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January 12, 2017

This American Life Episode Captures Anxiety, Frustration over Hamstrung SIV Program

By Joe Jenkins

When you think about how the United States engages in modern warfare, you probably think of vast carrier fleets, thundering tank battalions, hi-tech stealth aircraft, or elite special forces units. But ask any military commander and they might tell you about another component—one vital to our missions abroad, but often glossed over by policymakers: the foreign nationals that come to serve alongside U.S. forces.

They’re the interpreters, translators, intelligence gatherers, maintenance workers, or even truck drivers found anywhere the U.S. military operates overseas. They’re a group that VFAI leader Colonel Steve Miska calls “soft networks,” and we can’t complete our work without them. So the U.S. response in protecting and honoring these partnerships, especially when these allies are in direct danger due to their involvement with U.S. forces, is particularly frustrating to veteran service members.

This week’s episode of This American Life takes an in-depth look at the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program created to protect these wartime allies and the political and bureaucratic difficulties that have made it fall woefully short of its intended goal. This American Life’s Ira Glass interviews Congressman Seth Moulton (D-MA), a former Marine infantry officer with deployments to Iraq, about the SIV program:

“We're still fighting… And you know, I wouldn't be here today, Ira, without my translators. They risked their lives to keep me and my Marines safe,” said Moulton. The Congressman is one of the lucky few service members who was able to get his interpreter, Mohammed, out of the combat zone and safely into the United States. As a Marine officer and close friend of Mohammed, Moulton is painfully aware of how slowness in the visa process can be anxiety-inducing for both our allies in the field and the U.S. service members who grow close to them.

“[Mohammad’s] family said it's a death sentence… They had to pick up and move their family to a new city because of the threats they received due to Mohammed's work with me.” Now, as a Congressman, Moulton gets to see the issue from another perspective. He sits on the House Armed Services Committee, one of the legislative bodies in charge of the SIV program. The committee recently pushed forward a bill containing only 1,500 additional visas for eligible Afghan allies.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” the Moulton offered Glass, optimistically. But it’s nowhere near enough, considering there’s a backlog of over 13,000 individuals waiting to be processed. For the allies who languish in the visa process, like Iraqi interpreter Sarah (nicknamed “the Lion” for her ability to fearlessly navigate the dangerous streets of Mosul as an intelligence-gatherer), serving with U.S. forces might mean a life stuck in limbo, unable to stay in their home country yet unable to escape to America. Sara’s SIV was denied for security reasons, even against the pleas of the U.S. troops who served with her.

Ira Glass eventually addresses the elephant in the room: how could U.S. policy be so resoundingly deaf to the advice of our military? “It’s just anti-immigrant sentiment . . . there’s a lot of fear out there among my colleagues right now,” says Congressman Moulton. “[Lawmakers] are afraid that if they stand up for a program like this, it’ll be used against them in some future election. “

An ex-USAID worker, Kirk Johnson, who fought to get visas for Iraqis that worked for his development projects, joins Moulton's argument. “Can we at least have one shade of nuance and understanding that not every Muslim is trying to kill us and that for years—for a decade—people risked their lives to try to help us?”

If a Marine vet-turned-Congressman and a federal aid worker weren’t convincing enough, Ira Glass closes the program on a the more practical advice of Colonel Richard Welch, an Army officer that spent seven years in Iraq working with Iraqi allies.When ISIS came back to Iraq, I was asked if I would go back to try to work with the tribes again—Sunni tribes—to get them to fight ISIS …And I said, well, what are we going to ask them to fight for? Are they going to fight for us, who walked away from them the first time? They've lost faith in our ability to stand with them, and that's what happens. We leave a legacy of not being trustworthy.”

You can listen to the full This American Life episode here, and if you’d like to let Congress know that you stand with our military and their wartime allies, be sure to sign here!