This is the second installment of a multi-part series, in Razul’s own words, as told to Erin O’Hare. If you missed the first part, you can read it here.
In the next installment of his resettlement story, Tony Razul, a former translator for the United States Army and allied troops in Iraq, lays out just how tedious and frustrating it can be to apply for a Special Immigrant Visa. The SIV program for Iraqis, established in 2006, failed miserably in its original form, Razul explains, and even though Congress overhauled it a couple years later and added a program for Afghans, those applying for SIVs come up against many layers of red tape that almost never lead to a straight, or even meandering, path away from a dangerous situation.
But time is of the essence in the intelligence business, Razul emphasizes. It can make or break a war, and it can make or take a life.
Here, Razul’s story picks up in Karkush, where he volunteered to go after extremists killed all of the translators helping the U.S. and allied troops stationed there.
This article was lightly edited for clarity.
The U.S. troops in Karkush called for more translators, and I was like, “I keep sending you translators, do you see?” And they were like, “Yeah, as soon as they arrive, they get killed. So we need translators.” And I said, “What if I come over, at least just to help?” And they were like, “We’ll provide the helicopter for you, you don’t need to ride a car or anything. We’ll get the helo in the Green Zone and then you get on the helo.”
In Karkush, they had a bunch of U.S. units training the new Iraqi officers’ academy. And they had other units — the striker units, the intelligence units and everything else. My job was a float, so I could cover as much as possible, because they have stacks and stacks of information that needed to be analyzed and translated and nobody there [to do it].
There were a couple translators, who happened to be locals, here and there, but they were not really dependable because their language is not as strong, they don’t have the ability to collect information and analyze and filter it. They’re not really that experienced.
The U.S. company needed some pro to come over and save them time and effort because, in the intelligence business, time is everything. The information would have zero value if you know about it six months later. You need to know, you need to have your soldiers ready for action right away and you need to have your information beforehand so you can brief your soldiers. What’s in there, what’s not, who do you have to go there and talk to? Who do we need to arrest? Who do we need to release? What kind of questions we need? All that information needed to be analyzed and ready before the mission launch, not afterwards.
That’s critical timing. That’s the basics of intelligence. And if you don’t have that person, or you don’t have that savvy person that can read really quick, analyze and write the report and give it to the commander — if you don’t have that person, that link is missing and the whole mission will be useless.
I was getting three hours of sleep a day. I was awake almost 24/7. I did not even have lunch breaks. No lunch breaks.
I couldn’t take care of myself. They were bringing me lunch in the boxes; I’d eat them while I was reading. For a long time, almost a year.
In 2009, I applied for the program, for the SIV program — while I was in Baghdad, in 2008. You see how long it took, almost a year, to get back to me. They [were] verifying information, they wanted X, Y and Z, and they wanted my officer to give them up a letter to say that I really work there.
I don’t blame them for verification. But, what they [the State Department, who administers the program] were doing is, they were thinking that the U.S. Army have a humanitarian mission. And the Army mission is never a humanitarian mission. Army mission is an Army. The mission is to kick doors, train soldiers, do policing, do patrol, do investigations — this is the Army mission. The Army mission is not “Hey, let us help you” because they don’t know the process. They don’t know how things work for the State Department or United States Citizenship and Immigration Services [USCIS] or other entities. I would think the Army would have some knowledge of how immigration works, but they don’t have the knowledge of the ins and outs of immigration. The Army thinks that there is a need for you to go to the U.S., they want to help you, but they don’t know how.
The SIV program started in 2006. The only problem was the bureaucracy when it started. Because here’s how the bureaucracy worked, when it came to the SIV at first.
They want you to get a letter from a one-star or two-star general in the U.S. Army, you as a translator. A letter from that general. That general has to describe, in details, why are you so important so you can go to the U.S. Now, let me ask you this: Have you seen any general before?
No. Seeing a general, it’s a lot harder than seeing a unicorn. Even if you see a general, you can’t just snag him out of the chow hall to explain to him that you want a visa. Because a U.S. Army general is not going to talk to you, a translator. A general is very important. When you say, in the Army, when you say “a general,” people start shaking.
So you, as a translator, as a local, national translator, you cannot go to a general and tell him to give you a letter. Because first, you are not allowed to talk to a general. There is a chain of command that you have to follow. Second, that general, he is not your friend. He has a specific mission. He has his bosses telling him to do something that can change the course of war. He’s not going to have the time so he can write you a letter. He has the time to save his soldiers. He needs the time to draw plans and sit for intelligence briefings and reply for them and get the budget ready and everything else. His head is full of problems. He is not going to have the time and effort and be like, yeah, go ahead, sit down and drink coffee with you. He don’t have the time for this. But that’s the first thing you needed [in the initial SIV application process].
