Long wait to come to America for Iraqis, Afghans who served U.S. troops

Interpreters like the man on the left were critical for U.S. military officers who needed to converse with their Afghan counterparts.
Interpreters like the man on the left were critical for U.S. military officers who needed to converse with their Afghan counterparts. Tribune Content Agency

Frodo lived in fear for nine years.

He knew when two men showed up at his front door to threaten him in 2006 that his family would continue living in danger because of the three years he spent as an interpreter for U.S. forces in Iraq, including some of the most violent years of the war.

“[Militants] said to my parents and my family that we know your son was in the U.S. forces so when we catch him we will kill him,” Frodo said. “I worried about my kids and my family and I had a lot of nightmares that they’d come and catch me and my family and they kill my family.”

Frodo chose to go by this nickname to protect his identity from those who threaten his life.

Although the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad recognized Frodo as facing a “serious threat” and gave him “chief of mission approval,” the first step of the visa process, in August 2011, it wasn’t until a month ago that he finally got approval to travel, with his family, to the United States.

During the time his application remained in “administrative processing” his country was devastated by a new war that saw thousands more deaths and the rise of the Islamic State.

Frodo is not alone. Long wait times and a shortage of available visas for a huge backlog of applications remain major issues for the U.S. government’s Special Immigrant Visa program intended to ease entry to the United States for Iraqis and Afghans who served as interpreters or performed other duties for the United States in each country. While waiting, they remain targets for terrorist operatives from al Qaida or the Taliban.

The program was put in place to protect those who assisted U.S. forces, but the process is “cumbersome,” said Catherine Reynolds, an immigration attorney with the Garfield Law Group and the current secretary for the American Immigration Lawyers Association D.C. branch.

Although the State Department and Congress have made changes to the program in hopes of speeding the issuance of visas – requiring, for example, that background checks be completed within nine months of an application’s completion – the program’s problems persist.

Since fiscal year 2008, the U.S. government issued 11,599 visas under the special immigrant program for Iraqis and Afghans employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government. But thousands of visas that could have been issued between 2009 and 2013 weren’t – about 6,500 for Afghans and about 19,000 visas for Iraqis.

“In the early stages of this program, which was a hard thing to get going in Afghanistan, the visas were not being processed as quickly as they should have been,” said Jarrett Blanc, the State Department’s principal deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The U.S. employed about 11,000 Afghan interpreters, according to Pentagon spokeswoman Henrietta Levin, but the State Department’s permanent visa program for translators accepts only 50 applicants per year.

The Iraqi special immigrant visa program for those who did not work as translators, but were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government in other capacities, stopped accepting applicants Sept. 30.

The similar Afghan special immigrant program currently has 13,000 applicants vying for one of 4,000 visas that will be granted this year. The program will stop accepting applications Dec. 30, according to data provided by the State Department in an email.

“These are people who helped us, risked their lives in helping us and we need to ensure that we follow through on the commitments that we made to them,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We continue to pressure those that are involved in getting them here.”

Blanc said the 4,000-cap on visas for Afghans is the maximum number the department can physically issue during the year. Each applicant must have a visa interview in Kabul. Then the application must be vetted and processed in the United States. Staff can only handle so many.

“Part of it is a manpower issue at various steps,” Blanc said. “We continue to push very hard to improve our processing and bring down the amount of time it takes to do every step, which could potentially increase the number of people we could move in a given year.”

Blanc said the department is not looking for additional resources to handle the influx of applicants.

“This program doesn’t seem to be a priority,” said Mark Doss, a lawyer with the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project. “If more resources, personnel, capacity, were added to the program so that processing could go faster . . . I think the state could work faster.”

Doss’s program, which provides legal representation to refugees, has sued the government over the delay on behalf of nine Iraqi citizens whose visa applications, the suit charges, have been stuck in “administrative processing” for an average of four years and three months.

Each plaintiff is identified by code names because of the threats they face from their service to U.S. forces, including Frodo, whose nickname was given to him by the soldiers he served alongside.

“These applicants who have served the country fall into a black hole where there’s really no answers and no responses from the U.S. government about why their visas aren’t being issued,” said Reynolds, who has practiced as an immigration attorney for 19 years.

“Everybody in their heart knows, ‘Yeah this is something we should do,’ ” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It’s just a matter of making sure we stay on top of it.”

It’s not just manpower that slows the processing, said Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for citizenship and immigration services at the Department of Homeland Security. Problems can be as simple as a forgotten signature or as serious as questions about a criminal background check.

In May 2011, the FBI arrested two Iraqis living in Kentucky after they were caught trying to send weapons back to al Qaida operatives. Although the men were not resettled through the special immigrant visa program, Bentley said the case is an example of why the process needs to maintain strict requirements.

“Our commitment is to make sure the system has a great amount of integrity,” Bentley said. “That means we get to the right answer, not the quickest answer, not the most expedient answer and certainly not a denial as a blanket answer. We get to the right answer in the amount of time that it takes us to get to that.”

Still, many feel those who’ve applied for a special immigrant visa have already proved their loyalty through their service to the U.S. military. Long wait times keep them exposed to possible retaliation.

“I still have a lot of fear,” Frodo said “I see militia on the street, they have their weapons and they might be searching for guys like me who had worked for the U.S. forces. They know my face, they going to kill me.”

Long wait times have other consequences, Doss said. For example, the required medical exam and vaccinations are expensive – $400 per person in Iraq, $365 in Afghanistan – and are good for only six months. If an applicant is stuck in administrative processing for longer than that, he must pay again. For a family with multiple members, that can be thousands of dollars.

Even if everything goes smoothly, the application process is expensive. There are translation costs and courier fees for documents, fingerprint fees and medical exams. Frodo had trouble paying for all the required documentation for a family of five. In all, he estimates he spent about $3,375.

To cover this cost Frodo said he sold whatever gold jewelry his wife had, including her wedding ring.

Aside from those direct costs outlined to applicants, the act of waiting is costly as well. Some applicants must support their families while in hiding, potentially giving up their job to hide, or fleeing the country, Doss said.

After those two men came to Frodo’s house to threaten him, he moved to a small house in a different area and tried to keep a low profile among his neighbors.

But even after moving, Frodo worried about his three young daughters as he waited for approval.

“My daughters, I couldn’t let them go outside to play,” Frodo said. “I put them inside the house and told my wife to not let them go out.”

After years of living in fear, Frodo, his wife and his three daughters received visas on June 7. Their flight, arranged through the International Organization of Migration, is on July 29.

As for the rest of the nine plaintiffs in the Iraqi assistance project’s lawsuit, six are still waiting.

Ellie Silverman is a McClatchy special correspondent.