Veterans feel betrayed by how we treat our allies
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Veterans Day celebrates the service of U.S. military veterans, service that would be impossible without the support of local civilians who work alongside U.S. soldiers abroad. In the last two decades, as the U.S. has fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, tens of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi nationals have risked their lives and their families’ to aid the work of U.S. troops, diplomats, and humanitarian workers, and advance U.S. foreign policy objectives. But instead of protecting them, the U.S. government has turned its back on these most trusted allies, so much so that even veterans are feeling betrayed.

Congress has long recognized the invaluable service provided by these partners and the risks they face for having publicly aligned themselves with the U.S. In 2008, then-Rep. Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceFeds walk back claim that Capitol rioters sought 'to capture and assassinate' officials Trump tells aides to never mention Nixon after comparisons McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time MORE (R-Ind.) urged his colleagues in Congress to protect these civilians, saying: “there is nothing more important than the United States of America saying to people in Iraq or anywhere in the world, if you stand by us, we will stand by you.”

Congress passed a series of bills creating the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) programs for Afghan and Iraqi nationals whose lives are at risk because of the work they performed in support of U.S. interests. Congress has taken regular action to renew the number of visas available to offer safety through the SIV program.

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Despite Congress’ intent and best efforts, an enormous amount of red tape has plagued the SIV program for years. Unnecessary bureaucracy, egregious processing delays, inadequate staff training, and other failings have prevented thousands of at-risk U.S.-affiliated allies from reaching safety through the SIV program. Analyzing data from the Department of State, just over half of the SIVs authorized by Congress for Fiscal Year 2019 have actually been issued, despite there being over 8,000 pending SIV applications in the backlog. It is high time to fix this problem.

For example, according to a memo analyzing government data obtained through litigation, SIV applicants wait at least two and a half years — and some much longer — for the government to process their cases. Meanwhile, they are still risking their lives and live in hiding to protect themselves and their families.

Some of the delays can also be traced back to human error and the State Department’s confusion about the SIV eligibility requirements. For example, the department previously denied applicants employed by a specific contractor, alleging that their work had not been funded by the U.S. government. It was not until the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) located proof of contracts between this contractor and the U.S. government that the U.S. government allowed those applicants access to the program.

If an applicant finally makes it through the initial stage of the process and subsequent visa interview, there remains another major hurdle where applicants endure extreme delays: interagency security checks. In 2019, IRAP’s ongoing litigation over unreasonable delays in SIV processing revealed that virtually every applicant (98 percent) in the final stage of SIV processing had waited far longer than the statutorily-mandated nine months for a final decision on their SIV application. And that is despite the fact that interpreters and other U.S. affiliated workers undergo high-level security vetting to get the job in the first place.

Executive agencies within the U.S. government must take steps to increase the efficiency of the application process and ensure that all government-controlled steps are completed within the required nine-month adjudication period. Earlier this year, the Office of Inspector General recommended steps to reform the SIV program. We agree that it is long overdue and published a comprehensive report with recommended changes to make the program work for those that need it.

In honor of Veterans Day, let’s reaffirm our commitment to the bipartisan promise to honor our troops and protect our wartime partners overseas. Let’s untangle the red tape around the Special Immigrant Visa Program and fulfill our promise to bring our allies to safety.

Jennifer Patota is a senior supervising attorney at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a non-profit that provides free legal services to refugees and other displaced people. Lt. Col. Walt Cooper, U.S. Army Reserve, served two tours in Iraq as a Special Forces Detachment Commander and is a member of IRAP’s Advisory Board. As a civilian, Walt is the Senior Director for Innovation at Walmart Health.