Wednesday, May 14, 2008

After combat, Officers fight the bureaucracy back home to help their interpreters

American officers are continuing to fight beyond their deployments to Iraq, fighting their own government once back home, trying to help the interpreters they leave behind.

An interpreter signs his or her own death warrant when the agreement to help the Americans is made. Once the insurgency has a name, they do not stop hunting that person until that person is dead.

The risk taken by interpreters in Iraq is considerable and widely documented. Those who work for the Americans are often accused of being apostates and traitors. Their homes are bombed. Death threats are wrapped around blood-soaked bullets and left outside their homes. Their relatives are abducted and killed because of their work. And of the interpreters themselves, hundreds have been killed.

But many work in spite of the repercussions, and that dedication resonates clearly for many American soldiers and marines.

While there is no detailed tracking of the total number of Iraqis who have worked as interpreters, their advocates estimate that more than 20,000 people have filled such roles since 2003. In the last quarter of 2007 alone, 5,490 Iraqis were employed by the multinational force as interpreters, according to the Department of Defense.

Nearly 2,000 interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan have applied to the State Department for a special immigrant visa, which was begun in 2006 as a last resort for those fearing for their lives. So far 1,735 cases have been approved, though it is unclear how many interpreters have come to the United States.

In its first year the visa program for interpreters was limited to only 50 spots. Since then it has expanded to 500 spots a year.

But the numbers tell only part of the difficulty. The program does little to minimize the visa bureaucracy. The process, complicated for anyone, is especially hard for interpreters.

They are considered refugees, and refugees cannot apply from their native countries, in this case Iraq. But Jordan and Syria have closed their borders to the flood of Iraqi refugees. Passports issued by the government of Saddam Hussein are not valid, often making it impossible to cross borders legally.

Among service members who have served in Iraq, there is no dispute that the number of interpreters in danger is far greater than the number of those who have won visas. Many veterans are angry about the bureaucratic hurdles faced by the Iraqis who often came to work with a price on their heads. Many others have for years expressed frustration with the Bush administration for not doing more to help Iraqis who aid American forces, even as other advocates criticize the overall low numbers of Iraqis generally granted visas to the United States.

White House spokeshole Gordon Johndroe gave the feeble excuse that the government's hands had been tied by a lack of legislation covering interpreters - like we are supposed to believe this administration has any regard for congress! (Ha! Executive order, anyone? He's a unitary executive!)

One infantry officer, Lt. Col. Steve Miska, assessed the situation and did something about it. He set his staff to work on helping the interpreters that help them, and established a network in which every interpreter that works for his unit is paired with veterans who guide them out of Iraq and through Jordan and Syria, eventually to the United States and through the immigration process. “Not only is it the right thing to do from a moral perspective, it’s the way to win,” Colonel Miska said, stressing that the assistance will help reassure Iraqis that they can trust Americans despite the risk in helping them.

It is a national disgrace the way the interpreters who help our military in Iraq are treated. The congress should pass, and the president should immediately sign, legislation that would grant any interpreter safe passage to the United States if the officer they work for swears that the interpreter is in danger as a result of their work with American forces.

It would simply be the right thing to do.

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