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Will The U.S. Honor Its Green Card Commitment To Iraqi And Afghan Interpreters?

– Posted in: Permanent Residence And Green Cards

War is ugly.

The bleeding does not end with the final gunshot.

And the bill for it, as Benjamin Franklin once noted, comes afterwards.

Events in Iraq and Afghanistan confirm Franklin’s insight.

Once the U.S. military entered the Middle East, I felt certain immigration outcomes seemed inevitable.

While most news stories and blog commentaries focused on the political and economic aftermath, I told anyone who would listen that another piecemeal addition to our hodgepodge quilt of immigration rules was likely to be created.

I was not surprised when many decent Americans supported the idea that we needed to participate in rebuilding what we had destroyed. Nor was I stunned by the announcement of special immigrant visa programs for Iraqi and Afghan translators.

From the beginning, as a San Bernardino immigration lawyer, I sensed the programs were fraught with potential trouble spots.

An Overview Of Special Immigrant Visas

There are three different programs for Iraqi and Afghan citizens who worked with the U.S. Armed Forces or Department of State in their home countries. Under these programs, they’re eligible to seek Special Immigrant Visas (SIV), which allow them to earn lawful permanent residence status.

Iraqi And Afghan Interpreters

The first program for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters was created in 2006 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA 2006). It set a cap of 50 visas per year and was limited to translators who had worked directly with the U.S. military. In 2007 and 2008 the cap was raised to 500, but in 2009 it was scaled back to 50 visas per year.

Iraqi Special Immigrant Visas

A more serious effort to help Middle East translators began with the passage of the Kennedy-Lugar Refugee Crisis Act of 2007. The bill established a new Special Immigration Visa classification for nationals of Iraq, authorizing 5,000 visas per year from 2008 to 2012.

To qualify, stringent requirements were outlined. Iraqis must have:

  • been employed by, or on behalf of, the United States government in Iraq on or after March 20, 2003, for a period of one year or more;
  • provided faithful and valuable service to the United States government, documented in a letter from his or her supervisor;
  • (3) experienced, or be experiencing, an ongoing serious threat as a result of his or her United States government employment.

To date, seven years later, only 5,500 special immigrant visas for have been awarded.

This represents a scanty 22% of total available visas for Iraqi translators and interpreters.

Stated another way, of the authorized total, 19,500 visas have not been issued. The estimated backlog is 18,325, of which most applications belong to Iraqis living abroad, surrounded by hostile forces.

Afghan Special Immigrant Visas

In 2009, Congress followed up with a similar program for endangered Afghans who had worked for the U.S. government or military, on or after October 7, 2001 for at least one year. Entitled the Afghan Allies Protection Act, a total of 1,500 visas per year were allocated from 2009 through 2013.

Like its Iraqi counterpart, the Afghan special visa program has not met its goals.

By 2011, only three visas had been approved. By the next year, the total had barely grown to 63. At present, only 1,051 Afghan special immigrant visas have been issued.

In August of this year, an additional 1,000 visas for Afghan translators were authorized.

This means, six years after passage of the Afghan program, only 12% of the total available visas for Afghan interpreters have been issued.

The current backlog is reportedly over 6,000. The majority of the Afghan translator applicants, too, still reside in their homeland, fearful of retaliation by anti-American residents for their roles in helping “the American infidels”.


Given that Iraqi and Afghan translators must demonstrate an “ongoing serious threat” to their well-being for providing “faithful and valuable service,” it would seem that the U.S. would have set up mechanisms to expedite their visa applications. Rather, the opposite has taken place.

Such callousness is not new to U.S. foreign policy.

From its reluctance to assist the Philippines, a long time ally, in recovering from a natural disaster, to its refusal to treat a loyal territory such as American Samoa as equal to other nations, our government often behaves as if political marriages are matters of short-term convenience, not long-term commitment.

We cannot afford this misguided approach in the Middle East.

How Visa Processing Delays Harm U.S. Credibility

Recently, various news outlets have called attention to the heightened need to protect or Iraqi and Afghan allies. All the while, Congress drags its feet on extending impending program expiration deadlines.

After risking their lives to help the United States, many remain stranded in an uncertain visa processing limbo and stuck in increasingly vulnerable living situations.

In short, for our Afghan translator and interpreter allies, time is running out.

In Afghanistan, as American troops pull out, those who risked their lives for us will be left without our protection.

Moreover, their special visa program expires on December 31, 2014. Under the terms of the current program, no SIVs can be issued after that date. As a result, over 5,000 Afghan translators, whose applications have not been fully reviewed, will be ineligible for U.S. green cards they earned.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has suspended processing immigration applications, due to ISIS activities in the region.

Although the Embassy may reopen next spring, after U.S. troops return, many Iraqi visa applicants have already fled to northern Iraq to escape the elevated peril to their families. At a time when U.S. personnel will again need the help of trusted local interpreters, the long bureaucratic delays have lowered belief and support for American promises.


In both situations, U.S. military officers emphasize, translators must leave their countries as quickly as possible after obtaining their visas. However, according to a former refugee program director, Ron Black, they also need exit permits, and these can be, and frequently are, cancelled at the last minute causing further delays. As they wait, their exposure to potential harm persists.

Such dire circumstances have prompted a call for immediate U.S. actions.

Why Not A Guam Option Solution?

In a recent Magic Valley editorial, the authors proposed a course of action utilized when Saigon fell in 1975 to communists.

More than 110,000 U.S. supporters from Vietnam, targeted for revenge when their regime collapsed, were brought to Guam. A processing center for immigration purposes was established, enabling Vietnamese citizens to complete the process of becoming legal United States residents.

By taking a similar action, Iraqis and Afghans who are experiencing an ongoing threat to their lives could be lifted to a safe haven. This would allow them to wait the lengthy red tape period bogging down the review and approval of special immigrant visa applications out of harm’s way.

Given the roles they played for U.S. troops in highly volatile environments, our Iraqi and Afghan allies deserve nothing less.

Honoring Immigration Commitments

As one might suspect, there are those in Congress who fail to understand the value of political reciprocity, as well as minimize the fragility of the U.S presence in the Middle East.

Given irrational attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims, they prefer to terminate the Iraqi and Afghan interpreter visa programs.

During the late summer wave of Central American refugee children arriving at U.S. southwest borders, it was suggested that funds previously earmarked for the Iraqi and Afghan translator visas programs should be transferred to pay for the youth asylum claims.

This short-sighted scheme overlooks some American military personnel are still in Afghanistan. Others are being sent to Iraq in light of the ISIS threat. If earlier translators are abandoned, few will seek such jobs in the future.

More significantly, to dishonor our permanent residency commitments to Iraqi and Afghan interpreters would send the wrong signal not just to our Middle East allies – but also to friends and foes around the world.

In other words, whether one agrees or disagrees with how the War On Terror has been handled, it’s time for all immigrant advocates to lend their support for those aspiring immigrants who bravely helped our troops during combat.

A promise, after all, is a promise.

By , Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics