As the courts ponder President Trump’s ill-advised immigration ban, nothing better illustrates its cruelty and carelessness than its impact on Iraqis who risked their lives to help Americans.
By now you probably know that Trump’s claim that a mere 109 visa holders were affected was nonsense. At least 60,000 U.S. visas were canceled, causing chaos for foreign students, academics, high-tech workers, doctors who serve rural America, family members of U.S. citizens and tourists. That’s in addition to green-card holders – permanent U.S. residents – who were originally included in the ban (most were eventually permitted to enter).
What you may not know is that the ban included Iraqis who held Special Immigrant Visas issued to interpreters who helped the U.S. military. Thank heavens the Trump administration was shamed (and pressed by the Pentagon) into revising that decision. However, that affected relatively few Iraqis, because the SIV program ended in 2014; only 19 such visas were issued during the last three years, according to the State Department (about 500 cases are being processed).
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And what you probably don’t know is that many other Iraqis who risked their lives helping Americans are still excluded by the ban.
These are Iraqis who applied under another process – the so-called Direct Access Program – for those whose lives are endangered because they worked for U.S. military or civilian officials, aid agencies, contractors or journalists. Now Trump’s ban has left them dangerously in the lurch.
The program was already in trouble before the White House undermined it further. There are about 50,000 Iraqis in the queue, including family members, and the process can drag on for as much as five years, say staffers at the International Refugee Assistance Project.
The delay is partly due to the acute shortage of U.S. personnel to interview the applicants at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. It can take two years or more just to get the first of two required interviews. Then the “extreme” security vetting of each candidate, done by multiple agencies in the United States, can take at least two and sometimes many more years – President Trump, please take note.
The presidential order will increase the backlog, because all interviews are now suspended, and visas have been canceled – some just before the recipients were about to fly to America. Even if the ban is rescinded in 90 days, the disruption will set back the program for much longer. And, because the order cuts the annual number of refugee admissions by more than half, it further dims the hopes of these Iraqis.
Talking by phone to Baghdad, I heard frustration and anguish.
“We are fighting ISIS and we are not allowed (to get visas),” Ahmed F. told me, after his sister-in-law’s second interview was just canceled. “What about Saudi Arabia (most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis)? The White House destroyed us and I don’t know why.”
Why, indeed. This is a question I also hear from Ali H., who has been living under death threat for 18 months in Baghdad while waiting for his first interview in the DAP process. Now no one can say if that interview will happen.
I have a personal interest in Ali’s case; his brother Salam was my translator in Baghdad and helped U.S. soldiers arrest Shiite militia goons who were murdering his Sunni neighbors. When the U.S. military withdrew, those militiamen came after Salam and his family, murdering one brother and a cousin.
Salam escaped to Cyprus with his family, but Ali remains trapped under death threat, living in hiding. He has had to send his family to live in southern Iraq with relatives, lest the militiamen kill one of his children. Ali is entitled – as the brother of someone who worked for U.S. journalists – to an American visa once he completes the process. But he has been waiting in vain.
The last time I reached Ali by phone he told me, “I can’t go out on the street in daylight because someone from the militia might be waiting to kill me.” With the whole DAP refugee process on hold, Ali may be waiting for many more years.
Ali’s tragic case points to the absurdity of the president’s executive order. No Iraqi refugee has ever committed a terrorist act on American soil. (Two Iraqi refugees, out of about 110,000 Iraqi refugees and SIV visa holders who have entered the country, were accused of terrorist acts in their homeland.)
If the president really wanted to make America safer he would cement ties with Iraqis who are our allies. Instead, he is sending a message that Iraqis who help Americans will be disdained and betrayed. That applies whether they are Iraqi soldiers fighting alongside Americans in the battle for Mosul – or are interpreters.
This message plays right into the narrative of pro-Iranian Shiite militias and Sunni jihadis, that evil America can never be trusted. Perhaps Trump’s more sober generals – James Mattis at Defense and John Kelly at Homeland Security – will convey this message to the White House.
In the meantime, those Iraqis who believed in America are paying a high and often fatal price.
Trudy Rubin can be contaced at email@example.com.