Refugees who helped the US military have been denied entry to the US

WASHINGTON – The Certificate of Appreciation Hanadi Al Haidari’s family received for providing shelter, food and translation services to the US military still looks brand new, without even a fold. She keeps it next to her Iraqi passport in her new home in Denver.

The document is both proof of the risk the family took to help American soldiers and a reminder of a broken promise. Ms Al Haidari’s brother Ahmed, whose work as a translator for the troops enabled his family to apply for a priority refugee visa in the United States, remains uncertain in the Middle East, struggling to support his son from 9 years.

“He just wants the basic rights of a normal person,” Al Haidari said, adding that she did not blame any particular official or government for the delay in approving her brother’s relocation. But she was quick to note that her family’s displacement was rooted in the US invasion of Iraq and the upheavals that followed. “We wanted to come here because we don’t have a home,” she says. “We have no more countries.”

The Trump administration had reserved 4,000 seats for Iraqi refugees who had aided US troops, contractors or the news media or who were members of a minority group persecuted during the fiscal year that ended on September 30. She ultimately admitted just 161 Iraqis – or 4 percent – to the United States, the lowest percentage of the four categories of refugees the administration allowed for resettlement last year. While the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the cancellation of refugee flights for months, immigration lawyers have also cited the lasting effects of President Trump’s initial refugee bans and the expansion of control over those who were fleeing persecution. Of the 5,000 places reserved for victims of religious persecution, 4,859 have been filled – a reflection, perhaps, of the administration’s political priorities.

Ms Al Haidari’s hopes for reuniting her family faded further last month when Mr Trump told Congress he planned to lower the refugee ceiling for a fourth year in a row. The number of refugees admitted depends on administration and world events, but the cap for the current fiscal year, 15,000, is the lowest in the program’s four decades of history. Under the Obama administration, the cap was at least 70,000 per year. The announcement came as Mr. Trump fell back on the kind of anti-immigration message that has been a staple of his campaigns, viewing refugees as threats to public safety and the economy, despite multiple studies demystifying these generalizations. He also used the issue to attack his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who proposed to increase the number of refugee admissions to 125,000.

But families like the Al Haidaris are unlikely political targets. Ex-combatants and active service members fear that the exclusion of those who have assisted the army from resettlement is the real threat to national security, as such cooperation will be more difficult to obtain in future conflicts. More than 9,800 Iraqis were welcomed to the United States in 2016, according to State Department data. By fiscal year 2019, that figure had fallen to 465.

“If the message is sent that those who mobilized to help members of the American service have been left behind, forgotten and died, then it will greatly reduce the likelihood of people stepping forward into others in the future. countries to assist US service members. their missions, ”said Allen Vaught, a former army captain who served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004.

Mr. Vaught helped two Iraqis and their families relocate to his home state, Texas, where he served in the legislature from 2007 to 2011. Two other translators who helped his team have been executed, said Mr. Vaught. He spent years lobbying for the approval of a fifth who fled to Egypt in 2014 to escape reprisal from Iraqi militias. At least 110,000 Iraqis are waiting to be approved as refugees on the basis of their assistance to US authorities, according to resettlement organizations.

“Anyone who worked with US forces had a scarlet letter,” Vaught said. “They had a mark on their head. And the way they killed them was horrible. One of my translators was burned alive.

“We have a lot of things to correct,” he added.

The administration attempted to revamp the refugee program last year not only by lowering the overall admissions ceiling, but also by empowering local governments to block resettlement in their communities, a measure that was halted while the opponents plead it in court.

Those seeking refuge in the United States have long had to undergo multiple interviews with immigration officials and organizations mandated by the State Department to obtain permission to travel to the United States. In Iraq, these talks were slowed down last year by the withdrawal of non-essential staff from the US Embassy in Baghdad.

The administration now needs more information from many refugees and their families. Applicants from 11 countries – most of them Muslim-majority – have to wait for their social media accounts to be reviewed, compounding the delays. Their relatives, including their children, were subjected to additional security checks.

And refugees have been asked to provide phone numbers and addresses that are 10 years old instead of five – not an easy task for a family that may have been seeking permanent residence for years, according to a report. published this month by the International Refugee Assistance Project. , or IRAP.

“It creates a very handy feedback loop if you don’t want to admit refugees,” said Becca Heller, executive director of the group.

The State Department press office said in a statement that the agency needed to conduct additional security checks to ensure those allowed to relocate to the country were properly screened.

Mr Vaught’s former translator, now in Egypt, is caught in this loop, waiting to pass security checks even after he was told to prepare to travel to the United States in 2017.

The translator won the support of the troops he helped. During an interview, he asked to be identified as Sam, the nickname Mr. Vaught’s team gave him.

“I think it is too dangerous for him to work longer in Falluja,” wrote an army officer in a 2004 memo asking the army to move Sam. “He has been loyal and trustworthy. and deserves our appreciation. ”

That same year, a group of militiamen fired more than a dozen shots at Sam and threw a bomb at his home, according to written testimony he provided in a lawsuit against the expanded control of the administration. He decided he had to get away from his wife and two daughters for their safety. After bouncing from house to house in Iraq, he escaped in 2014 to Egypt, where he hoped to complete the refugee process.

Sam said he still fears for the safety of his family.

“Even death is better than the situation I find myself in,” he said in a telephone interview. “They took my integrity with it all.”

Another route to the United States for Iraqis and Afghans who have helped the military is to apply for a special immigration visa, but this program has also experienced significant delays. Despite a congressional mandate that the state and homeland security departments process visas within nine months, more than 8,000 applicants have been stranded longer than that, according to IRAP, which is combating delays in the process. court.

Sibghatullah Nooristani, an Afghan translator for the US military, applied for a special visa for him and his family to leave Afghanistan in 2013. As the delays increased, he finally reached out on Facebook with someone he had worked with. in the army, Marc Silvestri.

Mr. Silvestri, 42, had served in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009 and had promised to help him. He couldn’t believe the process was taking so long, as Mr. Nooristani’s family faced death threats for helping US troops.

Mr. Silvestri contacted members of Congress and members of the community in Revere, Mass., To gain support for Mr. Nooristani’s case. When Mr. Nooristani finally arrived at Boston Logan International Airport in June, a group of police officers, members of the Revere City Council and Mr. Silvestri’s family were there to greet him.

“Our government has left so many behind,” said Mr. Silvestri, director of veteran services for Revere. “These people have served your country before. Let’s try these guys.

Mr. Nooristani is still afraid for his brother-in-law, who remains abroad. It’s the same concern that made Ms. Al Haidari’s parents so depressed in Denver. After passing each security check, Ms. Al Haidari, her parents, and her brother were separately approved to travel to the United States. Ms. Al Haidari was the first to arrive in 2016, and her parents two weeks later. She said immigration officials told the family that Ahmed would be allowed to travel in the coming weeks.

Then Mr. Trump signed his initial refugee ban and Ahmed got caught up in the bureaucracy of expanded control.

Ms Al Haidari said her mother remained committed to the TV news, listening to political news that would make it even more difficult for her son to come to the United States.

Ms. Al Haidari held several jobs caring for her sick parents during her four years in the United States. She’s balanced 10-hour triage shifts at an emergency room and nearby methadone clinic while studying for a pharmacist exam, sending extra money to her overseas brother when she can.

“The only thing I want out of life now is to see my brother here,” Ms. Al Haidari said.

She often spends her free time volunteering at local resettlement offices, helping translate for newly arrived refugees. His language skills first made him a constant presence there.

But as Mr. Trump has slashed the refugee program, there is hardly anyone left to help.

John Ismay contributed reporting.

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