Lost amid the frenzy over the federal government’s shutdown, Iraqis and Afghans who helped Americans at great risk are being left to their fates as an extension and reform of the program that would have given them the chance to seek a new life in America expired along with the government’s funding.
At issue is a visa program specifically designed to allow for interpreters and other locals who helped American soldiers during the American wars there to be provided safe haven within the United States. These Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) were meant to alleviate the red-tape that would have prevented these supporters from gaining access to the country quickly. Unfortunately, the program has been ineffective at best, though not for lack of applicants. Congress has authorized 6,500 visas per year — 5,000 for Iraqis, 1,500 for Afghans — since the program was first passed into law. The State Department has instead only issued around 200 each year or twelve percent to Afghans who applied. Iraqis have fared slightly better at some 1,100 visas per year.
Now to make matters much worse, the chances of any of the Iraqis who bravely fought and served alongside have now dropped to approximately zero thanks to Congress. The SIV program needed to be reauthorized by October 1 to ensure that it would continue; with the impasse in the House and Senate over spending, it seems unlikely that the two will come together to pass an extension. The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act included that extension, as well as much needed improvements to the program’s structure, but that measure has been stalled as well.
The story of the locals who face death everyday for their good will towards the American forces gained a face in the last few weeks in the form of Fazel, an Afghan interpreter fought alongside Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Mayer in Afghanistan in 2009. Shortly after the battle, Fazal applied for a visa to come to the United States and escape the threat of the Taliban. That application waited for years, until Fox News highlighted his case and drew the attention of Gen. Joseph Dunford, the senior commander in Afghanistan.
“Ask any company commander returning from Afghanistan, and he can tell you about another Fazel, equally deserving of a visa,” Meyer and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Bing West wrote in an op-ed earlier this month. Janis Shinwari was one of those deserving locals, whose visa was held up for years before Capt. Matt Zeller (ret.) began to raise awareness of the danger that Shinwari faced from the Taliban. Zeller lobbied Congress and began a Change.org petition that gained more than 100,000 signatures.
The list of those who have not been lucky enough to have media attention drawn to them is extensive. In Oct. 2012, of the 5,700 Afghans who had applied for the visa program, only 32 had been approved at the time. “My entire family will be under threat and danger when the Americans leave,” a 27 year-old Afghan linguist named Faizi told The Huffington Post. “But the process is very, very slow.”
While the Afghan program is slow moving, it at least is authorized until 2014 according to the State Department. Less fortunate is the Iraqi version of the program, which has as of midnight expired. An estimated 2,000 Iraqis are currently in the pipeline, all of whom now must wait until Congress acts before their process can move forward. And according to the United Nations, the last month has been exceptionally violent, with nearly 1,000 killed in car bombings and other attacks.
Last week Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) moved to file a stand-alone one-year extension of the program through 2014. “We made a promise to thousands of Iraqi civilians who risked their lives helping our country during a time of war and now we must honor our commitment,” Shaheen told Poltico. “Extending the special immigrant visa program by a year is the right thing to do.” But due to the rules of the Senate, it was unable to be attached to the Continuing Resolution needed to keep the government open.
A standalone version of the extension of the Iraqi program did manage to pass the Senate with unanimous consent last night, putting the onus on the House. A representative from the office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) did not immediately return inquiry from ThinkProgress as to when the bill would be up for a vote. And so with Congress waylaid by budget negotiations, it would seem the process for those who supported us in wartime has suddenly gotten much, much longer.