U.S.-Affiliated Iraqis in Danger Due to Visa Crisis

ZAKI There is an imminent threat every time you are going home, you don’t know who is walking behind you. You do not trust anyone.  There is militia everywhere…a lot of people knowing us, recognizing our faces, so it’s easy to reach us.

BISGAARD-CHURCH This Iraqi interpreter speaks of the dangers for those who worked with the U.S. army since the 2003 invasion.  To protect his identity, he preferred that we call him Khalid Zaki.

Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, there have been many global media accounts of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis who have been hunted, tortured, raped, and murdered.  The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies — a combined effort of U.S. attorneys and volunteers to help them gain refuge in Americ a — estimates that at least 1,000 Iraqis working with the US forces have been killed since 2003.

Recognizing the incredible peril resulting from this work, the United States has created multiple programs to help Iraqis resettle in the U.S.  But the promises made through these programs have not all been met, and as the time for the scheduled December 2011 withdrawal comes closer, and the death threats increase, the need to fulfill the promises only grows larger.

ZAKI I’m waiting since December 15th. I did the interview that day and I never get visa. I try and contact them and they say 6 months period. I wait 6 month period. I called them and they said we don’t know when we’re going to get the visa and they say be patient. But being patient means I could lose my life. And I don’t want to lose my life.

BISGAARD-CHURCH Militant hit lists have long indicated the danger, but now the threats are increasing.  According to Agence France Press, anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr recently said that these Iraqis, especially translators and interpreters, are “outcasts” who need to be “rejected.”  Shiite and Sunni militia groups have publicly announced a strategic plan to hunt and kill U.S.-affiliates once the withdrawal is complete.  According to the List Project, the published plan calls for “nine bullets for the traitors.”

Most real, the United States’ deadline for withdrawal by the end of the year is fast-approaching and has left Iraqis like Zaki increasingly worried about their safety once U.S. troops are gone.

ZAKI Just imagine if U.S. army leave Iraq and our visas are not issued. U.S. army is leaving Iraq in December which means we have five months left, no more than that. The U.S. army leaves, what are we gonna do? You’ll see a massacre in Iraq. We feel abandoned and betrayed by the U.S. army.

BISGAARD-CHURCH Michael Newton, professor of law at Vanderbilt University, maintains that the withdrawal will put the Iraqis who collaborated with the U.S. at huge risk.

NEWTON Many of these people took refuge on our bases, brought their families. They’d leave their homes […] and when we shut those bases down or transition them back, they’ll have no place to go.

Many Iraqis did not foresee that they would not be protected by the United States.  Newton explains that many felt the U.S. would help bring about a more stable and peaceful Iraq.

NEWTON  In the vast majority of cases they were motivated by patriotism. The risk everything. In the very end of our Declaration, it says we pledge our lives and our fortune and our sacred honor for the sake of these principles, and so now the Iraqis that stood with U.S. forces did the same thing. They’ve translated, saved lives, there are many many anecdotal accounts of them literally taking bullets for American soldiers — you name it they’ve done it in order to bring about a free Iraq based on democratic principles they’ve really risked everything.

BISGAARD-CHURCH The danger for these Iraqis is evident, and the worries regarding the U.S. withdrawal are not unfounded. When the United States left Vietnam in 1975, 170,000 Vietnamese allies remained — according to a Philadelphia Inquirer column by Trudy Rubin — and thousands were murdered as a result.  Large numbers of coalition affiliates were assassinated after a British withdrawal from southern Iraq — in one case, reported globally, 17 translators were killed in a single attack in Basra.

Members of the List Project and other groups across America are trying to get these U.S.-affiliates to the States.  They aim to help Iraqis navigate the complex resettlement programs begun by the U.S., one of which is through the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, Program.

The National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2006 created SIVs for 50 Iraqi and Afghan military translators per year.  The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007 led to the so-called “Kennedy Bill;” as of 2008 is intended to provide 5,000 visas per year to a broader group of Iraqis who were employed by the U.S. government and are now in danger.

The legislation allots 25,000 SIVs over five years, until 2013.

The program has not been as successful as hoped, however, says Wendy Whitt, an immigration lawyer.  She created the Iraqi Refugee Resettlement Program through her private practice after serving in Baghdad’s court system on active duty with the air force.   Whitt argues that the program has fallen far below its promises.

WHITT The program has been a disaster. Even though the Obama administration insists they’re on top of this they have done nothing to fix problems that have been in place since the program began in 2008. None of these issues are new or could be called unpredicted.

BISGAARD-CHURCH The SIV program is not by any estimation fulfilling the numbers it had set for Iraqi refugees. When called, a State Department representative relayed that 7,063 SIVs — for principal applicants and their dependents (or spouses and minors) — have been issued from both programs.  That means that at least 15,000 SIVs intended for Iraqis have still not been issued.  Looking more recently, the State Department’s “SIV Arrivals” online data from 2011 shows numbers decreasing from over one hundred in January to the single digits in March and April of this year.

