The Iraqi Heroes Left Behind by Trump’s Immigration Ban
They risked their lives for the U.S. military and have been vetted by American intelligence agencies. Now, they're stranded in Iraq and ISIS wants their heads.
For interpreters who have worked with the U.S. military, the presidential order signed by Donald Trump on Friday is cruelty of the worst sort.
They served bravely to assist American military forces in Iraq, even at the risk of violence to themselves and their families. They spent years navigating a byzantine immigration process to get a visa to escape to the United States. Upon finally receiving one, many of them sold all their earthly belongings to make the journey to a new home.
Now they're left stranded in a country where their lives are threatened. After being granted hope, just as America's promises to them were to be fulfilled, their aspirations have been snatched away at the last second.
Trump’s order prohibits Iraqis and the citizens of six other predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. There are no exceptions: not for permanent residents, not for those with legitimate visas—not even for heroes.
While a judge issued a stay on the order on Saturday night, as of press time, it only applied to visa-holders and green-card-holders who were already in the U.S. or en route—not to those who were set to arrive later this week.
"Thanks to Mr. Trump I'm homeless," said Youssef*, a 35-year-old who began working with coalition forces in 2004. "We don't deserve to be left behind… This is not the American ethic."
After receiving a special visa designed for those who have assisted American forces in December, Youssef sold the small house he lived in with his two-year-old daughter and his wife to pay for the flight to the United States. It had taken him close to three years to receive a visa.
He was planning to fly to the U.S. on Monday.
"I sold all [that] I have to buy the ticket," he told The Daily Beast. The presidential order has left him stranded in a country where he receives regular threats from those virulently opposed to the United States. "They wrote on my door, 'traitor.'"
"I know for a fact SIV [Special Immigrant Visa] applicants sold their houses and cars and lost their jobs in Iraq in order to travel to the U.S." said Abdullah*, who began working as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in 2003. "Banning them from entering is a big mistake because they will have to start from zero and they don’t know how long they will live like this."
All of these interpreters had been granted approval to enter the U.S. through the SIV process, a special visa designed for those who aided the American military. It involves perhaps the most rigorous vetting for entry to the United States: applicants must receive letters of recommendations from their American supervisors; every major U.S. intelligence agency is required to approve the visa; and most applicants are even subjected to a polygraph test.
“Talking about extreme vetting, it doesn’t get any [more] extreme,” noted Ali*, an Iraqi who worked as an engineer and translator for the U.S. government. He was personally threatened by terrorists for his work and had to go into hiding.
Ali received a recommendation from a three-star Army General, a retired Navy captain, a Navy commander and an Air Force major. He was vetted thoroughly by intelligence agencies. After nearly three years, he was issued his visa just three days ago.
But then the Trump presidential order was signed, which prohibits him from enter the United States for 90 days—and by the time this period is up, his visa may no longer be valid.
“Don’t get me wrong, I am all up for keeping America safe. But banning Iraqis who were employed by the U.S. in Iraq, those who risked their lives by helping the coalition forces, doesn’t seem the proper measure,” Ali told The Daily Beast. “I don’t recall a single terror incident inside the U.S. in which an Iraqi citizen was part of. On the other hand, many of those terror attacks on U.S. soil were carried out by nationals of other countries which are not on the ban list. This is absolutely unfair.”
Some individuals have worked with more U.S. military units than the average Iraq War veteran. Yasin* worked with the 1st Cavalry Division, the 101st Airborne Division, the 25th Infantry Division, the 1st Infantry Division and the Oregon National Guard. Over years of service, he has seen eight IEDs go off within range of his convoy. He is threatened constantly by militias.
It took nearly five years for Yasin to get an SIV visa. He had finally decided to go live in a small town in Texas, where he was scheduled to fly in just over a week. Now, there’s just uncertainty, after already so much waiting.
"I am afraid they [will] call me and say that my flight is canceled," Yasin said.
The organization No One Left Behind is dedicated to helping foreign interpreters who supported the American military but are now in personal jeopardy, and are trying to immigrate to the United States through a Special Immigrant Visa.
The demand for help from No One Left Behind has gone through the roof since Friday afternoon.
In the first 24 hours since Trump signed the order, they have received some 250 messages from SIV applicants who have not yet made it to America.
Jason Gorey, the COO of the group, is a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who volunteered for the Trump Inaugural Committee and assisted the Trump transition team—certainly no knee-jerk opponent of the administration.
But the order Trump signed on Friday was too indiscriminate, he says, and need an exception for those who served alongside U.S. forces.
"They have earned and deserve our protection. They are being hunted by ISIS and the Taliban for their service to America, and even a short delay in the SIV program will undoubtedly result in deaths," Gorey said. "America will be judged by how we treat and protect our interpreters and similar allies, and I am very concerned that my brothers and sisters who are involved in future conflicts will not be able to find interpreters willing to serve with and protect them if we do not fully support the SIV program."
*The names of Iraqi interpreters used in this story have been altered in order to protect their identities. As SIV holders, they have demonstrated that there is a risk to their personal safety in Iraq due to their work with the American military.