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Congress Extends Visa Program For Iraqi And Afghan Interpreters

Blake Hall looks at a montage of photos of Roy, his fallen Iraqi translator. Roy served as Hall's translator for nine months during combat.

Aired 12/20/13 on KPBS News.

On December 19, Congress extended the special visa program for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters and mandated improvements.

Just before its holiday break, Congress extended the special visa program for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who have worked with U.S. forces. Advocates who fought to prolong and improve the program are celebrating.

“We’re thrilled about everything that made it into the bill,” said Katherine Reisner, national policy director at the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.

Reisner says the bill will ensure better oversight and accountability of the visa program.

Iraqi and Afghan interpreters will now have until the end of September 2014 to apply for special visas to the U.S. for themselves and family members.

Locals employed by U.S. military or U.S.-affiliated organizations in Iraq and Afghanistan often become targets of anti-American groups. As a result Congress set up two Special Immigrant Visa programs: for Iraqi interpreters in 2007 and for Afghans in 2009.

But advocates — including soldiers who worked with interpreters on the battlefield — have blasted the program for taking too long to issue visas and denying too many requests.

The bill passed December 19 addresses many of their major concerns, advocates say. It requires the U.S. government to process special visa applications within nine months of receiving the application.

The bill also mandates better coordination of the visa program and requires quarterly progress reports on the numbers of applicants at different stages in the process, Reisner said.

It also gives visa applicants the right to have a lawyer present during the interview process, and requires the U.S. State Department to issue a letter to applicants whose visas are denied laying out the reasons why.

Currently, less than 20 percent of the visas available for Afghan interpreters have been issued, and less than 30 percent of those available for Iraqis, according to the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.

“When we rely on our Iraqi and Afghan allies to achieve our aims in these theaters of war and that service puts them in mortal danger, the U.S. has the obligation to extend protections to these people,” Reisner said.

More than 11,000 Iraqi refugees have settled in the San Diego area since 2007.

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