Published June 18, 2012
Farah Al-Khafaji got a good night’s sleep last Wednesday night – her first in nearly six years.
Ever since she decided to defy Iraqi custom and support the U.S. military in Iraq in 2006, she has only known sleepless nights. To punish her for founding an engineering company that sold spare parts to the US military, Iraqis shot and killed her husband. Her bodyguard was murdered; her father was kidnapped. Farah, too, was repeatedly threatened and assaulted.
According to a 2007 American law, she should have been eligible for speedy entry to the U.S. thanks to an emergency “Special Immigrant visa program which authorizes swift consideration of applications from Iraqis and Afghans who have worked for the American military and other US government agencies for at least a year.
But Farah, who is now 30, had to wait three years for her visa.
Before then, she lived in terror each day. Last Wednesday after countless narrow escapes and family tragedies, she and her two young sons finally arrived in Washington, DC.
At last, she feels safe enough to sleep.
Farah Al-Khafaji, who appeared on "Fox & Friends" this weekend, is not alone. Tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans who have risked their lives to support American diplomatic and military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan are in similar bureaucratic limbo, waiting at growing peril for safe passage to the nation that has repeatedly promised it will not abandon them.
Having worked for the American military, diplomatic missions, and other US government agencies as translators, guides, drivers, suppliers, technicians and consultants, thousands still wait anxiously for visas as the risk to them grows each day.
Yet the US government does not even know how many Iraqis it employed. No one seems to have been responsible for keeping track of the numbers, despite a Congressional mandate to do so in 2011.
Nor does Washington know how many US government-employed Iraqis have been killed or wounded since the 2003 invasion and the departure of American combat forces at the end of 2011. But that figure is in the hundreds, with many more wounded.
Data kept by Titan, a private contractor that provided interpreters in Iraq, show that between 2003 and 2008 alone, as many as 300 interpreters employed by the company had been killed, according to ProPublica, an independent, non-profit news group that obtained and published the list.
While the US cannot directly rescue or resettle all of the 2.4 million refugees of the Iraq war, surely it has a special obligation to help those in Iraq and Afghanistan who have saved American lives and worked for us.
Congress obviously thought so back in 2007 when, embarrassed by the Bush administration’s failure to help these allies at risk, it passed the “Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act,” which provided for 5,000 visas a year for five years to Iraqis who were being targeted for having helped the US.
Although the number of such emergency visas to was boosted in 2008 to 25,000 over five years, the government had issued fewer than 4,500 such visas to Iraqi allies by the end of last year.
The administration asserts that it had to impose more intensive background checks on Iraqi visa applicants after it discovered that Al Qaeda was trying to exploit the program to infiltrate the US
Its concerns were bolstered when two Iraqi immigrants were arrested here in 2011 and charged with trying to send sniper rifles, Stinger missiles and money back to Al Qaeda in Iraq.
But responding to criticism from Congress and human rights groups, the administration agreed to speed entry for those most at risk.
Indeed, State Department officials told USA Today in May that Washington had issued at least 715 special immigrant visas since last October -- more than the 706 visas issued during the previous fiscal year.
Yet despite such improvements, “the program has largely failed to live up to its own goals,” says Becca Heller, who co-founded and runs the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York. “The backlog is so huge and the security clearance process so lengthy – running up to as long as up to three years – that we can’t process people quickly enough to save their lives.”
Ms. Heller, a 30-year old Yale-trained lawyer whose organization now helps get Iraqi and Afghan refugees to safety, says that as of May 4, 2012, approximately 20,000 Afghans and Iraqis primary applicants were to have been granted visas under this program. But as of May 2012, only 3,695 Iraqis had actually arrived in the U.S., not counting their family members.
The growing refugee crisis in Afghanistan portends far worse, particularly for those employed by Americans. For all of the last fiscal year, only 3 Afghanis received the special visas.
Mike Breen, a former army officer and an IRAP board member, says that the State Department has failed to meet the law’s requirement that it create a system to ensure that those applying for visas be protected while their applications are considered.
Farah Al-Khafaji, for instance, who had been living at Camp Victory near Baghdad Airport since she began working for the Americans when she was only 23, was given only four days to relocate when the base was closed last October. “Where in the world was she supposed to go?” he said. “She went to her family, where her father and sister had been repeatedly kidnapped because of her work.”
Breen, trained as a lawyer and a captain in the U.S. army who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, worries that the U.S. will repeat its treatment of the Iraqi allies in Afghanistan as America’s troop presence winds down there. “Our small FOB (Forward Operating Bases) are already being closed down. And the Taliban are twice as efficient as the Iraqis at tracking down those who worked with us,” he says.
There is all too little pressure on Obama’s White House to give the program the priority it deserves. No senator has picked up the mantle of being the measure’s protector from Ted Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who died in 2009, and Dick Lugar, Republican of Indiana, who was recently defeated in a primary.
“We have very little time left to get this right,” says Ms. Heller, whose non-profit, non-partisan group presented hundreds of pages of documents to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and the State Department to expedite Farah’s visa and which is now working overtime to bring her father and sisters to safety in America. “We have a profound moral obligation to help those who stood with us at a crucial moment. It’s the least we can do.”