Lawmakers Lobby to Bring Iraqi Translators to U.S.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Congress is opening the door to America just a little bit wider for Iraqis who served as translators for the United States. Thousands of Iraqis risked their lives in these jobs. Many have been targeted for death by Iraq's various militias.
And this summer, Congress boosted the number of visas authorized from 50 to 500 per year. Bills in Congress would expand that number up to 5,000 per year. It is fair to say that lives who are at stake here, but these proposals are mired in disputes over money.
NPR's Deborah Amos reports.
DEBORAH AMOS: The story is all too familiar. An Iraqi translator had to flee with his family when he was targeted for death by al-Qaida in Iraq.
NORWAS(ph) (Iraqi translator): They thought and think that the translators are betraying our country are in spies for Americans, and that's why they should be killed…
AMOS: Do you have friends who were killed?
AMOS: Norwas arrived in the U.S. on a special immigrant visa this year. He doesn't want his full name used to protect family members still in Iraq. He says it cost him more than $8,000 to get here and took almost two years to get to U.S. bureaucracy. What is unusual about his experience is he's telling his story on Capitol Hill.
(Soundbite of phone ringing)
Representative STEVE ISRAEL (Democrat, New York): Congressman Steve Israel's office, how may I help you?
AMOS: Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York, has taken up his case. Norwas worked for a former staff member serving in Iraq. Congressman Israel says that's how he learned about the problems with the visa program.
Representative ISRAEL: They told me that this young man who is willing to risk his life, risk his family's life, and we put him through a bureaucratic nightmare. We charged them excessive amounts of money, we made them wait too long, and that's why I decided to personally involve myself.
AMOS: And he has - personally offering help when Norwas and his five-year-old son arrived in his office on Capitol Hill.
Rep. ISRAEL: So you got your green card.
NORWAS: Finally, I got the green card, but I had some mistake in my name so I send it back to Texas.
Rep. ISRAEL: All right. Well, I'll put in a call to make sure that they're on top of it.
AMOS: Israel's involvement includes sponsoring a bill called the Repair Act to correct, he says, some of the problems. For example, the Repair Act provides for processing immigrants in Baghdad rather than in surrounding Arab states; the act also adds relocation benefits - now there are none, and it can cost up to $20,000 to get to the U.S.
Israel wants to get Iraqi assistance here, too. Now there's no agency to help find a job or a place to live. Once Iraqi translators arrive in the U.S., they're on their own. And that's the story that Norwas tells to members of Congress.
Rep. ISRAEL: Norwas has been one of the most effective lobbyists that I've ever seen in Washington, and he's not even registered as a lobbyist.
AMOS: Congressman Israel invited Norwas to a Washington dinner, which convinced others in Congress to support his bill.
Rep. ISRAEL: Not because of anything I said, but just listening to his story and understanding and recognizing the blatant injustice of it all.
AMOS: And Steve Israel is trying to get more support, first, on the elevator on the way to Capitol Hill.
Rep. ISRAEL: This is Congressman Randy Neugebauer from Texas.
Representative RANDY NEUGEBAUER (Republican, Texas): How are you doing?
NORWAS: Good morning, sir. (Unintelligible).
Rep. ISRAEL: This is Norwas who assisted our troops in Iraq. He was a translator…
Rep. NEUGEBAUER: Good.
Rep. ISRAEL: …for our military, and I have bill and - that I'm going to send over to you. If you could a take a look it, that would be great.
AMOS: Then on the sidewalk as Congress members are called for a vote.
Rep. ISRAEL: This is Norwas. This is Congressman John Kulh.
NORWAS: Nice to meet you.
Representative JOHN KULH (Republican, New York): (Unintelligible) I want to get pronunciation right. So glad you're here.
Rep. KULH: It's a very risky business.
Rep. ISRAEL: We have not been as quite as helpful as he was to us. He'll tell you his story about, you know, battling this bureaucracy, being…
AMOS: But despite Israel's efforts, the Repair Act and other legislation to expand the program for Iraqi translators has bogged down. There is strong opposition from the State Department; in Congress, there's opposition to more spending.
But Jana Mason with the International Rescue Committee says these new arrivals, they need help.
Ms. JANA MASON (Director, International Rescue Committee): I think the proof is in what we're actually seeing here on the ground. The fact that we're getting many calls saying I have a friend, I have a relative, I know someone who was recently admitted under this status and now is basically destitute.
AMOS: And the State Department's opposition: In a position paper sent to Congress, the administration's stand is this, new bills add additional costs and a refugee program is already in place with the United Nations - a position that makes Steve Israel fight all the harder for his bill.
Rep. ISRAEL: I'm shocked by the State Department's opposition. You know, we need translators in Iraq, and, frankly, what message are we sending potential translators that when you risk your life, we're not going to help you come to the United States. The State Department is being penny-wise and pound-foolish in this.
AMOS: As for Norwas…
Rep. ISRAEL: I have some very good news for you. At 1:15, you're going to go to the Social Security Administration and you're going to get your Social Security number. Okay?
NORWAS: Just like this.
(Soundbite of snapping)
AMOS: He has a United States congressman to help him resettle in this country.
Deborah Amos, NPR News.
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