Taking Care of the Fixers

The U.S. should issue more special visas for Iraqi and Afghan ‘fixers’ who helped our soldiers and Marines.

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In this Monday, Aug. 29, 2011 photo, a U.S. Army captain from the 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment from Ford Hood, Texas, left, and a translator talk with an Iraqi Army soldier while delivering toys and water to residents in the village of Bani Hashem, Iraq. The soldiers, based out of COS Garry Owen in Maysan province, are part of efforts by the U.S. military to battle Shiite insurgents who have attacked American forces.

With Congress behaving as it is, it may be tempting for the casual observer to assume that lawmakers not only don't know how to get along with each other, but aren't very good at nurturing the friends we have left. There is a tiny exception to this new rule that offers some hope: In the midst of its dysfunctional shenanigans of the last few months, Congress managed to extend a critical program to provide visas to Afghan and Iraqi locals who helped American troops and civilians with translation.

Such jobs are double-edged swords for locals in war zones, who might translate or "fix" (help Americans or other foreigners know where to go and how to get there safely) for military or aid workers or journalists. At a time of strife and economic meltdown that comes with war, it's a good-paying job. The problem is, in some areas, translators and fixers pay with their lives.

Those who translated for American troops have received death threats against themselves and the families – a way foes have of discouraging fellow compatriots to help Americans and others who so desperately need to do their jobs well and safely. There is simply no other way to reward and protect these workers other than to offer them a place to live among the people for whose lives they risked their own. And Congress – finally – extended for 90 days the visa program to allow such foreign-born American patriots the opportunity to live here.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

But the program is still in need of work. Supporters thought there would be many more visas issued by now. But the Special Immigrant Visa program has offered help to only a fraction of the number of people who have earned the right to live in safety. The paperwork is onerous, and applicants are understandably afraid of even making the trip to U.S. embassies to apply. According to a powerful account by Dakota Meyer and Bing Kemp in the Washington Post:

What's happening is a failure to keep faith with those who fought beside us. The State Department has defied Congress by denying visas to thousands of interpreters who, like [Afghan interpreter] Fazel, fight alongside our soldiers. Congress has authorized 1,500 visas per year for Afghans who have assisted us; the State Department annually approves about 200. In a letter to President Obama, more than a dozen members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, complained that in the past five years, State has issued only 12 percent of the available visas. An analogous program for Iraq has been similarly stalemated.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the government shutdown.]

Once the applications are approved abroad, they must be reviewed and approved stateside by people who have no real incentive to grant an opportunity to live here (and have every reason to deny someone a visa, given worries about insurgencies). That leaves the brave translators with little redress or hope if someone in Washington decides they're just not a good visa risk.

Foreign translators are veterans, too, and they face a special danger American vets don't. Afghan and Iraqi translators can never go home – or at least, they cannot go home safely. When they made the decision to risk their own lives for the United States, they took on the commitment of an American soldier or foreign service officer. They should be treated as such.