Nearly four years ago, Congress created a special program that set aside 5,000 visas annually for five years to help Iraqis who risked their lives working alongside U.S. troops and diplomats to resettle in this country. These were people who worked as translators, as drivers or in other jobs helping Americans in the war, and many of them faced anger and even threats of violence as a result.
But though the program was greeted with fanfare and relief when it was passed, federal officials now acknowledge that the Special Immigrant Visa program is languishing. As of March, just under 3,200 of the 20,000 visas available up until then had been issued.
Though the Obama administration has publicly said the program remains a priority, the numbers suggest otherwise: Only 154 people were admitted in fiscal year 2011, according to federal officials. Moreover, no one in the administration can explain what is causing the delays or even how a program that was designed to serve as a lifeline to people in immediate danger has become a bureaucratic nightmare. The State Department says it has eliminated redundant documentation requirements, and blames the backlog on enhanced security measures designed to weed out possible terrorists. The Department of Homeland Security says the additional vetting and pre-departure checks put in place late last year are necessary, but that they have not resulted in long waits.
Kirk Johnson, an American who worked in Fallujah and founded the List Project in 2006 to assist Iraqis who had been employed by the U.S. military and contractors, tells another story. He says the delays aren't new and estimates that at least half of the 2,000 Iraqis his group is currently working with have been in limbo for more than a year, often facing death threats from insurgents and others. Some have gone into hiding or fled to neighboring countries. Others have grown weary of waiting and applied as refugees to other countries and programs, he says.
Clearly, the program isn't working as Congress intended. The Obama administration ought to conduct a wholesale review and ensure that the process is streamlined so that people aren't forced to live in fear simply because they made the decision to assist the U.S. military. They deserve better than empty promises and unused visas.