Early last week, with Congress in disarray over the government shutdown, something astonishing happened.
Despite the paralyzing gridlock, one bill was passed by unanimous consent in both House and Senate. Its purpose: to extend by 90 days a special visa program for Iraqis and Afghans who worked for U.S. soldiers and civilians, and who now face death threats for their past ties to Americans.
The program expired Monday.
But here's the shameful news. The SIV program is still failing thousands of those Iraqis and Afghans. Established by Congress in 2008, it was supposed to provide 25,000 visas a year over a five-year period for Iraqis. Yet only around 5,000 visas have been issued. (Only about 500 Afghans have been admitted under a separate quota.)
The bureaucratic hoops they must jump through seem designed not to save them but to keep them out.
"We thought that 25,000 [visas] would be used up in the first year," says Kirk Johnson, founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, which has enlisted law firms around the country in pro bono efforts that have helped 1,500 Iraqis gain visas. "But the process still takes years to navigate," Johnson told me. Many applicants, often living in hiding under death threats, wait from two to four years for an answer, or never get any reply.
"We are still reauthorizing a program that doesn't work," Johnson says. This authentic patriot has written a must-read memoir about his fight to save Iraqis who helped Americans. Its title is both apt and deeply disturbing - To Be a Friend Is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind. The title comes from a quote by Henry Kissinger, who once said: "To be an enemy to the U.S. is a problem, but to be a friend is sometimes fatal." Too true.
From the start, the SIV program has been mired in opaque and unresponsive Washington bureaucracy. Iraqis must submit and resubmit massive amounts of paperwork to the State Department, often traveling to the embassy in great danger. Multiple and overlapping security checks by the Department of Homeland Security can continue for years, and often get hung up over the translation of names. These procedures are supposedly necessary because some of these Iraqis might be terrorists, yet most have been repeatedly vetted by American bosses. Awards and commendations by U.S. superiors are also often ignored.
Here's one example from Johnson's book that parallels many stories I've been told while writing columns about the SIV program. Omar, a forklift driver for the Army on Forward Operating Base Warrior, applied for a special visa in June 2011; he was receiving death threats from an al-Qaeda affiliate militia that accused him of being an American spy.
For six months, the State Department kept demanding that he put them in touch with a "different" American supervisor. Though several of his former U.S. bosses sent letters that were acknowledged by the State Department, he kept receiving requests for "different contact info" and was urged to have "patience."
On June 22, 2012, 338 days after submitting his first request, Omar was killed; both his brother and widow were warned that they would be next. Omar's brother has yet to receive a visa. When his widow urgently requested entry, she was asked - again - to submit more verification of Omar's employment. She finally got a visa in July 2013 - a year after her husband's death - but only after NPR did a feature on Omar.
Lawyers who help Iraqis with SIV applications assure me that similar horror stories are going on now.
Why have we failed Iraqis and Afghans who were loyal? In part, the answer is politics. The Bush administration delayed the program and downplayed it; it didn't fit the 2008 mantra that the war had finally been "won."
Barack Obama, in a 2007 campaign speech, claimed, "We must . . . keep faith with Iraqis who kept faith with us . . . the interpreters, embassy workers, and subcontractors [who] are being targeted for assassination." But as president, he has never matched this rhetoric with action on SIVs.
While some of Obama's appointees tried in 2011 to improve the visa flow - which increased somewhat in 2012 - it has slowed again to a trickle. So long as the president remains aloof from this issue, it will not be resolved.
Johnson's book offers a historic precedent for how this could be done. After initially abandoning South Vietnamese who had worked for Americans, President Gerald R. Ford declared in May 1975 that America bore a responsibility to help them; more than 130,000 were airlifted to Guam, processed there, and flown to the United States. The backlog in Iraq and Afghanistan is only a small fraction of that.
When I asked Johnson why he wrote his memoir, he replied: "This book is a desperate attempt to remind people what we were capable of before we freaked out over 9/11. We once helped people who helped us."
In other words, the future of the SIV program is a test case of whether we are still capable of showing loyalty to our friends.