By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Thousands of Iraqis who risked their lives working for the American military and are waiting for special visas to move to the United States could remain in limbo for months because of Congress' inability to reach a budget agreement.
A program granting visas to the Iraqis and their immediate families expires on September 30, the end of the fiscal year.
If it is not extended, application processing would halt for an estimated 2,000 former interpreters and other Iraqi civilians in the visa pipeline, leaving them stranded in their homeland, where their lives may be at risk because of their work for American troops.
"We made a promise to thousands of Iraqi civilians, such as interpreters, who risked their lives helping our country during a time of war and now we must honor our commitment, said Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a leader in the fight to preserve the program. "Extending the special immigrant visa program by a year is the right thing to do."
Increasing violence in Iraq almost two years after the departure of most U.S. troops has made things even more difficult for the interpreters as they wait years for their visa applications to be processed.
"It is well known who worked for the United States. Reprisals are still going on," said Katie Reisner, national policy director for the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which represents Iraqi and Afghan interpreters seeking to relocate to the United States.
Only about 20 percent of the 25,000 visas authorized under the program five years ago have been given out so far.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers tried to get an extension of the Iraqi visa plan into the "continuing resolution" legislation to keep the government running beyond September 30 now being considered by the Senate and House of Representatives.
A similar visa program for Afghan interpreters expires next year.
Although support for the former interpreters was strongly bipartisan when the plan went into effect in 2008, the issue this year was caught up in bitter wrangling between members of the two parties.
Deals to put an extension into funding legislation fell through in both the House and Senate.
House and Senate aides said the program has encountered stiff opposition as many lawmakers seem to want to just forget about the Iraq War.
Some members insisted that a re-authorization of the visa plan does not belong in a funding bill because it does not involve new money. Others, caught up in a bitter battle over reforming the U.S. immigration system, balked at admitting Iraqis, despite their work for American forces.
The six-week approval process now takes years, and those waits could last far longer if the program is interrupted, even for just a few months.
In a last-ditch bid to save the program before it expires, Shaheen introduced a bill this week with fellow Democrat Patrick Leahy and Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham to extend the program for a year.
It was uncertain whether measure would make it to Senate floor, and it would have to be passed by both the Senate and the House to become law.
Lawmakers also promise to include an extension of the program in the National Defense Authorization Act, covering funding for defense-related programs. But that is not expected to pass until November or December.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Christopher Wilson)