Trudy Rubin: Iraqi helpers now need help

In Thanksgiving weekend columns past, I’ve written of my gratitude to this country for taking in my immigrant grandparents, and my belief that immigration makes this country great.

This year I’m thinking about a special group of would-be immigrants – a group whom the United States should be welcoming with thanks, but is instead treating shamefully. I’m referring to thousands of Iraqis who helped American soldiers and civilians during the last decade, for which they’ve been threatened with death by Shiite militias, and now by Islamic State militants.

These Iraqis were promised special immigrant, or SIV, visas by Congress in 2008, a pledge that was extended in 2014. SIV visas were supposed to be issued swiftly, yet 2,400 Iraqi applicants are still stranded in Iraq, some having waited for years, as their requests get stuck in a maze of redundant security checks in Washington.

Around 39,000 additional applicants and family members are waiting on requests for a broader category of “U.S.-affiliated” visas, given to those who worked for U.S. journalists, contractors or aid organizations.

Never mind that they all have recommendations from their U.S. military commanders or civilian supervisors. Never mind that Congress has specified that the government should rule on SIV visa applications within nine months. Never mind that each month these Iraqis are left in limbo increases the chance they might be killed for having helped Americans do their jobs.

This week, I spoke by phone to Khalid (I am using a pseudonym to protect him), who worked as an interpreter in 2006-08 for U.S. forces on missions to destroy IEDs (roadside bombs). “The troops looked from watchtowers to see if IEDs were planted, and then I went out on patrol with them to dismantle them,” he recalled, speaking from Baghdad. “Once there was an explosion under our humvee.”

Khalid survived and stayed on in Iraq after U.S. troops left in order to be near his parents. Under the sectarian leadership of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, however, anti-American Shiite militias once more started roaming Baghdad streets and Khalid received a chilling death threat: “They put a letter under my door calling me an ‘agent of the enemy’ and also left the severed head of a goat beside the letter.”

After that, Khalid sent his wife and children to live with his parents, out of fear for their safety, and he moved inside the government-protected “green zone,” where his current employer, a security firm, has offices. Now he rarely sees his family.

He applied for a visa in August 2012, waited a full year for the required Embassy interview, and has been waiting ever since for his visa. “They say they can’t tell me when it will be processed,” he says.

Is he sorry he risked his life for the Americans, I ask? “No, of course not,” he responds. But his only chance of a decent future rests on a visa app that has disappeared into the bureaucratic limbo known as “administrative processing.” Immigration lawyers point to the Department of Homeland Security as the primary culprit, with its opaque and redundant system of background checks, which are rarely subject to appeal.

The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, or IRAP, a terrific organization that helps Iraqis (and Afghans) seeking SIV visas, is trying to aid Khalid and many others whose cases are equally poignant. I also spoke by phone to Mohammed, another interpreter for U.S. forces, who accompanied his unit on missions as it engaged in repeated firefights, and got hit by IEDs and vehicle bombs. Facing death threats, he’s been trying to leave since 2011. He referred me to the Facebook page SIV Group 2011, where scores of waiting visa applicants share their frustrations and fears.

What’s mind-boggling is that no top officials in Washington seem willing or able to speed up this notoriously slow process, even as the danger increases for visa applicants. No agency has been ordered at the highest levels to break through the security bottlenecks that have dogged this process from the beginning.

Meantime, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad suspended refugee processing when it evacuated nonessential personnel several months ago in the wake of Islamic State advances. That made the process even slower.

“Suspension of the refugee program as nonessential was not a very moral thing to do,” says Becca Heller, the director of IRAP. Refugee reprocessing may resume at the Baghdad embassy early next year, but many applicants have now fled to Erbil in northern Iraq to escape the Islamic State (including some Yazidis who are still awaiting SIV visas). That will make it even harder for many applicants to pursue their cases.

At a time when U.S. military personnel are returning to Iraq, how can we expect people to risk their lives to help American troops in the future when we are treating them so shabbily in the present? At a time when U.S. credibility in the region is already at a nadir, this betrayal will only sink it further.

As President Barack Obama and Congress fight over immigration, there should be one group of would-be immigrants whose bona fides they could agree on and whose arrival they could hasten: the Iraqi visa applicants who helped Americans and whose lives are endangered as a result.

Trudy Rubin’s email is