Congress Needs to Act Now to Save Lives | Commentary

Posted October 14, 2014 at 3:38pm

As war again rages in the Middle East and the public’s attention pivots to the U.S.-led battle against the Islamic State terrorist group, it is critical this nation remembers to keep faith with those who risked their lives alongside us in the war on terror: our Afghan and Iraqi allies.

Tens of thousands Afghans and Iraqis bravely fought alongside American forces, despite tremendous personal costs, and are now persecuted because of their U.S. affiliation.

In 2006, Congress created the Special Immigrant Visa program for interpreters and other allies who helped the U.S. missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. With the implicit promise of U.S. visas under the SIV program, more than 6,000 of our allies remain ensnarled in bureaucratic red tape with their lives in perpetual danger from terrorist groups who know they served alongside American troops.

While Congress showed rare bipartisanship before the recess by granting an additional 1,000 visas to the already allocated 3,000 annual visas, the system continues to face numerous challenges and remains complicated, requiring extensive paperwork, interagency coordination and thorough background checks.

One group, the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, has been instrumental in helping our forgotten allies navigate the complex rules and processes of the international resettlement system. By pairing law students with supervising attorneys, IRAP provides comprehensive legal aid to Afghan and Iraqi refugees seeking resettlement and helps to cut through the bureaucratic red tape. In a commendable showing of its commitment to corporate philanthropy, Google has paired with IRAP to match 100 percent of the donations IRAP receives over coming days.

While IRAP and Google have stepped up to fight for those who fought with us, Congress must allocate more visas. Thanks to Congress’ bipartisan championing of the SIV program, the State Department and other agencies have improved the programs greatly, but they’re nearly out of visas now. Only Congress can ensure the programs keep improving by allocating additional visas, preventing the SIV programs from shutting down. Our allies must know that when we ask them to fight alongside of us, bleed with us and put their lives and families in danger, America will have their back.

Our credibility on this issue matters. If we do not come through for our allies and deliver on the SIV programs, we will imperil our reputation abroad, jeopardize the safety of our allies, and ultimately hurt our own national security interests. If we cannot be trusted to honor our commitments to those who help us, how can we expect others to help us in the future?

Congress has proved that this issue is beyond partisanship, but it must act now. Waiting to allocate additional visas until after the midterm elections will undoubtedly lead to the slaughter of more of our allies and will be a stain on our nation’s honor. Failure to keep the SIV programs running, and continue to improve upon them, means that we are deserting our allies and leaving them to die.

While we have a moral obligation to reform the SIV program and provide safe passage to the U.S. to our Afghan and Iraqi allies, doing the right thing is also sound national security policy. Our allies must know that America can be trusted to keep its promises, and a Congress that has been marred by gridlock and incompetence has the opportunity and obligation to save lives.

Derrik Gay is a former intelligence officer in the Marine Corps, an Iraq vet and a JD/MBA student at Northwestern University. He is also a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council.