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Visas for Iraqis, Afghans who helped U.S. in jeopardy

Jul. 12, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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A law providing special visas to Iraqi and Afghan nationals in danger for helping the U.S. military suffered a blow when the House rejected the Senate’s immigration reform bill Wednesday.

Many of the refugees and their families face grave threats in their homelands as a result of their U.S. government affiliation, and thousands have been killed by their own countrymen, advocacy groups say.

In 2008, Congress passed legislation providing Iraqi and Afghan refugees who assisted the U.S. with special immigrant visas. This included contractors, translators and guides. The 5,000 visas allotted annually to Iraqis are set to expire at the end of September, while the 1,500 visas allotted annually to Afghans will expire in September 2014. The immigration bill would make the visas available until September 2018.

Only 50 special visas are allotted annually for Iraqi and Afghan translators. But in fiscal 2007 and 2008, an amendment to the 2006 National Defense Authorization Act allotted 500 visas for translators.

From fiscal year 2008 to March 2013, 11,647 visas have been allotted to Iraqi and Afghan refugees and 1,693 to translators, according to State Department data.

Those who benefit from the visas are in immediate danger, said Brittany Nystrom, director of advocacy at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

With the immigration reform bill stalled, advocacy efforts have focused on pushing through the visa provision by other means, Nystrom said.

The provision has also been attached to the Senate and House’s National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2014.

The versions differ slightly in eligibility and the number of visas allotted, but the major difference in the authorization bill is that visas for Iraqis are only extended to 2014, said Lavina Limon, president and CEO of U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

She said she hopes the version on the immigration reform bill will pass because there are fewer restrictions and the visas would be extended until 2018 rather than 2014 for Iraqis, although she said she is not optimistic.

While there is general agreement that the Iraqis and Afghans, who have provided invaluable support to the U.S., deserve to be rewarded for their support and efforts, the program needs a lot of work, she said.

Only 22 percent of the visas allotted to Iraqis and 15 percent to Afghans have been issued, according to State Department data.

The program has not been run well, Limon said, with refugees waiting years to receive visas. Nystrom said extensive procedures and meticulous requirements are to blame.

The lack of visas issued is not only a problem for the refugees and their families but also for U.S. credibility, Limon said.

“Look at the price that our country pays if our loyalty means nothing,” she said. “Next time we put our feet down in another country, we are going to have a hard time finding friends.”

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