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Originally published August 5, 2011 at 3:18 PM | Page modified August 16, 2011 at 5:59 PM

Guest columnist

The U.S. government must not forget Iraqi allies who assisted forces

Guest columnist Yurij Rudensky argues the U.S. government must fulfill its promises to Iraqis who assisted American soldiers during the war in Iraq. Too few special immigrant visas have been issued to bring these allies out of harm's way.

Special to The Times

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The United States owes the brave Iraqis who worked and bled alongside American soldiers. Shying away from our responsibilities should not be an option. Even now, the American effort depends on Iraqi translators, security guards, cultural guides and other vital personnel.

In return for their service, U.S. officials assured them protection including, for some, resettlement on American soil. In 2007, Congress passed legislation creating 25,000 Special Immigrant Visas for this very purpose. So far, a woefully insubstantial number has been issued.

As we withdraw U.S. troops, Iraqis who were previously afforded American protection are being laid off and left to fend for themselves. Taking advantage of instability and the diminished U.S. military presence, armed militia groups and terrorist organizations are hunting down Iraqis who worked for coalition forces.

Homes and businesses have been destroyed; children have been forced to withdraw from school. Most tragically, workers and their families have been punished with kidnapping, torture and death.

To qualify for these visas established by The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, applicants must prove that they worked directly for Americans and that they are under direct threat as a result.

Yet four years into the five-year program, fewer than 7,000 visas have been issued. From January to April, more than 1,600 Iraqi families should have been admitted, but only 154 were. With some reports estimating 150,000 eligible Iraqis, the shortfall cannot be attributed to a lack of need.

Issues with implementation have frustrated the good intentions underlying the legislation. The program has not been adequately publicized. The process of applying for a Special Immigrant Visa is Byzantine and the requirements are hard to fulfill: the first step involves sending an email, effectively requiring computer and Internet access, which are scarce resources in a war-torn country. Administrative complexities can be expected in any immigration proceeding. But now, Washington's reluctance to act threatens the lives of thousands.

Resources are available to help deserving Iraqis reach safety in the United States. The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, for which I volunteer, was formed specifically to address this need. And right now, the project's advocates do not know what to tell their clients. Applications have been put on hold indefinitely. People who have satisfied all known requirements are left in the dark: Their claims are neither accepted nor denied.

"Noura," a woman who served as a translator for the U.S. Army in Baghdad, is a good example. After receiving multiple death threats, she fled to Syria with her family. Assisted by volunteer advocates, she submitted an application for a visa. Nearly a year has passed without a definitive answer.

She fears for her life and does not know what will happen to her and her family. Diagnosed with breast cancer and potentially facing deportation from Syria, Noura is losing the strength to press on. Although her attorney thinks she is an ideal candidate for a Special Immigrant Visa, Noura received a generic letter of denial citing "additional administrative processing" a couple of months ago. Attempts to clarify the situation so that perceived deficiencies can be resolved have gone unanswered. There are thousands of others in equally dire predicaments.

Getting a Special Immigrant Visa does not need to be easy or fast. It does need to be possible.

When applications are stalled arbitrarily and indefinitely, loyal Iraqis suffer. Additional barriers for those qualified for such a visa will not make our country safer. They will further penalize qualified applicants who have proved their allegiance.

We relied on thousands of Iraqis to help keep Americans safe during combat and reconstruction. Failing to live up to our promise to them will only harm our reputation there and throughout the Arab world, making those we need most justifiably reluctant to come to our aid.

Yurij Rudensky is a second-year law student and a co-founder of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project chapter at the University of Washington.

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