U.S. lags in fulfilling visa promise to Iraqi translators

Hundreds of Iraqi translators used by the U.S. government during the Iraq war are still waiting for the safe-passage they were promised to America. Monday, a lawsuit filed anonymously on their behalf was served against the Department of State.

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Captain Doug Vossen CBS News

"It's like anything else," said Captain Doug Vossen. "If somebody has your back, you get their back."

Vossen did two tours in Iraq as an Army officer, and says the translator who worked by his side was also his protector and adviser.

"I'm 24 years old with one year of military training at Fort Benning. What the hell am I supposed to do in Baghdad?" Vossen told me. "I'd a been dead."

For many Iraqis, working for the U.S. military could be a death sentence -- so most had to hide their identities and use fake names. Vossen's translator was nicknamed "Frodo." Another translator went by "Sub Zero," according to Vossen.

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"Frodo," an Iraqi translator who is still waiting for his visa to the U.S. DOUG VOSSEN

But Vossen says the threat from renewed violence in Iraq has "Frodo" afraid for his life. He's received death threats and is now in hiding with his wife and three daughters.

In 2008, Congress recognized the danger to Iraqi translators and created a special fast-track immigrant visa program to bring them to the U.S. Applications were supposed to be turned around in less than nine months. But "Frodo" has now been waiting more than three years and he's not alone.

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Katherine Reisner of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project CBS News

"We see wait times of up to five and a half years," said Katherine Reisner of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center.

More than 6,000 visas have been issued since 2008, but Reisner says 1,800 Iraqis are still in limbo. The State Department would not comment on the lawsuit.

Vossen says he thinks about his friend every day.

"He was there, risking his life when the United States government came calling," said Vossen. "And now, when he is at the end of his rope, completely desperate for him and his family, we're not returning the favor? Just not right."

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Reisner says after years of being given no information from the State Department, other than the applications are in "administrative processing," she hopes this lawsuit will finally get some answers for translators whose lives are at risk.