Untitled Essay, Ting Ting Cheng

According to the U.S. State Department and Defense Department records, there are roughly 118,000 Iraqis currently employed under the U.S. government in Iraq. One of the most dangerous civilian jobs is working as an Arabic translator for the U.S. and many Iraqi translators have been killed for their involvement with the U.S. cause. 1 Although the total number of victims is unknown, the deaths account for 40% of over 300 death claims filed by private contractors with the U.S. Labor Department. 2 This paper examines the special protection needs of Iraqi translators employed by the U.S. government, and will show that the current law addressing this issue, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006 § 1056, fails to provide adequate protection for this important population. The insufficiencies of the current system, suggest that the immigration process for Iraqi translators needs to be streamlined and the quota lifted.

As sectarian violence mounts in Iraq with millions fleeing or displaced, Iraqi translators are a particularly vulnerable group in need of U.S. protection. 3 From early in the occupation, they have been regarded as collaborators and, as such, are targets of insurgent groups. The Ba'athist party launched an open campaign against Iraqi translators employed by the U.S. government, portraying them as "traitors" and "thugs" who are even worse than the Americans. 4 For fear of jeopardizing the safety of their families, translators often leave their homes and towns under the guise of temporary employment elsewhere to mask the nature of their employment from the community. Nevertheless, translators are systematically targeted, ambushed, and gunned down by the insurgents as punishment for their perceived collaboration and as a warning to others who might consider such work. 5 The U.S. has failed to provide adequate protection for these Iraqi translators who must now flee their country for fear of death and persecution.

There is a mounting Iraqi refugee crisis with about 2,000 Iraqis fleeing the country every day. To date, more than two million Iraqi refugees have fled persecution and violence in Iraq, mostly to Jordan (750,000) and Syria (1 million), though an additional two million are displaced within Iraq. Life as a refugee is harrowing. Although Syria has an open door policy for these refugees, they are not allowed to work and face extreme poverty as refugees. Jordan, in contrast, turns away or deports most asylum seekers fleeing from Iraq. 6 The situation is only a little better in the U.S., which in 2007 accepted only 190 Iraqi refugees and previously accepted fewer than 100 of the refugees who fled since 2003 7.

Many U.S. government officials regard the anti-Iraqi sentiment that followed in the wake of September 11th and the war on terror as an obstacle for granting asylum to Iraqi translators. However, many officials recognize the need to provide special protection for translators and do not believe they pose a terrorist threat – after all they were employees of the U.S. government and have already been "vetted" by the U.S 8. Providing special protection for Iraqi translators is regarded as a moral obligation by many in the administration and military, as retired General Paul Eaton asserts, "[a]nybody who threw their lot in with the Americans deserves an opportunity for a future." 9 An efficient and streamlined asylum review process for translators would facilitate the government's desire to provide protection for these former employees of the state.

Moreover, the U.S. remains dependent on Iraqi translators, the continued recruitment of whom would be facilitated by assurances of protection. Granting asylum to former translators enhances the legitimacy of the U.S. with current and potential translators in Iraq. The sacrifices made and risks taken by Iraqi translators are great, and for these men and women to continue providing their services to the U.S. government, they must be assured that loyalties run both ways. In not affording special protection for translators, the U.S. is sending a strong signal to current and prospective employees that their safety is of little concern to the U.S.

Despite being dependent on Iraqi translators since the start of the conflict in 2003, the U.S. government has only recently begun to address concerns about providing asylum for these translators. In 2006, Section 1059 of the National Defense Authorization Act (§1059) was issued to provide up to 50 Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) for Iraqi and Afghan translators/interpreters working for the U.S. military. In June of 2007, the Act was amended to increase the total number of possible SIV recipients to 500 for fiscal years 2007 and 2008, though the number of SIVs granted reverts to 50 in subsequent years. An Iraqi or Afghan national may apply for an SIV if he has worked as a translator for at least 12 months directly with the U.S. Armed Forces or under Chief of Mission authority. The applicant must obtain a favorable written recommendation from an officer in the chain of command of the U.S. military or Embassy where employed and must have cleared a background check and screening. 10 Afghan and Iraqi translators who have been paroled into the U.S. under §1059 are eligible for resettlement benefits and may apply to become lawful permanent residents. While §1059 is a start in providing protection for Iraqi translators, it is woefully inadequate in its current form. This executive order fails to provide adequate protection for the majority of translators by involving an overly burdensome application process and severely limiting the number of successful applicants.

