Commentary

Iraqi Allies Deserve Better than Red Tape

Many Iraqis, desperate to earn decent wages and bring stability to their country, support American forces by working as Arabic interpreters. “Terps” are paid a modest sum, and they enable soldiers to communicate with Iraqi civilians and track down insurgents. But working with the Americans can come at a high cost.

Adnon, a 15-year-old boy from a village near Balad, home to one of the largest U.S. air bases in Iraq, wished to protect his family and the American soldiers he called his friends. After nine months helping U.S. forces, he and his 10-year-old brother were kidnapped and beheaded, and their bodies dumped in front of the base. Sadly, their story is not unusual.

A group of U.S. soldiers is trying to change that. Joey Coon, a former sergeant in the Oregon Army National Guard who served in Balad, is one of many veterans helping to resettle his former Iraqi interpreter in the United States. Coon is trying to gain asylum for his friend “Dash,” a 23-year-old Iraqi Shi’a who saw several friends and family members murdered because of his association with American troops.

“I spoke at a press conference with Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer. I’ve sent letters to the editor. I’m trying to make the American public aware that there is a large group of people protecting U.S. soldiers, trying to make their way out of this dangerous situation, and that there is a horrible system set up to deal with them,” Coon says.

“Every day we waste talking about this problem is another day that these people are at risk of being killed.”

To come to the United States, Dash must negotiate a dizzying course of bureaucratic hurdles. He has to fill out an I-360 petition for special immigrant status form and pay the $375 filing fee, locate a certified English translation of his Iraqi birth certificate, present proof that he has served as an Iraqi interpreter, provide a letter of recommendation by a U.S. Army general or chief of mission and forward these documents to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Nebraska service center for processing.

If approved, the documents are sent to the National Visa Center, where U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services collects the filing fees and the visa application, form DS-230, parts one and two. The entire package is then shipped back from the United States to the American consulate in Jordan. If and when an immigrant visa becomes available, Dash will go to the consulate in Amman to be interviewed, fingerprinted, photographed and given a mandatory medical examination. Finally, he will be admitted into the United States as a green card holder, a status he must apply to renew after 10 years.

This laborious process occurs after the Iraqi interpreter has spent at least an entire year assisting U.S. military personnel, has proven his support for America’s war effort and his background has been checked by U.S. Army private contractors.

On Oct. 1, the green card quota for Iraqi interpreters allowed admission to the United States was raised from 50 to 500. It’s a step in the right direction, though the quota will revert back to 50 the following October if Congress does not approve an increase again. But even with higher numbers of visas available, the odds are against most applicants.

Nicole Simon, an immigration lawyer based in Philadelphia, says the 500 immigrant visas approved for this year have already been used. Petitions that don’t make the cut in one year are placed on a waiting list for the next, so the quotas have already been filled through 2009.

Given the difficulty of gaining entry to the United States in this way, it’s hard to believe some Americans fear it will enable terrorists to slip into the country. “These Iraqis go through an extensive vetting process and a comprehensive background check,” says Joel Charny, vice president for policy at Refugees International. “The last thing a terrorist would want to do is go through a process that examines their entire life history.”

“The waiting list is essentially a ‘waiting to die’ list,” Coon says. “Interpreters have to wait a year until their visas are even processed. So much could happen in a year in Iraq. I feel bad about the thousands of other Iraqis who don’t have a friend in the United States. How are they going to go through this process?”

Setting arbitrary limits on the number of terps who can enter the U.S. is the deepest betrayal of the thousands who have risked everything to help American soldiers in the field. The quotas should be abolished, and the process should be simplified. If Iraq is worth American sacrifice in blood and treasure, Iraqi interpreters who have aided our military at great peril certainly deserve permanent refuge in the United States.

Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.