UPDATE: Bipartisan Bill Extends Visa Program for Iraqi Allies

September 30, 2013

***UPDATE – October 3, 2013***

Good news, as reported by the Washington Post:

“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….Lawmakers across the ideological spectrum said it would be unconscionable to let the visa program expire while thousands of cases remain pending.

For background, see the original post below.

In March 2011, the radio program This American Life featured the story of “Sarah,” an extraordinary Iraqi woman whose life was transformed when she decided to offer interpretation and intelligence services to the occupying U.S. forces, a decision that carried great risk to her and her family:

“This was 2007, four years into the war, and interpreters were targets for Al Qaeda and other Sunni militants and for Shiite militias. Sarah was terrified. But the family needed money. So she took the test and was offered a contract.”

Despite her fears and lack of experience, Sarah proved more than capable:

“Sarah became indispensable out of the four or five interpreters the unit worked with regularly, she was the top. She was the one that Major Higgins and his operations officer wanted at their meetings with local sheikhs and other leaders. They sought her opinion as well as her interpreting skills. And her work with informants was crucial.”

In early 2008, Sarah’s husband was killed shortly after joining a U.S.-allied militia. It was thought he was targeted due to Sarah’s activities on behalf of American forces. Sarah, now a single mother of two young boys, decided that she could not keep risking her own life on behalf of the American effort. But she had no old life to go back to. Her husband had always been the sole earner, plus, as a well-known employee of the American military, she would be in constant danger of retaliation.

Luckily for Sarah, Section 1244 of The National Defense Authorization Act of 2008, which passed that January, was seemingly designed for people in her exact situation. It created a new visa category (SQ-1) so that Iraqis who “provided faithful and valuable service to the U.S. Government” could immigrate to the United States.

Sarah applied with the enthusiastic support of her senior officers. But while waiting for her visa interview, she was arrested by an American interrogator during a routine security screening. Someone had retaliated. Not with violence, but with a fake tip that Sarah was passing classified information to the rebels. She was questioned for months in isolation until a judge finally threw out the case for lack of evidence. But the accusations poisoned her chances at receiving a visa.

At last report, Sarah was attempting to restart her life as an undergraduate at Baghdad University, and had no prospects of ever getting to the U.S.

– – –

This 30 month old story is worth retelling because is sheds light on recent news that fewer than 9,000 SQ visas were ever issued to Iraqi translators out of 25,000 that were to be made available by law. Even having (by all accounts) faithfully served the occupation at a great personal cost, and even with the full backing of senior officers in her unit, Sarah was unable to secure a visa that had been explicitly designed for someone like her.

Will no longer be able to accept applications from Iraqis for SQ visas as of October 1st, due to the ongoing Congressional fight over a 3.5-year-old health care law.

And now, with the impasse in Congress about to shut down the government, even this dysfunctional lifeline is about to be cut off entirely. From the Department of State:

The Department of State’s authority to issue  Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to Iraqi nationals under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 expires on September 30, 2013.  No visas may be issued to principal applicants under that program after that date. Approved visas are not affected by the end of the program… We welcome any actions by Congress to extend both the Afghan and Iraqi SIV programs and are working with our interagency partners and interested members of Congress to extend our authority to allow for the continued issuance of Special Immigrant Visas.

Unfortunately, Sarah’s story is not unique. But beyond being  sad and frustrating, it should also be seen as a national security concern. Getting good human intelligence in foreign countries is hard. Sources and interpreters often take great personal risk to help our cause. If we were known to treat these allies well, to ensure their safety to the best of our abilities, and to allow them to move to America if they chose, that risk would prove more acceptable for more people.


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