WASHINGTON -- A measure to provide special visas for Iraqis who risked their lives to help the United States is heading to President Barack Obama.
In a rare instance of bipartisanship, the Senate passed the measure by voice vote Thursday, just hours after the House had approved the bill the same way.
The special visa has allowed more than 12,000 Iraqi contractors, interpreters and others who aided U.S. efforts, and their family members, to move to the United States since 2007. It expired earlier this week, with an estimated 2,000 applications still in the bureaucratic process.
"Extending the Iraq Special Immigrant Visa Program will help those who helped us during a time of war," Sens. John McCain, a Republican, and Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, said in a joint statement. "Brave Iraqis who risked their lives to protect and assist American troops are now living under the threat of retribution from terrorists and militants as a result. The United States has a moral obligation to help those Iraqis who stood with our troops."
The program was created during the worst years of the Iraq war, with Iraqis who helped U.S. forces facing targeted killings, death threats and other forms of harassment. The goal was to resettle them in the United States faster than the often protracted general refugee process might allow. More than 90,000 Iraqis have moved to the U.S. as refugees, though the process can take months or years.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat, said many translators and guides ignored their own safety to help U.S. soldiers.
"By all accounts, thousands of these people performed critical tasks faithfully, if not flawlessly," he said in a statement. "We made an implicit promise to protect them when the American presence was scaled down, and they risked their lives to help us. Now, many are threatened on a daily basis by enemies of the United States with very long memories. We need to fulfill our promise to get them out of harm's way."