Iraqi Translators Finally Get Visas

Military and embassy employees had been shut out of the U.S.

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A Marine officer talks through an Iraqi interpreter (L), with the manager of a water pump project near Fallujah.

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As many as 2 million Iraqi refugees have fled the violence at home, but the Bush administration has been criticized for allowing very few of them into the United States.

Even Iraqis who had been working for the U.S. military as much-needed translators, and who then found their lives threatened for their work with the Americans, had been largely frozen out.

But for translators at least, the picture is finally beginning to change. In just the past two months, 167 visas have been issued to Iraqi and Afghan translators to come to the United States along with their families, according to a State Department spokesperson. These visas were issued under a new program approved by Congress in June that allows up to 500 visas to be issued this year and in 2008 to Afghan or Iraqi translators who worked for the U.S. military or a U.S. embassy. Family members are eligible to come along with them.

The new program is a response to the heightened risk taken by these translators because of their association with the U.S. government. Many translators in both Iraq and Afghanistan hide their employer's identity from even close relatives for security reasons, and many wear masks when working near their own neighborhoods to avoid being identified. Still, many translators have been threatened, beaten, or murdered after their work was discovered.

To be eligible, translators must have worked for the U.S. government for at least a year. Their application first goes to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office. Once they are approved, translators and their families must travel to a third country, usually Jordan or Syria, for an interview.

Today, an additional 57 translators have been interviewed for visas and are now in the final stages of processing their applications. An additional 122 interviews have been scheduled for other applicants, and nearly 180 other translators have contacted the U.S. government for help in preparing their cases.

Still, these numbers represent a tiny number of the overall refugee population. And despite pledges that the U.S. government would accept as many as 7,000 regular Iraqi refugees, those figures remain very small. As of July 31, only 190 refugees had arrived in the United States.