On June 3, 2008, the President signed a new law authorizing the Department of State to raise the number special immigrant visas (SIVs) to Iraqi and Afgan translators and interpreters, allowing handlers to exceed the 500 visas earlier allotted. Applicants may also qualify for resettlement benefits. For more information, see the Dept of State webpage for special visas.
This is good news, as the earlier restrictions of 50 such visas per year barely addressed the problem. Under the Kennedy-Lugar legislation passed in August 2007, that number was increased to 500, but was still woefully inadequate. While the number of Iraqis and Afgans employed as translators and interpreters is difficult to estimate, some suggest that over 20,000 have served in such a capacity. In 2007, according to the Dept. of Defense, 5,490 Iraqis worked as interpreters for the coalition forces alone.
Those working as translators and interpreters face numerous threats, including assasination, death threats to their families, bombardment of their homes, kidnappings, beatings, and various forms of social and psychological abuse. Some estimate that up to 300 translators have been killed. Despite such conditions, many continue to work, demonstrating a high degree of loyalty and dedication.
The Kennedy-Lugar legislation helps, as does this recent expansion of the program. But many problems remain, including the complicated bureaucracy surrounding the program, making it difficult for applicants to figure out the process. Frustration with the Bush administration, including the Office of Homeland Security and the Department of State, continues for not doing more to make the process easier. Some of the bureaucratic hurdles are outlined in a May 14, 2008 NTTimes article titled “Offices Battle Hurdles for Iraq Aides.”
At UMass Amherst, we have some experience with the visa process, as two of our Iraqi students, graduates of our MA in Translation Studies Program, have been granted special visas. One of the bureaucratic hurdles includes a mandatory letter of recommendation from a general rather than the translator’s commanding officer or direct employer. Senator Kennedy’s office has been very helpful, as have administrators in the UMass Graduate School, including John Mullin, Dean of the UMass Graduate School.
Successful applications invariably require a network of support. Over 2,000 translators have applied for such status already, and the numbers are growing. It is difficult for many of our brave officers abroad to leave such loyal employees behind, but the bureaucracy is intimidating.
For me, as an educator, I find it very difficult to spend several years working with students, helping them develop their linguistic and cultural skills, build their repertoire of translation documents, improve their technological abilities, and prepare for a professional career, only to send them back to Iraq and put their lives and those of their relatives in jeopardy. The Iraqi and Afgan translators and interpreters serving our troops have demonstrated great degrees of loyalty and patriotism, and deserve better.