Khalid Zaki is waiting in anguish.

ZAKI But right now no one has visa. Seven people get theirs in March and no one know what the exception is for those people.

BISGAARD-CHURCH Zaki has been approved by the National Visa Center for his SIV.  The problem is that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad has yet to provide it, along with his passport, to him.

Olga Oliker, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, a policy think-tank with an emphasis on military affairs, believes the delays are a result of a sticky bureaucratic process — in order to get an SIV you must have documented proof of employment from a present or former military personnel and proof of threat.  She says the proof of employment can be incredibly difficult for Iraqis to obtain; many military personnel are impossible to track down, and some have already returned to the U.S.

To add to the mix, media outlets like the New York Times have recently reported that there are new security checks for all refugee applications, saying they are the result of two Iraqi refugees in Kentucky who were indicted on terrorism charges.  These new checks, according to the Times and the List Project, seem to be the reason for the delays — in June, zero applicants were accepted from the SIV program.  The same State Department employee confirmed that delays in the program have been caused by new security screenings.  Oliker says this is simply not okay.

OLIKER  Why has it slowed down so much? Isn’t it incumbent upon us to fix that? Because yes, the whole purpose of this program is to help people who are endangered. If we can’t do that quickly then aren’t we sort of diminishing its value?

Whitt agrees that the program is not accomplishing its purpose and that the U.S. has a direct obligation to help the U.S. government employed Iraqis.  Without changes in the program, though, she believes the government will never fulfill this responsibility.

WHITT The implication is going to be that for those already in the system will see additional delays, that very few SIVs will go to completion. Because of the security situation, many will have to make the difficult decision to leave Iraq. Unless they make significant changes and fix the problems that are rampant in it, I see it going down as a complete failure.

BISGAARD-CHURCH Whitt strongly believes that the State Department needs to allow representatives — either family members who might speak better English or lawyers, for example — to take part in the program.  She says this, plus specific case workers assigned to each applicant, would streamline the program, helping people to navigate the bureaucratic process, and thereby increase its effectiveness.  It seems unlikely that the State Department will make such changes, though.

WHITT believe people don’t understand how much the Iraqis (that the SIV program was made for) have helped us in Iraq. Our lives depended many times on our translators and other Iraqi employees who were able to let us know what the situation really was on the ground in Iraq. And people who haven’t worked in Iraq don’t understand that.

BISGAARD-CHURCH Likewise, Oliker says the issue has received very little media attention since 2007, when the Bush administration, under hot criticism, revamped its policies to expedite the process for U.S.-affiliated Iraqis to get their visas.  Since then, she says, America has forgotten about the issue, and with the scheduled draw-down fast approaching, has essentially forgotten about Iraq as an issue.  Oliker believes the delays with the SIV program are sending the wrong kind of message to the Iraqis.

OLIKER There is a responsibility on the part of the U.S. government to make a genuine effort to take care of the people who gave their all to help a cause that we went in espousing and not to leave them in danger as we withdraw.

BISGAARD-CHURCH Newton agrees, arguing that the U.S. government is tearing at its moral fiber by allowing so many Iraqis to wait with their families in danger.

NEWTON The U.S. has an unflinching moral obligation to keep our promises. These people acted heroically alongside of us […] Many hundreds of Iraqis have been slaughtered along with their families for assisting the U.S. and there are many more left that we simply cannot abandon.  It’s a stain on our national honor if we don’t absolutely keep our promises.

BISGAARD-CHURCH Newton says not only will Iraqis be hurt, but that the U.S. will also suffer major consequences.

NEWTON And of course it has an impact on both current and future operations. We absolutely depend on local allies for a huge range of resources and assistance.  To the extent that we cannot get that, it dramatically undercuts our military effectiveness.

BISGAARD-CHURCH So how to change the program?  The push, Newton, says needs to come from the highest levels.

NEWTON I think it takes presidential commitment. It takes somebody who says what are U.S. values? When the U.S. makes a promise, we keep it.

BISGAARD-CHURCH Until that happens, Iraqis like Khalid Zaki will be waiting.  Zaki says that at his military base alone, there are at least 30 translators waiting with their paperwork approved but with the same response from the U.S. embassy: they cannot estimate how long the processing will take. If the U.S. does not answer them in time, they know they will have to find another solution to save themselves and their families.

ZAKI Right now we don’t know if we go to U.S. or stay in Iraq. If they don’t want to give us a visa, let us know so we can take care of ourselves, move to another country or s different province with our families.

BISGAARD-CHURCH People from groups like the List Project and Whitt’s private practice will continue to fight for these Iraqis.  Meanwhile, as the draw-down in Afghanistan also begins, Afghans who worked with the U.S. government will face increased danger as well.  If the SIV program does not speed up soon, the wars may be ending, but thousands more lives may be lost.

For War News Radio, I’m Elliana Bisgaard-Church.