Iraqi visa program expanded

The U.S. Embassy on Thursday launched an expanded immigration program that provides 5,000 more visas each year for Iraqis who have put themselves at risk by working for the U.S.

The new guidelines represent a tenfold increase in the number of visas and extend the applicable categories beyond an existing program for interpreters to include all Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. government, the military or related contractors and subcontractors.

The Bush administration has been criticized by advocacy groups and lawmakers for how it has dealt with Iraqi employees who have frequently been targeted by anti-U.S. insurgents seeking to derail U.S. efforts to stabilize the country.

Richard Albright, the embassy's senior coordinator for refugee issues, called the new program “a significant step toward fulfilling our obligation of providing safehaven for those brave Iraqi citizens who risked their lives in order to serve the United States and a free Iraq.”

“It is a response to the view that we have special obligations to Iraqis who have been employed by us,” he added at a news conference outlining the program.

The special immigrant visa program applies to all Iraqis who have “worked for or on behalf of the United States government for at least 12 months” since the U.S.-led invasion on March 20, 2003.

Applicants must prove they served the U.S. and have experienced serious threat as a result. Their spouses and unmarried minor children also can receive visas, in addition to the 5,000 to be provided annually for five years, Albright said.