Visas set aside for Iraqis, Afghans in Senate immigration bill

The Hill – by Kevin Bogardus

Iraqis and Afghans who risk their lives to help American troops would be eligible for special visas to the United States under the Gang of Eight’s immigration reform bill.

The Senate bill would extend programs that provide special immigrant visas for people in Iraq and Afghanistan who serve as translators and guides, as well as others who have helped the United States. It would also make changes so that their applications are processed faster.  

Veterans, religious organizations and humanitarian groups have championed the programs, and say they will fight to preserve the visas as immigration legislation moves through Congress.

Jen Smyers, associate director for refugee and immigration policy for Church World Service, said providing visas to Iraqis and Afghans is a responsibility that Washington must fulfill.

“They have to know that we have got their back if things don’t turn out well,” Smyers said. “If we can’t do that, it will not only hurt our military policy, but our foreign policy as well.”

The visa program for Iraqis is set to expire in September, while the program for Afghans would end in September 2014. The Senate immigration bill would extend both programs until September 2018 and make a number of changes intended to improve them.

Backlogs have plagued both visa programs. Only 22 percent of the visa allotment for Iraqis and 15 percent of the allotment for Afghans has been used so far.

Refugee advocates are enthusiastic about language in the Senate bill that they say brings more parity to the Iraqi and Afghan programs by expanding visa eligibility for Afghans to more of their family members and professions. Unused visas would also be made available until September 2018.

Working with the U.S., they noted, can often put a person’s whole family at risk.

“It’s not just your nuclear family that is targeted. Your parents are targeted. Your siblings are targeted,” said Katherine Reisner, national policy director for the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project. “We have heard of people being attacked or killed because their relatives worked with Americans.”

Iraqis and Afghans who worked for the U.S. government, as well as media and non-governmental organizations, would be eligible for the visas under the Senate bill. Each year, Iraqis and Afghans would be allotted 5,000 special visas each.

With the Senate Judiciary Committee beginning to mark up the Gang of Eight’s bill next week, supporters of the special visas are trying to get the word out about the visas.

“The hope is that the language gets through the Senate and then the House is able to incorporate these provisions in however they move forward, whether it’s piecemeal or in a bigger bill,” Reisner said. “We are focusing on talking to folks in the Senate and letting them know the provisions exist and how thrilled we are with them.”

An April 26 letter to the Senate’s Gang of Eight signed by a number of faith and human rights organizations thanked the group for the bill’s refugee protections, including for extending the Iraqi and Afghan special visas.

Reisner’s group, meanwhile, has been collecting testimonials from Iraq and Afghan War veterans and sharing them with lawmakers.

“My interpreters put their lives on the line, every single day,” reads one of the veterans’ testimonials. “When I knew we were leaving, I told my interpreters I was going to do everything in my power to get them to the United States.”

Reisner said the visa program is of particular importance for Iraq, given the recent spike in sectarian violence there.

“It’s still very well known who worked with the Americans. There are still kill lists out there, with names and photographs, of those people,” Reisner said about Iraq.

In the House, a group of Democratic and Republican lawmakers are crafting a rival immigration reform plan. The special visas are on the group’s radar, according to a House aide with knowledge of the talks.

“Members are well aware of this program in their ongoing discussions,” the aide said.

There is support for extending the special visas in the House. A March 5 letter signed by 19 House lawmakers sent to President Obama backed extending the programs and improving them.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who signed onto the letter, has been talking to senators about keeping the programs alive, according to a spokesman.

“The congressman is confident that the [special immigrant visa] program can be extended as part of a larger immigration reform package or as a stand-alone bill and has been working with his Senate colleagues to make sure this gets done,” said Patrick Malone, a spokesman for Blumenauer.

Republicans also back the special Iraqi and Afghan visas. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and signed onto the March 5 letter, said he was “encouraged” by the Senate bill.

“I am encouraged to see growing awareness of the need for visas for those that risked their lives to assist U.S. forces overseas. I intend to stay involved as the conversation progresses,” Kinzinger said in a statement to The Hill.

Some immigration reform proponents have expressed fears that the Boston Marathon bombings could slow or stop the bill’s progress on Capitol Hill. The Chechen origins of the bombing suspects has brought heightened scrutiny to the refugee provisions in the legislation.

Sister Mary Ellen Lacy, a lobbyist at the liberal-leaning Catholic advocacy group Network, said the Iraqi and Afghan visas should be immune to the politics of immigration reform, “because these people have proved their loyalty.”

Any move on Capitol Hill to ax the extension of special immigrant visas would spark a lobbying backlash, Lacy warned.

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