Editorial: Ready for some good news out of Washington?
Here’s what happened in Washington last week: Democrats and Republicans put their differences aside. They agreed that America’s promises must be kept. They voted for legislation that repays an enormous debt and may just save some lives in the process. They sent it to the president, who was expected to sign it, and life in the capital went on.
Nope, not April Fools.
Amid the preposterous drama being played out over the budget, the Affordable Care Act and (soon!) the debt ceiling, federal lawmakers paused momentarily from their tiresome theatrics and actually did something good.
At issue was legislation to aid Iraqi civilians, mostly translators, who worked for the U.S. government during the Iraq war. The war, if not the violence, is over, but still the United States has not kept its word to thousands of Iraqis who were promised safe passage to this country in exchange for their life-threatening work on America’s behalf.
That work was complete years ago, but the threat remains.
That’s why the United States set up a special visa program for the translators and others. But because the processing of such visas turned out to be maddeningly slow, only about 20 percent of the 25,000 visas authorized under the program five years ago have been given out so far. Some translators report waiting months and even up to two years for an initial visa interview.
The program was set to expire Sept. 30. In fact, briefly, it did, creating panic in Baghdad and beyond. Terrorists and militants continue to target those who aided the United States, and the U.S. lifeboat seemed to be floating even farther out of reach. Without congressional action, application processing for 2,000 Iraqis already in the pipeline would halt.
But a few days later, thanks largely to the efforts of New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Arizona Sen. John McCain, the program was extended through the end of the year.
“We have a moral obligation to stand with Iraqis who stood with us during a time of war,” Shaheen said. “We are demonstrating that we will not abandon our Iraqi partners.”
As anyone who has been tuned into the budget shenanigans over the past few days can appreciate, the legislative maneuvering required to get the Iraqi translator legislation to President Obama’s desk was complicated and obscure. It got tangled in unrelated debates. Legislators with multi-faceted agendas had to be cajoled and convinced.
It’s quite possible that a three-month extension will not be enough, and the issue will need to be revisited. Shaheen and McCain’s original proposal would have extended the program for a year. Additionally, lawmakers will face a similar decision with civilian assistants from Afghanistan; a similar visa program for them runs out next year, and fear of retribution from the Taliban is real. For the Afghans, Shaheen and McCain have proposed extending the program through 2018, increasing the annual allotment of visas and making eligible those translators hired by NATO rather than directly by the United States.
Shaheen and McCain want the United States to keep its word to its allies, an important signal not just to the Iraqi and Afghan translators but to the entire world.
Passage of the assistance for Iraqi translators got nearly no attention last week amid the rancor. But it is nonetheless proof that once in a great while our elected officials can actually do the right thing.