WASHINGTON — Congress will consider legislation Friday that could ease the way for thousands of Iraqis and Afghans to resettle in the United States to escape the dangers that come with their work for the U.S. military, news outlets and nonprofit groups.
The current version of the government’s “special immigrant visa” program expires next fall, and refugee advocates are pushing hard not only for an extension but also for sweeping changes to a process that’s been widely criticized as too slow, too narrow in eligibility and unreasonably complicated.
Since 2008, Congress has authorized 25,000 special immigrant visas for Iraqis who worked with the U.S. military, news media or nonprofits, but the State Department has issued fewer than 5,000, according to government figures.
Eligibility is even narrower for Afghans — only those who work for the military qualify, leaving media personnel and civil society workers out of luck even though they face the same insurgent threats. From 2008 to 2012, 1,051 visas were issued to Afghans — just 12 percent of the 8,500 that were available, according to the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, a nonprofit organization that offers free legal services to refugee and special immigrant visa applicants.
With separate legislative opportunities in the works to address those issues — one in the National Defense Authorization Act that’s before the House of Representatives and the Senate, the other in the Senate immigration bill — advocates said they were optimistic that the program at least would be extended, though it remains to be seen how far lawmakers will go in tweaking the program to expand its reach and lead to quicker decisions.
Ashraf, a 40-year-old Afghan from Kandahar who’s worked for U.S. media and an international nonprofit, said in a phone interview from Afghanistan that he’d immediately apply if Congress widened the eligibility because he was under constant threat from insurgents who equated any work with foreigners as treason and spying. At his 40-person family compound, just two people — his wife and older brother — know about his real job with Westerners, and he asked that his full name be withheld for security.
“Some people say we should stay here, we should build up Afghanistan, but I’m scared,” he said. “The first targets are people who work for the military. The second are journalists. They tell me, ‘Oh, you’re a spy.’”
Apart from broadening eligibility, the proposed changes would allow candidates to bring more relatives, in recognition that the threat extends beyond the nuclear family. They also would require that a decision be reached within a set period — so applications don’t languish for years — that coordinators be installed at the embassies in Kabul and Baghdad to ease processing and that the State Department be more transparent in reporting how many applications have been received, have been processed and are pending. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and John McCain, R-Ariz., jointly drew up the changes for the Senate.
A State Department official said she couldn’t comment on pending legislation, but that “we would welcome actions to extend the program.” She spoke only on the condition of anonymity per diplomatic protocol.
The proposed bills have bipartisan support, but there’s disagreement among legislators over how to weigh security and budget concerns against keeping a promise to protect allies whose lives are in jeopardy.
Critics complain that it’ll cost too much to resettle and at least temporarily provide assistance to thousands. Additionally, there’s concern that extremists could slip into the country if restrictions are loosened. The cautionary tale: Two resettled Iraqis were arrested in Bowling Green, Ky., and charged with trying to send weapons and cash to al-Qaida. Both pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and lying about their backgrounds when they applied for refugee status.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who introduced the legislation in the House, said while the United States should be careful with who was admitted, it shouldn’t use anomalies to deny thousands resettlement.
“I find this hyper-intense security focus odd when these are people we entrusted American lives to,” said Blumenauer, who became a strong backer of the program after Portland high school students looped him into their attempts to resettle an Iraqi interpreter.
Erik Malmstrom, 32, a former U.S. Army captain who served in Afghanistan and has returned for the past three summers on research trips, has seen firsthand a process he calls “inefficient and confusing.”
For three years, Malmstrom has tried to help nudge along the application of his translator-turned-friend, a young Afghan whom he identified by the pseudonym Ahmad for security reasons. At every turn, he said, bureaucratic hurdles have stymied Ahmad even though it would seem he’s just the kind of person Congress had in mind when the visa program was created in 2008.
“He was always the first interpreter to volunteer for the most difficult missions, even when they endangered his own life,” Malmstrom wrote in a letter of support for Ahmad’s application. “In an act of incredible bravery, he was seriously wounded by shrapnel during an insurgent ambush in which the U.S. Army unit that he was supporting escaped unharmed and unscathed.”
Still, Malmstrom said Ahmad was waiting to be granted a visa.
“We’re going to lose credibility and our legacy will be damaged if we’re not able, in a small way like this, to support our closest allies on the ground,” Malmstrom said in a phone interview Thursday. “It’s just the right thing to do.”