The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 8, 2013

U.S. should help Iraqis who helped during war

Why it matters: Those who aided the U.S. in the war in Iraq need help getting to safety.

The Mankato Free Press

---- — Buried in the talk about immigration reform is an issue that was has nothing to do with patrolling borders, granting exemptions for those doing domestic jobs or giving higher education breaks to immigrant children.

Iraqis who helped the United States during war in their home country are at great risk. And although some Iraqis obtained visas to escape, there are reportedly still tens of thousands of Iraqis whose lives are threatened as they are trapped in a land now hostile to them as radical militias view them as traitors.

A number of other countries airlifted Iraqis who worked for them out of the country when troops left. Britain, Australia, Denmark are among those that safely removed Iraqis.

Nowhere is the urgency of resolving this problem more apparent than examining the case of “Omar,” a former Iraqi forklift operator who worked for U.S. contractors. As an advocate for the Iraqi people dangerously left behind, author Kirk Johnson has researched the email trail left by Omar. A year’s worth of correspondence between Omar and U.S. immigration offices overseen by the State Department offer evidence of the futile attempts he made to escape Iraq.

Over and over he was told to supply employment information, and he complied. And then he was told to supply the information again. And again. All of this despite his pleas of urgency because of threats being made on his life.

Seven weeks went by after Omar submitted another employment verification letter — this one written on official stationery by a U.S. contractor who supplied glowing reviews of Omar and offered his cellphone number and email address as additional contact information. And then, still waiting, Omar was decapitated in Iraq.

Johnson, interviewed on “This American Life,” is frustrated that Omar and thousands of others like him haven’t been helped — especially because tools are in place to do so. He cited the Guam Option that has been used before in which the president issues an executive order to fly threatened visa applicants to a U.S. base to thoroughly screen them, but keep them safe.

In 2007, the List Project worked to pass the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act. That legislation included setting up the special immigrant visa program for Iraqis and Afghans working for the United States. It opened up 25,000 visa slots to be allocated at 5,000 per year to Iraqi interpreters, the project says. The program will expire if Congress doesn’t pass the Immigration Reform Act. Of the 25,000 visas promised, only about 5,500 were granted.

The Senate in backing the immigration reform bill on June 27 voted to extend and improve the special immigration visa program in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem is there are indications the House may reject or gut the bill.Congress should act together to pressure the administration to do all that it can to help the people who helped us.

Abandoning those who aided us in war is morally appalling and bad strategy if we expect cooperation in the future. The Afghanis who helped us in war efforts there are in the same situation. Omar died needlessly. The U.S. should cut through its own red tape, put pressure on the administration to remove threatened immigrants from danger, and do what it can to protect the people who helped us.