WASHINGTON – Congress has agreed to a tenfold increase in special immigrant visas for Iraqi and Afghan translators and interpreters, whose work with U.S. military personnel and diplomatic officials makes them targets for terrorist violence
The legislation approved by voice vote in the Senate late Thursday would authorize the issuance of 500 such visas a year over the next two years to translators. The government now issues 50 visas a year to translators who have worked a year for the U.S. military.
There's currently a nine-year backlog in acting on those eligible for U.S. admission.
"America has a fundamental obligation to help those brave Iraqis who put their lives on the line by working for our government," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who sponsored the bill with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., The House passed the measure earlier in the week.
But Kennedy and others also stressed that far more needs to be done to meet the needs of the millions of Iraqis who have been displaced by four years of fighting in the country.
An estimated 2 million Iraqis have fled the country because of the war and the sectarian violence while another 2 million have been displaced internally. The Bush administration, responding to criticism that it has ignored this refugee problem, recently announced it would issue 7,000 visas this year. Since the war began in 2003, less than 800 visas have gone to Iraqi refugees, 202 in 2006.
Kennedy on Thursday also urged the administration to provide more details on a little-known program, called Significant Public Benefit Parole, that has helped a small number of Iraqis gain temporary entry to the United States.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in a recent letter to Kennedy, said applications for the program, which is administered by the Department of Homeland Security, are usually submitted by state and federal law enforcement agencies seeking the presence of foreign nationals in legal proceedings.
But he said the procedure has also been used to permit entry to "Iraqi nationals whose service in support of U.S. forces in Iraq has put their lives in imminent, documented danger or who are in need of urgent medical treatment not available in theater." He said the Pentagon processed 117 such applications from 2004 to 2006.
The New York Times reported Friday that among those granted temporary asylum under the program is former Iraqi Health Minister Ali al-Shammari, who received death threats after trying to root out corruption in the ministry.