After growing up in Iraq and teaching himself to speak and read English, as well as familiarizing himself with American culture, Tony Razul served as a translator (a very dangerous job) for U.S. and allied troops in Iraq in the 2000s.
Credit: Courtesy of Tony Razul
In order to get the general letter, you have to go through a chain of command. A chain of command is a ladder, and unfortunately, you as a translator, you have two [ladders], two people who are in charge of you. You have the military in charge, and you have the civilian in charge. The civilian in charge is the guy that give you the paycheck, make sure you show up on time, make sure that your living standard is in the basics. The military in charge is the guy with you on the field. So when you get hired as a translator by a U.S. Army company, you get assigned to the military in charge. When you ask your military in charge about that general letter, he will tell you, “Go to the civilian one, I’m not technically your boss.” And when you go to the civilian one, the one that gives you the paycheck, and ask him for the general letter, he tell you, “I’m a civilian, I don’t have authority, so you have to go to the military one to get the letter.”
And let’s assume that your military in charge, a sergeant or a specialist, decided to take it on all the way to the general. That’s a mile long.
A specialist have to write a letter to his lieutenant. The lieutenant have to agree to that letter about you — and all of this with their busy schedule, while all other things are going on — not just you — and the lieutenant have to write the letter to his captain. The captain do the same thing, have to read the letter and write a letter to his major. The major write the letter to the lieutenant colonel. The lieutenant colonel write a letter to the colonel. The colonel write a letter to the one-star general. It’s like trying to line up the planets in one line. And let me break it to you: It’s never gonna happen.
All of these guys have busy schedules. They have other things going on. They have missions to launch, they have other problems. And guess what? Their assignment is 12 months. So within this 12 months, if your letter’s in between? Then a new company comes in and you have to start over, because the new company, when they take over, they take over the basics, about how the operation’s going, how the supplies are going, who to communicate with. They’re not going to be taking over the miscellaneous. You’re considered a miscellaneous.
Imagine: Most of the soldiers work about 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. So, who would have the time to go through the internet and read about the program [administered by the U.S. State Department, not the Army] and then will agree to read the letter then write a letter to their officer? They have other issues going on. They have the Army to train. They have the budget issue. They have attacks. We were getting attacks every day, 24/7. There is no time for all of these officers to take off a busy schedule to write letters to each other.
The program failed miserably. This is not how it still works. That was back then, thank God.
They realized we have, for example, 1,500 visas and only 30 people made it? So why 30 people made it? Because they made it so hard! So, Congress came up with a different program, still SIV, for Iraqis and Afghanis, [who worked] on the behalf of the U.S.
Now, the program is still to do with letters, except you have to apply for your in-charge. Your in-charge, an officer — and if your in charge is a specialist, they still have to go through sergeant, to lieutenant, then captain — have to write a letter, attach that letter. And that depends on the units. So, if you work in a big unit, yeah, you can see the captain in the restaurant, or the chow hall, and eat and talk to them. But if your captain is about 50 miles away? And your unit is too small? You’re never going to see the captain. So, you still have to communicate through the letters.
OK, so then that letter will be attached to your application. You take that application and you mail it to a designated office in USCIS here in the U.S. The USCIS will read through the letters, will read through the application. Then they start to contact with your officer, the person who wrote the letter. They ask, “Hey, did you really write that letter? Who are you, what’s your rank?” all of that information. Now, some officers, they don’t want their information out. They don’t want the USCIS to call them to ask to verify all of that. A lot of officers, they want to keep it secret; they don’t want to be on the phone with somebody in Nebraska [asking] about that translator. Is he in trouble? No. Am I in trouble? No. Then why are you calling me? Why are you sending me emails? Are you a scam? Are you a Nigerian prince? A lot of ins and outs go through.
These U.S. Army officers, they have a lot of things going. They have a lot of objectives that they have to accomplish by the end of the day. If you’re in the middle of the road and you have IEDs going on everywhere, are you going to answer the phone call for somebody to verify somebody? No. You have priorities!
Anyway, so then you have to go through this. The USCIS, after they confirm that you are who you are, and you work for that place more than 12 months — you have to work more than 12 months — they will send the paperwork to the State Department. The State Department will look into it, will have more verifications, and then, they will finally issue you the visa. But you will still have to do a visa interview, either in your country or a third country. I did mine in Jordan, because at the time, the embassy in Iraq was closed.
Now that sounds good, except, when I went to Jordan, I had to spend about two months there, until I got my visa approved. Just for an interview. So within these two months, Jordan is very expensive, I have no money. All that I thought about is, get my passport stamped and I’m there by the end of the week. I didn’t know I’m going to stay there for two months. It’s a very inefficient program. The whole process took about a year and a half. A year and a half.
So, I went to Jordan, stayed there for two months, maybe even more, I don’t know. It was a long two months. And then, I got sent here to Charlottesville.