Iraqis, Afghans who aided U.S. are marked men whose visas are tangled in bureaucracy

| Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 6:54 p.m.

AMMAN, Jordan — Iraqi interpreter Bassam Hashem was having lunch with colleagues at the Loyalty Camp in Baghdad, a U.S. military base, when an Iraqi colonel in the federal police force turned toward them from the next table.

“ ‘We will get you when the Americans leave,' he told us,” said Hashem, 29, noting the colonel was at the camp to receive training. “And he was laughing. ‘We will get you all,' he said.”

Mohammad Janis Shinwari's warning was scratched on his car. “Your judgment day is coming” was the message to Shinwari, 36, who said the Taliban has been looking to get him for years.

“They know I saved a U.S. intelligence officer's life and have killed Taliban,” he said. “They are trying hard to find me – it's just a matter of time.”

Two countries, two conflicts and one common fate shared by thousands of Iraqis and Afghans such as Shinwari and Hashem: Because they worked with the U.S. military, they are marked men to militants.

The United States has long been aware of the danger such men put themselves in by helping the Americans. So it created a special visa for them to work and live in the United States when their assignment is up.

Instead of receiving the visas they have been promised, they have become snared in a bureaucratic tangle that has forced them into hiding while they wait for apporoval.

Kirk Johnson of the group List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, said the visa system for interpreters is a web of delays in which no one is held responsible.

The process is designed to reject them or make them wait,” said Johnson, author of “To Be a Friend is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind.” “It is as low a moment as it gets for both the Iraqi and Afghans.”

The State Department said it understands the threat faced by local hires who work for the U.S. government in both countries, but it is necessary to balance those concerns with protecting national security.

“We take these threats — and the concerns of those who work with us — very seriously, and we are committed to providing them with the benefits for which they are legally eligible,” the department responded in an emailed statement. But “we need to be sure that those who wish to do us harm are not able to take advantage of the program.”

The State Department insists it has improved wait times for responses to requests for the special visas. If so, critics say, it is not good enough.

Of the 25,000 visas allocated by law to Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government, fewer than 6,000 have been issued since 2008, according to Katherine Reisner, national policy director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York City. Of the 8,750 available for Afghans, fewer than 1,200 have been granted.

Thousands of these Iraqi and Afghan hires deal with escalating violence in their countries while the visa process, when it works, can take upward of four years.

The program for Iraqis expired Sept. 30 but was granted a 90-day extension last week and is due to be extended again for a year. The Afghan program expires next September.

Johnson was among those who lobbied Congress to establish the special visa programs. When they became law, he said, he was thrilled that America had recognized an obligation to interpreters.

“I never imagined that five years later, we would be looking at the expiration of the program with so many unused visas and an even worse predicament for the Afghans,” he said. “And when you look at the number of Iraqi cases still left to process, it would take 17 years to dole out those remaining visas at the rate we have been going.”

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