THE BLOG

The Great Costs of Breaking Our Promises

07/10/2013 03:11 pm ET | Updated Sep 09, 2013

After hearing last Saturday's episode of This American Life about the struggles of Kirk Johnson, founder and Executive Director of The List Project, to have the United States honor its commitments to Iraqis who risked their lives for our troops under the most difficult circumstances, some of the remaining challenges of these conflicts have become even more poignant to me.

No matter what your opinion is of these wars (in the name of full disclosure, I strongly opposed the Iraq War and had grave reservations about Obama's surge in Afghanistan), no one can dispute the U.S. has a very real moral and practical obligation to the people who were truck drivers, interpreters, and guides for our servicemen and woman. Without their assistance, these activities would've been hopelessly more complex and dangerous, if not impossible.

My involvement with this issue began many years ago after being contacted by a Social Studies class and their teacher at a local high school who embraced the cause of a young Afghan woman who had been an interpreter for the U.S at the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom but feared reprisal as a result of her service to our troops. An Oregon National Guardsman who had become acquainted with her, who'd relied on her in battle, was absolutely committed to her safety and was relentless in helping her immigrate to safety here in the United States. Meeting her in person, after many months of navigating endless bureaucracy and seeing that there was almost no means by which others in her situation could escape to the U.S., made the gravity of the situation much less theoretical and much more personal for me.

Shortly thereafter, I introduced the Responsibility to Iraqi Refugees Act of 2007 that would provide a means by which those Iraqis, whose lives were in danger as a result of their service to the U.S., could escape to safety in America. Adopted in the FY2008 National Defense Authorization, and working with the late Senator Ted Kennedy, we were able to create the Iraq Special Immigrant Visa program. The following year, a similar program was created for Afghanistan.

These programs, at least on paper, were to provide that road to safety that was missing. We thought that we now had an answer for these young people, those desperate Iraqis and Afghanis, the Guard and the high school students, about what the U.S. was doing to help those that helped us. While some minimal progress has been made thanks to the SIV programs, they too have been beset with new bureaucratic hurdles, a lack of transparency, endless paperwork.

The SIV programs have always been bipartisan issues, which has made it an even greater honor to work with Senator McCain to include reform and extension language in the Senate immigration reform legislation. In March, a bipartisan group of 19 members of the House, including six veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, sent a letter to President Obama urging him to extend the SIV programs. In June, I offered a bipartisan amendment on the House floor with two of my colleagues that served in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan which reformed the SIV programs. That amendment passed 420 to 3.

In working with colleagues and giving numerous interviews on the importance of the SIV programs and their continued dysfunction, it continues to be shocking just how irresponsible the United States has been with the fate of thousands of people by failing to effectively implement and manage the SIV programs. While some minimal progress has been made by State to improve their management of the SIV programs, the legislation we crafted has been sabotaged by bureaucratic inefficiency, a lack of resources, a lack of commitment, and the sad choice to not prioritize this critical issue. There's no way to put a happy face on this.

Johnson's story of one individual trapped in this bureaucratic hell which ultimately led to his death and decapitation after senseless runarounds made my heart ache, and made me want to scream. One hopes Kirk Johnson's forthcoming book will help us punch through the bureaucratic indifference of the administration, and of Congress, frankly. If Congress truly made this a priority, lives would be saved.

The irony, of course, is that this is not just a moral issue, which ought to be enough to compel action. These brave men and women who put their trust in the United States are left to twist in the bureaucratic winds while being slowly hunted down, terrorized or killed by people in the Middle East with long memories. Worse, their loved ones -- children, siblings, spouse, parents -- often pay the price with their lives as well. Our indifference will have a profound effect on future operations. While I sincerely hope the lessons of Iraq will not have to be repeated to be learned, it's hard to envision a world where American military, diplomats, and aid workers are not going to be relying on foreign nationals to help with future operations around the world.

If it seems that the United States is callous and untrustworthy, it's going to make it harder to recruit the individuals to make our activities successful. Indeed it will be more likely that the people who will work with us are those who are not fully committed to our interests and safety.

The notion that we could not take people in, in whom we entrusted the lives of American soldiers, diplomats and contractors when they could easily have led us into harm's way, is shameful. Why can't we evacuate them to a secure location in Guam or some other country while we complete the bureaucratic process and at least keep them and their families from being hurt, tortured or killed while we dither?

Last week, we celebrated American independence. What if this week we reflect on the interpreters, the guides and others in Iraq and Afghanistan to whom we owe a tremendous debt for keeping our service members safe, and to whom we have an obligation to treat fairly? We should spare no effort to meet our commitments because, after all, these are commitments to ourselves.