiency, up from 29 percent in 2005. In Iraq, 57 percent lacked sufficient language skills. Overall, forty-three percent of officers in Arabic language-designated positions do not meet the requirements of their positions. Doh! Doh! again, however you would say it in French.
So not very many people in the State Department can speak Arabic. In fact, on both of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) Peter led in Iraq, not a single subject matter expert, contractor or FSO spoke a word of Arabic. No one in our parent Army units did either. We all used translators, the ‘terps.
Most Americans’ don’t speak a foreign language, and have only had their high school French or Spanish as a guide. In reality (Peter speaks Japanese and Mandarin at the general professional level), it is really freaking hard to learn a foreign language as an adult. There is something biological to all this; kids pick up languages well, but adults really sweat it out to get beyond simple greetings and memorized phrases. You can’t just order up more Arabic speakers. It works both ways, for Americans trying to learn Arabic and native speakers of Arabic who are trying to learn English (Quick test. If you think you speak a foreign language well, translate this out loud, respectfully and persuasively: “Unlike as we discussed at the council session, changes to our fiscal plans meant that the dike was be built upstream of your farm, unfortunately flooding your pasture. We are unable to pay compensation for your deceased goats.”). The very few who can really handle languages fluently get big bucks and work for the White House or the UN, not at a remote PRT, even if that’s the tip of the spear in the war on terror.
The majority of our ‘terps were Iraqi-Americans. They had immigrated to the US and become citizens years ago. Most were from Detroit or Chicago, recruited by subcontractors for their alleged language skills. Most of our Iraqi-American translators were employees of an Alaskan Native-owned business. This business had one employee in the US, an Alaskan Native far away in Alaska, and subcontracted to some other business that recruited Iraqi-Americans in Detroit or Chicago and sent those people to us in Iraq. To help support minority businesses such as those owned by Alaskan Natives, the US government offered them an advantage in the otherwise competitive bidding process, a sort of contracting affirmative action, even as they subbed out 100 percent of the work and lent nothing to the company but their name and ethnicity. It seemed like a get-rich-quick internet scam, but this one apparently worked.
The Iraqi-Americans made six-figure salaries, got free trips home and the sweet benefits that all contractors hauled in. Many of them had not lived in Iraq for years yet we used them as cultural advisors. Some had lived entirely within Iraqi-American communities in the US and spoke poor English, yet served as translators. Some were Kurdish and/or Christian, which no doubt impressed the Muslim Arabs we primarily interacted with. Trust and personal relationships are critical to doing things in the Middle East (as well as in Iowa, really) and we had the tools to establish neither.
It gets worse. Most ‘terps used by the Army, and often the PRTs, were hired locally. Typically this meant a young man (most women still stayed home in free Iraq) who had learned some English somewhere who could pass security vetting. Often times the kid was good-hearted but knew relatively little English. His manners were rough and tough, making interactions with older government officials, educated sheiks and those who thought themselves important lame exercises. Between the bad English and the bad manners, very little got done.
Though Iraqis will shout their opinions at you in the street and wave their hands like a crack-crazed aerobics teacher to make a point, it was hard for us to sort out what they said from what they meant from what was what they thought you wanted to hear. Add in a bad translator who reduced three minutes of spittle-flying speech to “He disagrees but loves all Americans and Obama President” and you often had no idea what was going on.
Not knowing what was going on became sort of a problem in our efforts to rebuild Iraq. It meant having no way to verify what was being said around you—did your amateur translator make a grammar mistake or did he ask for a bribe? Are the frowns because your offer was too low or because the English slang ended up being mistranslated as something rude in Arabic? We did not know. We had no way to know. We just had to live with it, because there was no other way. Not to beat a dead horse, but while we meant well, we acted foolishly in a way that preordained failure.
It had to end poorly.
See Part II of this article…