We need to do better for our Iraqi interpreters

A disturbing story popped up at NBC News this weekend dealing with the men and women who assisted United States forces in Iraq as interpreters. That type of service obviously put them in danger from not only terrorists but some of their own countrymen who were not pleased with the American presence there. Most of these interpreters have been trying to get out of the country and come to the United States to start a new life, but the process has been painfully slow. According to this report, there were only two visas issued in all of 2018 to former interpreters.

The Trump administration has virtually closed the door on Iraqis who worked as interpreters for the American military, issuing only two U.S. visas to former interpreters last year, according to government statistics obtained by NBC News.

The interpreters have faced threats, abductions and attacks for their association with American forces, and hundreds have been killed by militants since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Former interpreter Shaker Jeffrey fled to Germany while awaiting admission to the United States, but he says that even there he has been targeted by the Islamic State group’s militants.

“I am a hunted man,” Jeffrey, who has been waiting for a visa for 10 years, said. “If I return to Iraq, I will be assassinated.”

The backlog of Iraquis who worked with the American military and have applied for visas is reportedly in the tens of thousands. (It’s not clear how many of them were working specifically as interpreters.) But they’re all potentially in danger.

I understand that this isn’t a cut and dried issue. As we’ve learned the hard way in Iraq and particularly in Afghanistan, not all of the people working with American forces are necessarily our friends. Some turn out to be actively undermining us, so careful vetting is required and that takes time. But we’ve been out of Iraq for quite a while now. There should have been time to process a lot more of these applications and surely there were more than two last year who could have made the grade.

Part of this is no doubt an unintended result of the travel bans and limitations placed on several countries, including Iraq. Those new rules were a necessity, but they impose enhanced vetting requirements for anyone seeking to come here. If the rules didn’t include some sort of “head of the line privilege” for those who actively worked with American forces, such a provision should be added in now.

It’s a disheartening story all the way around. For the people who did serve our military in good faith, putting their own lives in significant danger in the process, we owe them more than a thank you and a handshake when we leave the country. For all the stories we’ve encountered regarding bad guys trying to get into our country, it would be nice to balance that out by welcoming in some of the good guys.