Despite being proud of my time in the military, I still cringe when someone thanks me for my service. The time I spent as a soldier in Iraq was easily the most consequential and defining part of my young life, but it’s not something I can take credit for; I couldn’t have accomplished anything without my brothers-in-arms and our Iraqi partners.
Today I cringe double because we are set to break a promise to those Iraqis who fought alongside us. Congress’ inaction threatens to destroy the last lifeline many of our Iraqi allies have to reach safety in the United States, the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Iraqi refugees. If an extension of that program isn’t added to the continuing resolution, the legislation needed to prevent a government shutdown, then on September 30 we will have officially abandoned tens of thousands of Iraqis who risked their lives for our country as interpreters and in other critical positions.
The Iraqi refugee visa program was plagued from the beginning by bureaucratic inaction and procedural delays. Some of the first Iraqi refugees to sign up in 2008 have waited up to five years for an answer; I am far from alone in suspecting that the government is attempting to frustrate the program by bureaucratic writ. Safer to grind the program to a halt than risk a future ‘incident.’ The great irony here is that the Iraqis we worked alongside helped us because they believed in what we were doing over there. Far from being a security threat, they have proven their loyalty by risking more for our mission than 99% of this country.
And yet less than a quarter of the 25,000 visas for Iraqis have been distributed in that program’s five years, with similarly dismal performance for an Afghan counterpart program set to expire next year. Meanwhile, the human toll mounts each day as Iraqis and Afghans who are waiting for their visas are killed by sectarian militias or the Taliban.
While the State Department dodges responsibility with procedural excuses, Congress has tried to do the right thing. If the SIV champions in the House and Senate are stymied by those who would rather do nothing, and Congress does not extend the Iraqi SIV program by September 30, the program will shut down on October 1. The departments of State and Homeland Security have said that no applicant will receive a visa after that time. Personnel will be reassigned, cases put on hold, and the chances of thousands of Iraqis getting the visas they earned reduced to nearly zero.
Despite significant bipartisan and bicameral support, there are enough members of Congress who simply don’t care, to the extent that this entirely avoidable nightmare may become a reality.
We have already forgotten about Iraq as we seek to forget Afghanistan. In our nation’s history, however, defeat on the battlefield hasn’t always meant a default on our obligations. Our hometown can be proud that President Ford urged passage of the Indochinese Migration and Refugee Assistance Act to save refugees in southeast Asia after the Fall of Saigon. The vibrant Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese communities across the United States are both a signal of the diversity of this inclusive Nation and of our commitment to honor those who risked their lives for it.
Veterans are sadly no stranger to government backlogs- we are all too familiar with the Veterans Administration’s infamous processing delays. Perhaps that’s why so many combat veterans such as Dakota Meyer, the first living Marine to receive the Medal of Honor since Vietnam, have taken up this cause. When someone volunteers to stand by your side in combat, it doesn’t matter what language they speak or where they were born. Risking one’s life in war earns entry into an enduring and exclusive fraternity, and we will not turn our backs on those who had ours in battle.
We stand on the edge of defaulting on yet another promise made to those who served our country, but it’s not too late to do the right thing for our Iraqi allies. Let’s get the Iraqi SIV added to the continuing resolution and honor those who risked their lives for our Nation.