Iraqi interpreters feel frightened and ‘fooled’ as U.S. visa program ends

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He recalls with pride his service for U.S. troops, noting their sacrifice in liberating his homeland from Saddam’s oppression. “When I worked as a translator, I felt I was human,” Conner said.

Today, married and the father of a 1-year-old girl, he looks to the day when he and his family can escape the chaos of Iraq.

“I feel here in my country, I can’t do anything, just wait.,” he said. “The more patience, that means the more dead.”

Kirk W. Johnson, founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, estimates that the U.S. government employed 50,000 to 100,000 Iraqis during the war. Accounting is difficult, he said, because the government doesn’t share that information.

“The government doesn’t like to have a very concrete number because knowing that somehow, I think, creates a sense of obligation,” said Mr. Johnson, a former official at the U.S. Agency for International Development who served in Iraq. “It tees up the question: ‘We know how many there are, what are we going to do about it?’”

He blames a lack of urgency by the White House for a backlog in processing 5,000 to 7,000 visa applications as recently as January.

“Even a cursory look at the history of refugee processing shows that when the American president declares that this is a priority, all of the nonsense and the idiotic facets of the program melt away,” Mr. Johnson said.

Legislation pending in the 2014 defense authorization bill would extend the visa program, but Congress has only a few working days before the program’s expiration. Last year’s authorization bill did not pass until December.

To avert a disruption in the program, lawmakers first tried to include an extension in a continuing resolution but now have sponsored separate legislation. If nothing happens by Monday, the program will come to a complete stop, a U.S. official said on background.

“Across the U.S. government, every effort is being made to ensure qualified applicants are processed in a timely fashion before the Iraqi [visa] program’s scheduled end. We are also making arrangements to quickly resume processing if our authority to issue visas lapses but is later restored by Congress,” a State Department official said on background.

‘People will get kidnapped’

The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which provides pro bono legal aid to interpreters, worries that the State Department will shut down its operations immediately — storing or discarding unprocessed applications, reassigning visa personnel and stop processing submitted applications.

The U.S. official said that, without a continuing resolution, only the applications of relatives of interpreters who already have received their visas would be processed; the processing on all others would stop.

If the authorization bill does not “grandfather in” visa applications that were being processed Sept. 30, those applicants would have to restart the process, which could take two to three more years, the official said.

Meanwhile, Iraqis who helped the U.S. effort in their country face brutality and fear.

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