TAKING A STAND
John Oliver on His Immigration Battle Against Trump: ‘Their Actions Have Been Heinous’
The ‘Last Week Tonight’ host sat down with Marlow Stern to discuss his work with the International Refugee Assistance Project and the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant stance.
As you may have heard, John Oliver and his wife Kate Norley met under very unique circumstances.
Oliver, then the Senior British Correspondent for The Daily Show, was filming a comedy segment at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, when he entered a restricted area, drawing the ire of convention security. As guards frantically chased him around the Xcel Energy Center, the comedian and his camera crew ran into a group of military veterans who offered them refuge behind their booth. One of those vets was Norley, a U.S. Army combat medic who was there campaigning with Vets for Freedom.
“She didn’t know who we were or what the show was, but she hid us in this little booth they had,” Oliver told The Daily Beast. “It was a very strange place to meet your future wife. That was a bleak day. That was the night of Sarah Palin’s speech, so it was…a rough day.”
The two then struck up an email correspondence. Two years later they were engaged.
As an Army medic who’d served in Iraq, Norley was familiar with the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program—whereby translators were granted visas to resettle in America in exchange for helping the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan—and suggested Oliver explore why so many of these applicants were experiencing difficulty getting these visas honored on his new show Last Week Tonight.
“The experience that I had through my wife and the Obama administration and State was terrible. It was incredibly difficult to get these SIV visas that had been allocated for translators. It was very, very hard,” Oliver says. “And these were people who’d put their lives on the line, having experienced absolute carnage and horror and had family members killed for the sacrifices they’d made, so it was absolutely absurd to me, the more we looked into it, just how badly the system was operating.”
He shakes his head: “And yet, it has actually gotten worse—which is hard to believe. From the Kafkaesque nightmare that I saw under the Obama administration, you would not have thought it possible to have gotten worse, but it absolutely has under Trump.”
I’m seated with Oliver in a green room at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall, where the comic is about to emcee IRAP with John Oliver, the first-ever event benefiting the International Refugee Assistance Project, which provides legal advocacy to refugees and the displaced.
“In 2014, the first year of our show, we wanted to do a story on the way Iraqi and Afghan translators were treated in the SIV process, so we reached out to IRAP through that story and stayed in touch ever since. They’ve been a great sounding board for whenever we needed background information,” he says.
IRAP’s mission has, of course, become more daunting during the Trump administration, with the group—an offshoot of New York City’s Urban Justice Center—joining forces with the ACLU and National Immigration Law Center for International Refugee Assistance Project v. Donald J. Trump, a 2017 lawsuit that successfully blocked the implementation of the president’s so-called “Muslim ban.”
And late last month, President Trump signed a presidential memorandum making it considerably harder to seek asylum in the U.S., including the introduction of an asylum application fee.
“I think you get a pretty clear sense of what the intent of the administration is, which is that they would like no more immigrants coming here; and seeing as they can’t have that practically, they would like as few as physically possible,” explains Oliver. “Seeing how the child-separation issue was handled last year, they’re not shackled by conscience on this issue. So there is no reason to believe they’re going to do the right thing unless they’re forced to.”
“You can speculate there are either cynical reasons or morally-abhorrent reasons for them to do it. I don’t know. I’m not in their head, thankfully—it must be an awful place to be. But I think they’re making their intentions clear by their actions. You can pretty fairly extrapolate that they want as few immigrants and as few refugees as possible in this country,” he adds.
The talk soon returned to Norley, and how Oliver found himself motivated to team up with IRAP in their fight for the rights of immigrants.
“She, like many, many servicemen and women, found themselves making promises to translators who had risked their lives alongside them, and had anticipated that those promises were going to get kept; and when they weren’t, felt absolutely terrible—not just my wife, but friends of hers,” says Oliver. “You see these Facebook pages with just these heartbreaking messages from these incredible people they’ve worked with saying, ‘Have you heard anything? I don’t understand.’”
Oliver begins to choke up. “That weighed pretty heavily on my wife’s conscience, and on all of her friends, and it was shocking in the worst way just how poorly the bureaucracy was serving the people that not only deserved to be treated better, but also were an incredible opportunity for this country because they’re such smart, funny, capable people.”
Before we go, I bring up President Trump’s pardon of Michael Behenna, a former U.S. Army Ranger sentenced to 25 years in prison for driving an Iraqi prisoner out into the desert, forcing him to strip naked, and then executing him. (Behenna alleges he shot the naked man in the head and chest in self-defense.) Why do this? And is, as The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer famously posited, the cruelty the point?
“It’s tough to ascribe motive to someone,” offers Oliver. “You can only really fairly judge them on their actions—but their actions have been heinous. And you can certainly guess why.”