Commentary: U.S. must expedite visas for Iraqis who aided military forces

The United States may be about to repeat a shameful practice of abandoning friends when it leaves a war-torn country, in this case Iraq. That would jeopardize the lives of thousands of Iraqis who risked everything to aid the U.S. military campaign.

When Congress passed the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, it created a special immigrant visa program to admit up to 5,000 Iraqis a year who had served the United States in some capacity. These are the interpreters, drivers and in-country experts who played an indispensable role in the U.S. effort. By now, at least 20,000 could have been admitted under that program, but actual admissions have been far fewer.

Last week, a bipartisan group of senators, led by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., petitioned the Department of Homeland Security to explain why only 3,151 of the visas have been awarded since the program was implemented in 2008. The senators were alarmed because visa issuance has slowed to a trickle in recent weeks. The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project noted that there were no approvals at all during the first week of this month.

The failure is part of a disturbing pattern going back at least to the Vietnam War, when thousands of South Vietnamese were abandoned as U.S. forces beat a hasty retreat. The program in Iraq was designed to avoid a repetition of this disgraceful experience, but it’s not working out that way.

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