Iraqi immigrant Ubaida Mufrej stands in the office of his car parts export… (Manuel Valdes / Associated…)
When American troops went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they relied on local translators, drivers and guides to help them navigate incalculable risks. In exchange, the United States promised, beginning in 2006, to provide visas for those men and women whose work put them in danger. But nearly a decade later, it has yet to fulfill that commitment.
Washington must live up to its obligations. A good place to start would be for Congress and the White House to move swiftly to extend the Special Immigrant Visa program, which is due to expire in the months ahead. Enacted by Congress in 2007, the program provides 6,500 new visas annually for Iraqis and Afghans to resettle in the United States. Yet it has been plagued with problems. An unwieldy application process, coupled with enhanced security measures designed to weed out possible terrorists, has led to backlogs and long delays. As a result, only a fraction of the available visas have been issued. In fiscal year 2012, for example, fewer than 2,000 visas were granted, according to the U.S. Department of State's data. Overall, only 22% of the authorized Iraqi visas and 12% of the authorized Afghan visas have been issued since the program began.
The Obama administration has made some efforts to improve the program in Iraq, but it has yet to undertake similar reforms in Afghanistan. It ought to ensure that the application process is streamlined in Baghdad as well as Kabul, where some published reports indicate that as many as 5,000 applications are pending.
The delays in processing applications aren't simply an inconvenience. Many applicants have been waiting years for approval and have had to live in hiding during that period.
Clearly the Special Immigrant Visa program isn't working as Congress intended it to. But allowing it to sunset is not the answer. Washington should renew and reform the program and not leave behind those it pledged to help.