Visas for War Zone Translators Halted

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008

The State Department has stopped processing the applications of 551 Iraqi and Afghan translators seeking special visas to come to the United States, because the current legal quota of 500 visas for the program this year is about to be reached, according to department officials.

The applicants, all of whom have worked for U.S. military forces, received an e-mail notice from the State Department's National Visa Center last week. "We have temporarily stopped processing cases," the message said, adding that "the applicant should NOT make any travel arrangements, sell property or give up employment until the US Embassy or Consulate General has issued a visa."

The halt is the latest obstacle for many of the several thousand translators who have worked for U.S. military units in Iraq and Afghanistan, risking their lives and leaving their families vulnerable to retaliation from insurgents who see them as accomplices of American troops. More than 250 interpreters working for U.S. forces or their contractors have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Many American service members have worked to help their former translators gain a visa to come to the United States under a 2006 congressional program initially designed to admit 50 translators per year, a quota later increased to 500.

Because most of the 551 whose applications are now held in abeyance must travel to Jordan, Syria or Kuwait to meet with U.S. Embassy personnel as part of the application process, the notice has created concern not just among the hundreds of potential refugees, but also among their sponsors, many of whom are current or former U.S. military personnel who worked with the translators in the war zone.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and signed into law by President Bush last month raised to 5,000 the number of special visas available this year to Iraqi translators and other Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government or American contractors in the war zone. Officials with the departments of State and Homeland Security are still analyzing the legislation to work out the details of how the new program will be implemented.

"We are working on this now with Congress, USCIS [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service], and PRM [State's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration] to see if we can get a broader interpretation that would make it immediately applicable to the Iraqis who have already applied," said one official involved in the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the policy is under development.

One sticking point, according to State Department officials, is that the new legislative language calls for any Iraqi seeking a special visa to have "experienced or is experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence" of being employed by the United States. The officials are attempting to work out what type of evidence is needed to substantiate "an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment."

The visa program that has been halted contained no such provision, although the translators had to provide a letter signed by a flag officer or the U.S. ambassador in Iraq attesting to their honorable service.

Kennedy, in a statement issued yesterday, said: "It's appalling that the administration is taking so long to issue the guidance necessary to continue the Special Immigrant Visa program for Iraqis with close ties to our government. . . . Every day we delay only further endangers these heroic Iraqis who have saved American lives."

Kirk W. Johnson, who runs the List Project, a nonprofit group seeking to bring threatened Iraqis who worked for U.S. forces to the United States, criticized the suspension and called on the Bush administration to simplify the application and processing system.

"If this doesn't prove why it's President Bush's responsibility to whip these bureaucracies into shape, and why the best intentions of Congress can only nudge things, I don't know what else can," said Johnson, a former staffer with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Iraq. "Until the president weighs in, the bureaucracies will not solve this."

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