After Push By Veterans, Iraqi Interpreters Allowed Entry

Feb 6, 2017
Originally published on April 17, 2017 4:14 pm

The interpreters, who were caught up in the Trump Administration's travel ban, aided U.S. troops during the Iraq war.

The Trump Administration has backed off one part of its controversial travel ban to once again allow into the U.S. Iraqis who helped American service members during the war.

Many of them worked as interpreters or translators during some of the fiercest fighting and faced threats and attacks as a result.

The change was called for by refugee groups, members of Congress and veterans.

"It honestly means the difference between life and death," said Mac McEachin, national security policy associate at the International Refugee Assistance Project , a group that helps Iraqis and those from other countries apply for special visas. "We leave these guys at extraordinary risk of retaliation from the Taliban or Al Qaeda."

McEachin said his group has been in touch with former translators or contractors from the region who have been scrambling this week to figure out what to do. Some have been awaiting word on their applications for three or more years.

"We thought that offering this lifeline to safety would be not only the right thing to do, but also a tactical necessity in order to ensure that people still see it as worth it to work with us," he said.

The International Refugee Assistance Project and two other advocacy groups said the U.S. embassy in Baghdad is now issuing letters to Iraqis who qualify for the visas so they are allowed to board planes and depart.

Though the program, called the Special Immigrant Visa program, is continuing, the applicants still face a long and complex application process, usually stretching into years.

According to the U.S. State Department data, the U.S. issued more than 1,500 visas in 2016 to Iraqis who worked with the U.S. and their family members. The program stopped accepting new applications in 2014, but McEachin of IRAP estimates that 800-900 more are still awaiting approval.

In a statement, the Defense Department said it was "pleased that the U.S. Government has determined that it is in the national interest to allow Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders to continue to travel to the United States, and that embassies and consulates overseas will continue to process and issue SIVs to applicants who are otherwise qualified."

One Iraqi man, who had already been approved for the visa along with his wife and two children, arrived to JFK Airport in New York Friday afternoon, according to Ellen Smith, who heads the Rochester chapter of the veterans-led group No One Left Behind. But she said that was after he was blocked from leaving Baghdad earlier in the week and held up in Qatar en route to the U.S.

"We don't have a clear idea what's going on," said Smith. She said some families from Afghanistan - a country that is not covered by the recent executive order - have had their flights canceled in the confusion.

The executive order led to an outcry from some veterans who had worked closely with Iraqis during the war.

"We go over there prepared to do military tasks, but we don't know the cultural context on the ground," said Kelsey Campbell, an Air Force veteran who served in Iraq and now lives in San Francisco.

She said her experience working with local interpreters, including a young Iraqi woman, changed her own view of Iraqis and refugees. Often the interpreters' roles extended beyond translating to pointing out key cultural signs that American troops may miss.

"Many of them have been able to warn of impending dangers and have saved U.S. lives," said Campbell. "In multiple instants [they] have picked up arms themselves and kept American troops alive because of their brave acts."

Sham Hasan, 30, an Iraqi interpreter who worked with U.S. forces south of Baghdad in 2011 to help train and rebuild the Iraqi Army, said his service left him vulnerable to threats.

"As an Iraqi and working for the U.S. Army was very, very dangerous," he said. "I was highly wanted by the militia and extremist groups back there."

He said the groups had lists with the names of Iraqis who had worked with American forces and recalled one time leaving the base to find armed men outside his home.

He began applying for a Special Immigrant Visa in 2011, as the withdrawal of U.S. forces neared. It took three years - during which time he continuing his work as an interpreter for an American contractor in Baghdad and spent time in hiding.

He was approved in March 2014 and arrived in Chicago two months later. For the first time in years, he said, he felt safe.

"When I go out I don't have to worry about who's going to take me, or kidnap me, or shoot me in the head. I don't have to worry about being judged. I don't have to worry about being called infidel. It was so nerve-wracking and scary," said Hasan.

The latest confusion and uncertainty sparked painful memories for him, he said, noting that he's still in touch with several other interpreters who are waiting on their own applications in Iraq.

"It's not only affecting us," he said. "It affects the American people. It affects the image of the American people. It affects the image of the American dream that the entire world dreams about."