Keeping America’s Promises
Photo courtesy of Becca Heller
During the Iraq war, the U.S. military relied heavily on local interpreters who risked their lives standing shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops. This mission-critical cooperation made the interpreters and their families targets for extreme anti-American violence during and after the conflict.
By one estimate, roughly 1,000 interpreters have been killed in Iraq to date. Many who’ve survived are in hiding. Others, unable to return home, are refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, often living in poverty and despair. They are desperate to immigrate to the West. In exchange for their services, promises were made to them. Yet their freedom is blocked by bureaucracy.
The promises were meant to be kept: Congress passed the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act in 2008—allotting 25,000 Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) over five years. The legislation was intended to expedite immigration for Iraqis who worked with U.S. forces. But it wasn’t working.
Becca Heller, director and co-founder of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and 2010 Echoing Green Fellow, saw that bureaucracy was strangling the application process. Only about 8,000 visas have been issued, less than a third of those earmarked. Some of these men and women, whose dangerous work saved American lives, have died waiting.
“Losing clients is the most challenging aspect of my job,” says Becca. “The process of applying for a SIV is,” she says, “prohibitively complicated, bureaucratic and opaque.”
Under Becca’s leadership, IRAP has essentially transformed the process for many SIV applicants. It’s now possible, for instance, for SIV applicants to have legal representation during their interviews. Sounds simple, but it wasn’t allowed until IRAP won the concession. It makes a difference.
“Extending a hand to refugees gives Iraqi and other Middle Eastern people a more favorable view of the U.S.,” says Becca. “And it shows commitment to peace and stability in the region.”
Becca knows the region well. Her first encounter with Iraqi refugees seeking asylum came during a humanitarian trip to Jordan in 2008, when she was in her first year at Yale Law School. Listening to their stories, it was quickly apparent that what the refugees needed most was legal assistance. With a handful of fellow Yale Law students, Becca founded IRAP to provide pro-bono legal assistance and policy advocacy on behalf of Iraqi refugees seeking resettlement.
In five years, IRAP has successfully resettled more than 1,500 refugees. Now with a growing network of hundreds of volunteer students from 22 law schools and supervising attorneys from 50 private law firms, IRAP is expanding its caseload beyond Iraq and into Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia. With more volunteers and staff on the ground, IRAP is able to assist other vulnerable groups of refugees, including LGBT refugees and women at risk for domestic violence or sexual trafficking.
On the advocacy front, Becca was instrumental in convincing lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to pass the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which expands and extends the 2008 SIV program until September 2015. But IRAP still has a lot of bureaucratic terrain to navigate.
With the looming withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, thousands of Afghans who have served as military interpreters are now caught in a dangerous limbo similar to that of their Iraqi counterparts. IRAP will increase its operations both in country and in Congress.
Congress has authorized 8,750 visas for Afghan interpreters, but only 1,982 have been issued. “The process is broken,” says Becca. The same bureaucratic slog that blocked our Iraqi allies from their rightful asylum also threatens to endanger loyal U.S. allies in Afghanistan. Many allies awaiting SIVs in Afghanistan—some who have worked with the U.S. for a decade—fear that their time for receiving a visa has run out.
“We can’t say we don’t owe them anything,” said Becca, referring to both Iraqi and Afghan allies. “They deserve a fair shot.” What’s good policy in humanitarian terms is also good for U.S. foreign policy. “Failing to keep our promises puts lives at further risk and hurts U.S. credibility around the world.” In other words, IRAP, in doing good, is also helping the U.S. do well.
Becca Heller, J.D., Yale Law School, 2010; B.A., Dartmouth College, 2005, has received numerous awards in recognition of her work with IRAP, including an Echoing Green Fellowship, a Skadden Fellowship, a Gruber Human Rights Fellowship, and a Dartmouth College Martin Luther King Jr. Emerging Leader in Social Justice Award. She was named one of Christian Science Monitor’s “30 under 30″ change makers, and is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.