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Interpreter visa program saved by Congress, awaits president

Oct. 3, 2013 - 07:02PM   |  
Congress has passed a one-year extension to the Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa program, The measure now heads to the White House for the president's signature. Pictured: With the aid of an interpreter, the commander of the Afghan National Army's 1st Toli, 7th Kandak, 4th Brigade, 203rd Corps, left, discusses information gathering with a soldier from U.S. Army Europe's 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, during a combined patrol in Logar province, Afghanistan, in 2012.
Congress has passed a one-year extension to the Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa program, The measure now heads to the White House for the president's signature. Pictured: With the aid of an interpreter, the commander of the Afghan National Army's 1st Toli, 7th Kandak, 4th Brigade, 203rd Corps, left, discusses information gathering with a soldier from U.S. Army Europe's 1st Squadron, 91st Cavalry, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, during a combined patrol in Logar province, Afghanistan, in 2012. (Sgt. Michael Sword / Army)
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The Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa program, which had just expired, won a reprieve Wednesday night when the House passed an extension that the Senate passed previously. Now the measure heads to the White House for the president’s signature.

The special immigrant visa programs for Iraqi and Afghan who worked as interpreters or otherwise worked for U.S. forces were set to expire for Iraqis Sept. 30 and a year later for Afghans. The measure would extend both programs by one year.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., with John McCain, R-Ariz.; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Lindsey Graham, R.-S.C., had introduced a standalone piece of legislation to extend the program. That measure passed in the Senate late Monday night.

Shaheen and McCain released a joint statement saying that in spite of Washington’s current “dysfunction,” this legislation “demonstrates that Congress can still work together to uphold our country’s promises and commitments.”

“Extending the Iraq Special Immigrant Visa Program will help those who helped us during a time of war,” the statement said. “Brave Iraqis who risked their lives to protect and assist American troops are now living under the threat of retribution from terrorists and militants as a result. The United States has a moral obligation to help those Iraqis who stood with our troops.

The State Department had previously said it welcomed congressional intervention to keep the program running longer.

Katie Reisner, of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, said the next step is for Congress to pass the National Defense Authorization Act, which contains language in both the House and Senate version aimed at reducing backlogs in the program. Reisner said she hopes to see an increase in the number of visas available for Afghans.

“Hopefully this fight will have sufficiently raised the profile of the issue,” she said. “The real goal is to make this an agency and an administration priority.”

Michael Breen, co-founder of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, called the program “a lifeline for interpreters and others who risked their lives to work with the US government, and would have ended without last night’s vote.”

“We made a commitment to those who served alongside our troops and now, because of this legislation, thousands of people who would have been stranded in Iraq, targeted by terrorist organizations along with their families for their work with us, will now have safe passage to security and the new beginning they’ve earned in America,” said Breen, now executive director of the Truman National Security Project.

Army vet Matt Zeller, who launched a public crusade for a visa for an Afghan interpreter who saved his life downrange, expressed gratitude.

“Last night Congress saved thousands of our Iraqi allies’ lives,” he said. “As a veteran I thank them for doing the right thing and standing by our nation’s promise.”

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