In 2007, Congress created the Special Immigrant Visa program to help Iraqis and Afghans who had risked their lives to work for the American government during the wars in their countries. Thousands of former interpreters, drivers and other contractors applied, many of them worried about reprisals from fellow citizens and confident that the United States would help them begin a new life in America.
More than five years after the program began, however, less than half of the visas set aside for the program — 5,000 annually for the last five years, plus more for family members — have been issued. And many of those who worked with American forces remain in limbo thanks to an onerous application process and strict background checks that have led to long delays. While waiting, some Iraqis and Afghans have received death threats from insurgents and militia groups because they aided the U.S., and have gone into hiding. Others have fled into neighboring countries while they await a final decision from American officials in Baghdad or Kabul.
Last year, lawmakers and the Obama administration vowed to fix the program. That led to some improvements, including a more streamlined application process. But groups that work with refugees seeking admission to the U.S. say that those efforts didn't go far enough, and that thousands of applications remain stuck in a bureaucratic logjam. The Iraqi visa program, which was set to sunset last month, was extended only through Dec. 31.
Now that the government shutdown has ended, lawmakers ought to move swiftly to extend the program for an additional year to deal with the backlog. The House has already included a provision doing so in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014, which passed before the shutdown. That bill includes several much-needed improvements. Among other things, it establishes deadlines for processing applications, sets up an appeals process and requires quarterly reports on the total number of pending cases, the average wait time and number of denials. The Senate should adopt similar requirements.
The administration also must step up its efforts to ensure that the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and State do a better job of coordinating background checks so that applicants aren't bounced between agencies. The Afghan program remains in place for another year, but it too should be reviewed to ensure that it doesn't expire before all applications are processed.
America promised to help. It should keep that promise.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times