Is time running out for Iraqis who helped the U.S. military?

Newzad Brifki of Moorhead with his brother-in-law Mohammed Salih.  Salih worked as a security guard for the military in Iraqi Kurdistan and as a result, now faces death threats. Salih asked that his face be obscured to help protect him.

A bill introduced in Congress this week would extend a special visa program for Iraqis who assisted the U.S. military. The program is set to expire on October first.

In 2008, Congress authorized 25,000 visas over five years  for Iraqi nationals who worked for the military. But it’s been reported that only 22 percent of the visas allotted to Iraqis have been issued, according to State Department data.

Thousands of Iraqis are waiting for special visa requests to be processed. A Moorhead family is among those waiting and worrying about family members in Iraqi Kurdistan.

This MPR story from January of 2012, details their efforts to get a visa for a family member who provided security for U.S. soldiers.  After the military left Iraq, Mohammed Salih said he received death threats.

Salih said he spent nearly $10,000 traveling to the U.S. embassy in Ankara, Turkey for required medical exams and to pay bureaucratic fees for paperwork to apply for a special visa.

He never heard from the embassy again.

After the MPR story aired, Salih said he got a call from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. But the caller spoke only Arabic, not Kurdish.  The caller promised to call back with a Kurdish interpreter, but never did.

Salih worried the caller was someone trying to find out where he  lived, in order to kill him. The chain of events can’t be confirmed because the U.S. State Department won’t talk about pending cases.

Salih’s family in Moorhead is trying to kickstart the process.  His brother-in-law Newzad Brifki, who is a U.S. citizen, recently filled out paperwork for a second time and reapplied for the special visa. Limited English language skills make it very difficult for Salih to negotiate the bureaucratic maze.

Brifki also applied for a refugee visa for Salih and his family. Those applications can take years to process.

The other option is an immigrant visa.  Brifki says in order to come to the U.S. on  immigrant visas, the family will need a sponsor willing to help them get started.

Brifki also contacted U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office on behalf of Salih.  He said he sent all the paperwork for the special visa  to the Senators staff  late last year, but has not heard from them since. When I contacted the Senator’s office last December, a spokesperson told me the office was aware of the case, but could not comment because it’s not public information.

A former state department official says one reason the special visa program hasn’t worked well is that some U.S. officials fear terrorists will use it to get in to the country.

Iraqi Kurds argue they are the lowest risk for terrorism, because Kurds have a history of supporting the U.S. government.  Many volunteered to help the military during the war in Iraq.

When I spoke with the Army officer who wrote a letter of support  for Mohammed Salih,  Maj. Peter Colt said he never doubted the loyalty of Salih and other Iraqi Kurds who provided security for the American soldiers.

That raises a couple of questions for which the answers hide behind the walls of bureaucracy. Does the U.S. government distrust the judgement of military officers who vouch for the loyalty of men like Mohammed Salih? Or is the special visa program simply the victim of bureaucratic bungling?

Salih is still living in fear in Iraq.  He’s still hopeful he will get a chance to bring his family to the U.S.  but he’s running out of money, and perhaps time.  If Congress does not extend the special visa program, he will have one less option.