Door to U.S. May Be Closing for Iraqis Who Helped the American Military

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BAGHDAD -- As a former interpreter for the American military, and as a gay man, Hassan says he is a focus of frequent discrimination by his fellow Iraqis.

That is why Hassan, who asked to be identified only by his middle name because he fears for his safety, does not see any future in his own country, where he is shunned for his sexuality and viewed as a traitor.

His last and best hope, he said, is a visa to the United States.

But that chance is now fading for Hassan and many others who worked for the American military. As they face increased violence here, they find themselves trapped in a glacially paced visa program set up for Iraqis that will expire at the end of the month unless new legislation is enacted to save it.

"The United States is my last hope for salvation," said Hassan, whose case is being assisted by a New York-based organization, the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center. "It's a place where I can be who I am, where people will accept me for who I am."

That many Iraqis who worked with the American military are still in the pipeline for special visas to emigrate to the United States -- the State Department will not say how many, but activists estimate it is in the low thousands -- remains an unresolved legacy of the American war.

It is also a reflection of the perilous state of the country nearly two years after the departure of American troops: the rising violence, which includes the remobilization of militias that once targeted Iraqis who helped the United States, has raised new fears and led more former interpreters to apply for the program, just as it is set to expire.

Becca Heller, the director of the refugee assistance group, said she was hopeful that legislation would eventually be enacted to preserve the program. But she is worried that if the program goes dark for even a few months, current applicants may have to start the onerous process again under a new law.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat who is backing new legislation to save the program, said: "We have a responsibility as Americans to provide assistance to those people who have been helpful, who risked their lives to help our country. And I think we need to make sure we fulfill that obligation."

A group of representatives and senators in Washington, including some lawmakers who are themselves Iraq veterans, is hurrying to save the program, which was enacted in 2007 and has been hampered all along by long delays because of security checks.

The original legislation earmarked 25,000 visas over five years, and over that time roughly 8,000 have been issued. So far this year, the State Department has issued just 454 special immigrant visas for Iraqis. Lawmakers say there is little actual opposition in Congress, but the issue has been caught in a legislative logjam, and has been given little attention by many politicians who would prefer to forget about the Iraq war.

As the deadline approaches, options are running out. Attempts at passing immigration and defense bills that included provisions for the visa program failed, and now lawmakers hope to include it in a continuing resolution that would keep the government running from October through the end of December.

Representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois who served two tours in Iraq before entering politics, is among the lawmakers trying to save the visa program.

As a pilot, Mr. Kinzinger did not work much with Iraqi interpreters. But he was moved to action after reading a book by Dakota Meyer, a Marine who earned the Medal of Honor for bravery in Afghanistan. Mr. Meyer spoke out about his interpreter's difficulty in securing a visa to the United States, despite his having been with Mr. Meyer at the battle for which he was awarded the medal.

"Look," Mr. Kinzinger said in an interview, "we're a big country. We're a country with plenty of room. And when you have people willing to fight alongside of us, and put them and their family's lives in danger, then we ought to repay them."

About a year ago Hassan gave his passport to the American Embassy in Baghdad, and believed it would be returned within a few months with a visa. His last communication with the State Department was an automated reply to an e-mail telling him that his case was in "administrative processing" and warning him that the program may expire at the end of September.

He is living with a sister in northern Iraq, where it is safer, but is still without his passport.

"I can't get out of Iraq at all," he said.

Former interpreters not only worry about their safety, but say their employment prospects in Iraq are bleak because of discrimination against anyone who aided the American war effort. Some see a visa as a ticket for a better life for their children.

"I'm trying to give my son the opportunity to be an astronaut, if he wanted to be," said Yousif al-Timimi, another former interpreter caught in the visa backlog. "If he's in Iraq, these options are not available. If he goes to the states and fails to be something important, it is his fault. My job as a father is to make these options available to him."

On a recent afternoon, another Iraqi man in a similar predicament, and who also asked his name not be published because of safety concerns, unzipped a black briefcase and pulled out a laptop and a thick file folder containing his case documents.

"Where should we begin?" he said.

He displayed letters of recommendation from military officers who were his superiors. He waved another letter, this one documenting the threats he said he had received over the years from a Shiite militia. He has several relatives in the United States, and his mother lived there in the 1980s and 1990s before her death in 1999. As proof he showed a copy of his mother's California driver's license. He has been waiting three years for a visa, with little explanation for the delay.

Then he fired up his laptop, and started a photo slide show. Image after image showed him smiling, alongside American soldiers. One showed his daughter's birthday party, held on an American base.

"Tell me if I'm one of the family or not," he said.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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