House votes to extend visa program for Iraqis who worked as interpreters for U.S.

October 2, 2013

A resettlement program for Iraqi interpreters who worked for the U.S. government appeared destined to become collateral damage of the political fight that led to the government shutdown this week. But the Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa Program, which expired at the end of the fiscal year, received an unlikely lifeline Wednesday night as the House of Representatives approved a bill to extend it temporarily, matching a similar initiative the Senate pushed through Monday.

The House passage, by unanimous consent, marked a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation on an obscure issue that emerged as a priority during an acrimonious debate over the funding of the nation’s new health-care law. Lawmakers across the ideological spectrum said it would be unconscionable to let the visa program expire while thousands of cases remain pending.

“Years ago we made a promise to Iraqi civilians and tonight, the House helped us honor our commitment to those who risked their lives for our country,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), one of the champions of the bill in the Senate, said in a statement Wednesday night. “We have a moral obligation to stand with Iraqis who stood with us during a time of war and with this bill headed to the President tomorrow we are demonstrating that we will not abandon our Iraqi partners.”

Advocates for the interpreters said they feared that the five-year-old program to resettle Iraqis who faced threats for their work for the U.S. government could shut down permanently even though many applicants have spent years waiting for decisions on their visa applications.

Shaheen and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led the effort in the Senate, which passed a stand-alone bill on the eve of the shutdown to keep the visa pipeline flowing for an additional three months, in anticipation of a more permanent extension that would be drawn up in a broader bill. The bills increase the fee of processing the visas by an unspecified amount.

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The State Department had said it would welcome congressional action to keep the visa pipeline flowing. Republicans in the House had tried to extend the program as part of funding bills that fizzled in recent days. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a former Air Force pilot who served in Iraq, made a personal appeal to fellow conservatives in Congress.

“When we go to war and we ask local people to help liberate their countries, in some cases we put people in very dangerous situations,” Kinzinger said in an interview hours before Wednesday’s House vote. “It would be naive to think America will never find itself at war, and when we do, we want to ensure that we are regarded as a nation of our word.”

Lawmakers said they estimate that roughly 3,500 primary applicants are waiting for visas. Because former interpreters may resettle with their relatives, the pipeline includes several thousand additional pending visa petitions.

“They are trying to plan their lives. They’ve been waiting for years while trying to provide for their families and keep their families safe,” said Katie Reisner, national policy director at the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which represents Iraqis trying to resettle. “The effect of the wait itself is agonizing.”

Yousif Satar, who worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military between 2004 and 2008, has followed the shutdown debate with growing anxiety from his Baghdad home. The father of two applied for the program in the summer of 2012 as violence in Iraq surged and he found that his affiliation with Americans limited his career prospects. He has not heard from U.S. officials since November, when he was called in for an interview and asked to leave behind his passport.

Satar, 36, said he has spent roughly $5,000 on fees, medical appointments and official translations of documents. The wait has become unbearable amid near-daily bombings in the capital, he said.

“We are just waiting for our turn,” he said in a Skype interview, referring to the resignation with which some Iraqis have come to see the upheaval in their country. “You never know when you’re going to be hit.”

Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government continue to carry a stigma, he said.

“Everyone looks at us like we’re traitors,” he said. “I am in a place where my work with the U.S. is never going to be appreciated.”

The State Department had warned in a statement late last month that it would not be able to issue new visas under the program after Sept. 30. But it said it welcomed congressional intervention to keep the program running longer.

“We recognize that many who have been employed or worked on behalf of the U.S. government in Iraq, and their families, face real threats,” the statement said. “We take these threats, and the concerns of those who work with us, very seriously and we are committed to providing them with the benefits for which they are legally eligible.”

Shaheen said the current debate has been illuminating to lawmakers, who have expressed alarm at how long it is taking the bureaucracy to process resettlement cases.

“I am concerned and have heard from colleagues who are concerned about how this program has been implemented,” she said.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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