Federal courts continued to block President Donald Trump’s effort to ban immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, but a separate decision by the Department of Homeland Security has an even more lasting impact on those who have sacrificed the most for American national security interests.
The U.S. government has resumed actively approving visas for foreign interpreters who have sacrificed deeply for American troops. The Department of Homeland Security told The Daily Beast that that they had restarted processing of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) for individuals who had served as translators for U.S. military forces in Iraq and now find their lives at risk.
“I received all kinds of threats you can imagine,” one SIV holder told The Daily Beast, asking to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. “They wrote on my doorhouse, ‘traitor,’ and attacked our camp with mortars every day.” He is among many SIV holders caught up in the whirlwind of Trump’s ban, but hopes to travel to the United States soon.
Two weeks have passed since Trump signed a controversial executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. The days following have led to a confusing web of policy changes: at first, SIVs were prohibited from entering the U.S.; then DHS said that they would have to apply for an exemption; and now, a federal judge has put a restraining order on Trump’s ban.
“We’re processing applications as normal,” DHS spokesperson Gillian Christensen said, although she could not put a figure on how many new SIV applications had been approved since Trump issued an executive order banning all refugees from seven countries, including Iraq.
The official statement from the Department of Homeland Security was also a relief for groups like No One Left Behind, which advocates on behalf of combat interpreters who assisted American troops.
“We have received unofficial notification from officials… that the Special Immigrant Visa program is being exempted from the Executive Order,” said Jason Gorey, the group’s Chief Operating Officer. “We are cautiously optimistic that the the SIV program will continue to function as it did before… and appreciate the Trump Administration’s affirmation that these allies who worked alongside U.S. Forces should be exempted.”
A number of Iraqis who risked their lives to aid American forces and were initially cleared by the U.S. government, sold their all their belongings in anticipation of traveling to the United States, only to be rebuffed by an unexpected anti-refugee presidential order. Many had their flights cancelled at the last moment, left to navigate an uncertain immigration system.
“Thanks to Mr. Trump I’m homeless,” one visa holder told The Daily Beast ten days ago. He can now board a plane to come to the United States.
If Trump’s order were to resume, it will continue preventing visitors and refugees from Sudan, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia and Yemen. While SIVs will be exempt moving forward, foreign interpreters and military service members continue to protest the broader ban of immigrants and visitors.
Earlier this week, former Green Beret officer Andrew Slater led a group from six of the seven affected countries, barnstorming Capitol Hill to let lawmakers know why they opposed the executive order. Over the course of a day, they met with representatives of the offices of Sens. Ed Markey, Joe Manchin, John McCain and Marco Rubio, among other lawmakers.
“As a veteran of five combat deployments, I had a number of objections to this executive order,” Slater told The Daily Beast. “It grossly exaggerates the threat posed by immigrants from these nations for political purposes, it misrepresents the vetting system they went through, and entirely fails to take into consideration the damage caused by suddenly suspending tens of thousands of visas and green cards. It is absolutely not in accord with any reasonable strategy for counterterrorism.”
The group Slater led is a cross-section of the best of the American immigration system, and included a Somali-American Marine with three combat tours, a Sudanese-American child refugee who was valedictorian at George Mason University, a Syrian literature professor from Raqqah who escaped from life in the ISIS capital, and a SIV-holder who was valedictorian at the American University of Iraq.
But after a long day of lobbying, they faced a tale as old as the U.S. Congress itself: politicians unwilling to take action.
“It was obvious among some of the offices we met with that they intended to do nothing about this ban,” said Ibrahim Hashi, a Somali-American Marine Corps veteran with three combat tours under his belt. “While I do understand that lawmakers have an obligation to their constituents, they wield a great deal of influence and can easily educate their districts on the harms that come along with this ban, and how this ban hurt U.S. national security rather than protect it.”
For many of these immigrants, difficult days lie ahead. Trump’s ban—while temporarily blocked—is personal not only in the sense that it disrupts travel plans or prevents family from visiting. It has created a deeper, more painful message about their place in American society—a place that they have earned through years of paperwork, legal fees and personal sacrifice.
Rasoul Naghavi is one of the immigrants who joined Slater on his trip to Capitol Hill. He arrived in the United States six years ago, and received a Master’s degree in Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution from an American Christian university. He currently studies at Georgetown University.
As an Islamic Imam, he struggles to face the children that he teaches at his mosque each week during Friday prayers, and reconcile his message with Trump’s ban.
"Kids are going out—they see in the street, and what they see in the country is exactly the opposite of what I’ve been teaching them,” Naghavi told The Daily Beast. “One of my main themes here in Friday prayers are that the borders between Islam and the West are becoming lower than ever… it’s so hard to talk about these things now, that here, [they] are not a stranger, that Muslims are welcome.”
“I really lost the narrative,” he added, wistfully.