Section 1059 makes it hard for a translator to successfully seek asylum in the U.S. by involving a complicated application process and rigid criteria that drastically limits the pool of eligible applicants. The application process presents an undue burden on the translator applicant with a $375 fee and the requirement of traveling to Jordan or Syria for an interview. Even if the applicant is able to afford the travel expense, there is no guarantee that an Iraqi translator will be allowed to cross the border into Jordan or Syria, 11 since both Jordan and Syria have closed their borders periodically to refugees and neither state has signed the 1951 Refugee Convention or its Protocol. 12 Under the current system, those eligible to endure the hardship of the SIV application process can be considered lucky, since the requirement of 12 months continuous employment means that the majority of Iraqi translators are not eligible for an SIV in the first place. This doesn't stop them from trying though, as seen in the U.K., where more than 50% of translators applying for special visas have been rejected since they had not served for at least 12 continuous months. 13

Even though the current process for seeking asylum in the U.S. eliminates many candidates with rigid eligibility criteria and a taxing application process, the number of visas set by §1056 is still inadequate. Since 2003, the U.S. government has employed over 7,000 Iraqi translators, and, to date, the U.S. has granted asylum to fewer than 300 Iraqis. Limiting SIVs to quotas of 50 and 500 is arbitrary and does not sufficiently address the number of Iraqi petitioners in need, let alone the number of Iraq and Afghan petitioners. The insufficiency of current quotas became apparent, when, in response to overwhelming interest, the State Department stopped processing SIV applications in February 2008. Thus far, the U.S. government has offered neither rationale for the SIV quotas nor justification for imposing a quota on the number of asylum seekers from a population that risks their lives to aid the U.S. government. Given the general policy underlying §1056, and absent governmental justification, the arbitrary quota imposed should be lifted.

In conclusion, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006 §1056 fails to provide adequate protection for Iraqi translators seeking asylum in the U.S. For the aforementioned reasons, the immigration process available is overly burdensome, the eligibility criteria restrictive, failing to meet the needs of an especially vulnerable group.


1. See Translators Dying by the Dozens in Iraq, Associated Press, 5/12/2005 http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2005-05-21-translator-deaths_x.htm

2. According to L-3, the contractor that hires them for the US military, see Iraqi Refugee Crisis- An Overview, Human Rights First, available at http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/asylum/asylum_13_iraqi_refugees.asp

3. Translator was Given Asylum by Tribunal, The Guardian, August 9, 2007, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/aug/09/iraq.immigration

4. Betrayed The Iraqis Who Trusted American the Most, George Packer, 3/26/2007, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/03/26/070326fa_fact_packer?currentPage=all

5. A Face and a Name- Civilian Victims of Insurgent Groups in Iraq, Human Rights Watch Report, October, 2005 Vol 17 No.9 (E), http://www.hrw.org/reports/2005/iraq1005/5.htm#_Toc115497722

6. Left Behind, Scott Pelley, 60 Minutes, 8/26/07, available at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/03/09/60minutes/main2554125_page3.shtml

7. See Human Rights First, supra note 2.

8. See Pelley, supra note 6 (statements of Julia Taft, former Assistant Secretary of State, under Ford, worked on the resettlement of over 131,000 South Vietnamese in the U.S.)

9. Id.

10. See Form I-360 "Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant"

11. Asylum Program Falls Short For Iraqis Aiding U.S. Forces, Walter Pincus, Washington Post, 1/22/2008, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/21/AR2008012102170_pf.html

12. See Human Rights First, supra note 2.

13. Iraqi interpreters seeking asylum in Britain will be refused entry until 2009, The Times, Deborah Haynes and Michael Evans, 12/13/2007, available at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/iraq/article3042949.ece