Amid all the ugly, anti-immigration talk this election season, at least one category of immigrants should be sacrosanct: those who helped the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan at great risk to their lives.
Yet all too often we’ve failed these Iraqis and Afghans, exposing them and their families to brutal retaliation.
Read what’s happening to the family of Wisam Albaiedhani, who worked as a translator for U.S. forces, and you'll see what I mean.
Wisam and his brother Khalid were students in Baghdad when the United States invaded Iraq. Khalid also worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army; both brothers accompanied their units on risky patrols.
When U.S. troops withdrew, the Shiite Jaish Mahdi militia shot Khalid in the arm and face for the “crime” of working with Americans (he still has muscle damage). They sent Wisam a bullet wrapped in a message that read: “This is for your heart.”
The good news: Both brothers made it to the United States via special immigrant visas issued to Iraqis who worked for U.S. forces or government officials. (However, this program set up so many bureaucratic hurdles – endless paperwork, several years of interviews and security checks – that many desperate Iraqi and Afghan interpreters got left behind.)
But, as Wisam told me by phone from Worcester, Mass., where he works in a credit union, the brothers feared for their family members in Baghdad. Jaish Mahdi militiamen have long memories and are still seeking revenge.
So the brothers applied for visas to bring their father and younger siblings, as provided by U.S. law. The family went through five years – yes, five years – of paperwork, interviews and multiple security checks.
In mid-August, the family was finally informed by U.S. Embassy officials that all were cleared to emigrate to the United States, on a flight departing Aug. 31. Wisam’s 65-year-old dad Mohammed sold the family house, car, and possessions and packed up to fly to Jordan and on to America.
Then on Aug. 30, Mohammed received a call from the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan, saying, “Sorry, your tickets have been cancelled and you have to stay in place until further notice.” There was a new security check. No explanation of what this meant, no way to respond, no date of travel. Maybe weeks, maybe never.
Wisam’s family is now marooned in Baghdad, living with relatives. “This doesn’t make sense to us,” Wisam says. “We are good citizens, did everything legally. My brother and I have applied for citizenship. We are very loyal to this country. We are hard workers.
“The only thing we ask for is to help our family. They lost everything. We have no clue where this will end.”
Wisam’s family is caught up in a Kafka-esque process that has trapped many other Iraqis and Afghans who worked for Americans. One major reason the process drags on for years: there are too few interviewers available to handle the caseload of applicants.
There is a backlog of 51,000 Iraqi applicants, including family members, awaiting their first interview; there are only 15 staffers available at any one time to conduct these interviews. So the backlog barely budges.
Even after that hurdle is crossed, the applicants face years-long, multiple security checks (yes, there already is “extreme vetting”). These checks are opaque and there is no appeal, so similar names or false information can derail legitimate applicants. As Wisam has learned, there is no way to find out what has gone wrong.
This particularly upsets Peter Farley, who volunteered to fight in Iraq because he felt it was his patriotic duty, and wound up training Iraqi military police; Wisam was his interpreter and accompanied him on patrols. “Absolutely, Wisam and his brother risked their lives every day,” says Farley, who now works for Veterans Affairs in Rhode Island. “We don’t really recognize the sacrifices Iraqis who supported us have made.”
Of Wisam’s family, Farley asks: “Where do they go? His service has put a mark on them. To throw them back into the middle of Baghdad … they are going to be exposed. I am scared for them. And nobody knows why they are being held up.”
I can’t help thinking of what must be going through the minds of Wisam’s father and 9-year-old sister, who are now living in limbo. “It breaks my heart for people to look the other way,” Farley told me.
Indeed, it’s long past time for politicians who claim to be patriots to focus on the visa process for Iraqis and Afghans who helped us. It’s long past time to finally provide adequate resources and coherence to the program.
And – this is a must – we must extend and expand the special immigrant visa program for Afghans, which expires this month. “This is important for our own security,” says Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., who is co-sponsoring legislation to do just that. “If we’re going to ask people to help us in the future, they won’t do it if we haven’t met our commitments. It’s an American value to uphold our moral obligation.”
We also have a moral obligation to rescue Wisam’s family from limbo. They’ve sacrificed more than most of us for our country. This is the least we can do in return.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.