Many US veterans angry that executive order keeps Iraqi interpreters out

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In a 2009 file photo, 2nd Lt. Nicholas Wilkes, right, works through an interpreter to communicate with a platoon commander with the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion during a land navigation exercise at Camp Mejid, Iraq. DOD
In a 2009 file photo, 2nd Lt. Nicholas Wilkes, right, works through an interpreter to communicate with a platoon commander with the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion during a land navigation exercise at Camp Mejid, Iraq. DOD

Many US veterans angry that executive order keeps Iraqi interpreters out

by: Vera Bergengruen | .
McClatchy Washington Bureau | .
published: January 30, 2017

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Military veterans were dumbfounded and furious when it became clear over the weekend that President Donald Trump’s executive order barring the admission to the United States of people from seven majority-Muslim countries keeps out interpreters who risked their lives helping U.S. forces in Iraq.

“They better make a damn exception, because we are here because of them,” said Andrew Biggio, a former Marine sergeant who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Our lives, our families, we have everything to thank for our interpreters. We owe them, we owe them, we owe them.”

Biggio, who voted for Trump, said he and other Marines he served with are waiting for a clarification from the White House. Many of them pushed for years to obtain visas for their interpreters, and then raised money to help them settle in.

“They need to do something about this,” he said. “You want to talk about saving American lives from terrorists –– these interpreters did that, they saved a lot of our lives.”

Thousands of Iraqis who worked as interpreters and advisers to U.S. troops are barred from obtaining visas and entering the country now risk retaliation against them and their families for collaborating with the U.S. government. Veterans say the interpreters provided invaluable translation, help and intelligence and served on the front lines with U.S. troops.

“We asked them to risk their lives for us and they’re being threatened because they worked alongside us,” said Scott Cooper, a Marine veteran who served tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. He now leads Human Rights First’s Veterans for American Ideals project, which advocates for military interpreters and Syrian refugees.

“They didn’t think this one through, and it’s completely wrong,” he said. “We all want America to be safe, this is why we put on the uniform.”

Cooper said he has never seen the veterans in his organization so desperate to help.

“I’ve never seen them more fired up, it’s overwhelming,” he said. “The Facebook messages, texts, tweets, everyone asking ‘what can I do?’ ”

He believes veterans will win on the issue of continuing special immigrant visas for Iraqi nationals, who fall under Trump’s ban.

“We’re pulling out all the stops,” he said. “This administration cares a lot about being aligned with veterans, and we’re making our voices heard.”

As of June 2016, more than 800 applicants and their families were waiting for Iraqi special immigrant visas, according to the most recent State Department data. Those are just the ones who fall into a category of having worked with the U.S. military. About 58,000 other Iraqis who worked with the U.S. government, nonprofits, journalists and other organizations also are waiting for interviews under the Direct Access program.

In announcing his order Friday, Trump said it was needed to prevent Islamist militants from coming into the United States among refugees until “extreme vetting” procedures can be put in place. But critics argue that the United States already has one of the strictest processes for refugee admissions in the world.

The White House did not return a request for comment on whether it would consider exempting Iraqi interpreters from its limitations of refugee arrivals.

Veterans said that honoring the implicit promise made to those who risked their lives to help the United States has nothing to do with politics, and that they can’t believe it would be up for debate.

“You will find military veterans unified in support of this; it’s not partisan,” said Brandon Friedman, a former Obama administration official who commanded a platoon during the invasion of Iraq. “This order demonstrates that we don’t have their backs. It’s totally un-American.”

U.S. troops in Iraq developed tight bonds with the Iraqis they worked with, crediting them with keeping them safe, Friedman said. He pointed to the case of Hameed Khalid Darweesh, a father of three who worked with the U.S. government in Iraq for a decade and was detained at JFK airport in New York after Trump signed the order. He was released 19 hours later after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on his behalf.

When Friedman worked with Darweesh in 2003, he remembered him working in only jeans and a baseball cap while he and other U.S. officers were bundled up in body armor.

“Hameed has done more for this country than most people who were born here,” Friedman said. “He was absolutely fearless, totally dedicated to keeping us safe, and it is beyond insulting that the president would sign this executive order betraying him.”

He said many veterans also worry that Trump’s order puts U.S. troops in danger, providing local people no incentive to assume the risk of working with them.

“I don’t know why they don’t walk off the job today,” he said. “It’s a huge propaganda coup for ISIS.”

Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a former Marine infantry officer who served four tours in Iraq, said in a statement that troops have told him “loud and clear”on overseas visits that Trump’s policies put them at risk.

“Trump has never put his life on the line for America … Troops will die for Trump’s ban,” he wrote on Twitter.

“Not only does this not do anything to protect America, but it now sends the message that even if you put your life on the line to help America, if you are Muslim we don’t want you here,” said Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran and chairman of advocacy group VoteVets.

Interpreters and others working with the U.S. government were thoroughly vetted before beginning to work, including having their phones tapped. Then, to obtain even an interview for a visa, they go through years of bureaucratic red tape and roadblocks.

In one recent case, it took the State Department, the CIA, the FBI and Homeland Security Department over five years to complete all the background checks on an interpreter’s case, according to Mica Varga, director of resettlement operations for No One Left Behind, a nonprofit that helps people who worked for the U.S. military secure special immigrant visas.

“To tell these guys today ‘We’re sorry, after five years of vetting you, you aren’t vetted enough’ is simply absurd,” she said.

Some veterans also expressed anger and disappointment in Secretary of Defense James Mattis. The former commander of the U.S. Central Command was sharply critical of Trump’s call to ban Muslim immigrants during his presidential campaign. In July 2016 he said such talk would lead U.S. allies to think “we have lost faith in reason” and said it was causing “great damage.”

Many groups had hoped that as someone with direct experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, who understands the reliance of U.S. forces on local employees, Mattis would be an ally in allocating more visas for them.

Instead, they said, he stood by as Trump signed the immigration order in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes.

“Secretary Mattis just stood there and smiled and clapped,” Friedman said. “He needs to figure out really quickly which side he’s on.”

©2017 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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