Stalwart Service for U.S. in Iraq Is Not Enough to Gain Green Card

Saman Kareem Ahmad, left, served with then-Capt. Trent A. Gibson. Gibson backs Ahmad's application for permanent U.S. residence.
Saman Kareem Ahmad, left, served with then-Capt. Trent A. Gibson. Gibson backs Ahmad's application for permanent U.S. residence. (Courtesy Of Saman Kareem Ahmad)
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By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 23, 2008

During his nearly four years as a translator for U.S. forces in Iraq, Saman Kareem Ahmad was known for his bravery and hard work. "Sam put his life on the line with, and for, Coalition Forces on a daily basis," wrote Marine Capt. Trent A. Gibson.

Gibson's letter was part of a thick file of support -- including commendations from the secretary of the Navy and from then-Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus -- that helped Ahmad migrate to the United States in 2006, among an initial group of 50 Iraqi and Afghan translators admitted under a special visa program.

Last month, however, the U.S. government turned down Ahmad's application for permanent residence, known as a green card. His offense: Ahmad had once been part of the Kurdish Democratic Party, which U.S. immigration officials deemed an "undesignated terrorist organization" for having sought to overthrow former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Ahmad, a Kurd, once served in the KDP's military force, which is part of the new Iraqi army. A U.S. ally, the KDP is now part of the elected government of the Kurdish region and holds seats in the Iraqi parliament. After consulting public Web sites, however, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services determined that KDP forces "conducted full-scale armed attacks and helped incite rebellions against Hussein's regime, most notably during the Iran-Iraq war, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom."

Ahmad's association with a group that had attempted to overthrow a government -- even as an ally in U.S.-led wars against Hussein -- rendered him "inadmissible," the agency concluded in a three-page letter dated Feb. 26.

In an interview Friday at Quantico Marine Corps Base, where he teaches Arabic language and culture to Marines deploying to Iraq, Ahmad's voice quavered, and his usually precise English failed him. "I am shamed," he said. He has put off his plans to marry a seamstress who tailors Marine uniforms. "I don't want my family live in America; they feel ashamed I'm with a terrorist group. I want them to be proud for what I did for the United States Marine Corps," said Ahmad, 38.

"After I receive this letter, it's been three weeks, since then my whole life turns upside down. You might hear from the lawyer, they're not going to revoke your [visa], but how can you guarantee this? . . . I'm expecting, they stop the process of green card, tomorrow they're going to tell you to get out."

A nearly identical denial was sent the same day to another Iraqi Kurdish translator living in this country, according to Thomas Ragland, a lawyer with Maggio and Kattar, the Washington law firm representing both men in court challenges to the denials. The second translator, who worked with U.S. intelligence and Special Forces in Iraq starting several years before the U.S. invasion, declined to discuss his case out of fear for his family in Iraq.

Petraeus, now the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said in an e-mail that he did not recall Ahmad personally but that KDP forces had performed valuable security services for the 101st Airborne Division he led in the northern city of Mosul in 2003. He said he was aware of no similar denials based on ties with either of the main Kurdish political parties.

Many of the thousands of Iraqis who have served as linguists for U.S. forces have been threatened in Iraq. Ahmad left the country after he was branded a "collaborator" from mosque pulpits in Anbar province and posters calling for his death began appearing there.

Under congressional pressure to allow such translators into the United States, the Bush administration in 2006 authorized 50 visas for them annually. That number was increased to 500 in fiscal 2008, and the quota will revert to 50 a year in fiscal 2009. In announcing the program, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) emphasized that it allows translators "to gain admission to the United States, apply for permanent residency and eventually acquire U.S. citizenship."

According to Petraeus's command, 648 of the 5,300 Iraqi translators now working for U.S. forces in Iraq had special-visa applications pending as of December. Petraeus has assigned legal officers to facilitate their petitions, helping gather the documents, signatures and military affidavits required, and said he has signed many letters urging individual approvals. The program's Special Immigrant Visa allows only entry into the United States, however, and immigrants are advised to petition for permanent residence upon arrival.

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