Two stories of the kindness of strangers…
Over two days in September 1805 a party of 32 people straggled out of the mountains near where Weippe, Idaho stands today. They were all cold, wet and starving. Several had dysentery. They had traveled 160 miles in 11 days westward over the Continental Divide, and toward the end they were eating their own horses and struggling through deep snow. This was the Lewis and Clark Expedition, sent by President Jefferson to explore the route between the Missouri and Columbia rivers.
The expedition was rescued there by Nez Perce Indians, who fed and sheltered them for two weeks. The Nez Perce didn’t have to do that. Stephen Ambrose calls it “the tale of what didn’t happen rather than what did”:
It would have been the work of a few moments only for the Nez Perce to kill the white men and take for themselves all the expedition’s goods. Had the Indians done so, they would have come into possession of by far the biggest arsenal … west of the Mississippi River, along with priceless kettles, axes, hatchets, beads and other trade items in quantities than any of them would ever see in their lifetimes.
The expedition left their horses with the Nez Perce, and a chief guided them on their way down the Snake and Columbia to within 90 miles of where Portland, Oregon is today. Next Spring the expedition returned, retrieved their horses and lived with the Nez Perce for two months, waiting for snow to melt and open the trail back to the Missouri. Once the path back over the Bitterroots opened, the Nez Perce again provided guides.
The Nez Perce kindness was returned in 1877 when the US violated the Treaty of Walla Walla and tried to force the Nez Perce onto a reservation. The Nez Perce fled toward Canada, seeking help first from the Crow and then the Lakota Sioux. Stephen Ambrose claims that some Nez Perce who were children at the time the Lewis and Clark expedition was rescued were among those who fled. The US Army caught the Nez Perce 40 miles south of the Canadian border in Montana. Chief Joseph surrendered, with this speech:
I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzoote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say, “Yes” or “No.” He who led the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are — perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.
The Nez Perce were rounded up and sent to Oklahoma. Eight years later they were allowed to return to the Pacific Northwest, and today the tribe is Federally recognized with about 3,200 tribal members living on the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho.
Fast forward to current times. In August of 2010 President Obama announced the end of the combat mission in Iraq, and US combat troops were withdrawn soon after. Thousands of Iraqi civilians who had worked as interpreters or provided intelligence to the US, were left behind.
My life is now in grave danger due to my service to the US Army. I have survived two car bombs near my home. I have received phone calls and text messages from unknown numbers threatening to put a bullet through my head…I have three young children whom I cannot send to school regularly because they may be kidnapped or killed.
To solve the problem, in 2008 Congress created the Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa Program, with a parallel program for Afghans. However the program did not work well. There were delays in processing visa applications. Secretary of State John Kerry wrote an editorial published in the LA Times:
Delays in processing applications and lack of transparency in making decisions created problems. Bluntly stated, the process wasn’t keeping up with the demand. … statistics and anecdotes … highlighted unconscionably long processing times for applicants.
According to a press release from the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project:
Congress has since passed seven pieces of legislation urging the Departments of State and Homeland Security to improve processing of these cases, and to require that visa processing be completed within nine months.
In March of 2015 two groups filed suit against the Secretary State and the Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, asking the court to order the administration to process the applications for special visas.
In 2005, the US approved special visas to allow three foreign-born ice dancers to compete in the 2006 US Winter Olympic trials. In 2014 President Obama issued executive orders protecting up to 5 million illegal immigrants. We can’t process visa applications for Iraqis and Afghans who assisted US troops?
These applicants didn’t crash our borders seeking illegal enrichment. They risked their lives in support of US forces, and conscientiously applied for admittance to the US. They promise to be the best sort of citizens. They aren’t lawbreakers. We owe them.
The bottom line
What can we do for the Nez Perce? At least an apology, and an official thank you. How about a reformed, corruption-free Bureau of Indian Affairs?
What can we do for the Iraqi and Afghans who helped the US? Follow through on our promises. I’m sure they’ll make great citizens.