A proposed executive order that would reduce the number of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East and North Africa will likely affect thousands of Iraqi interpreters and soldiers that served alongside U.S. troops and have applied for visas to come to the United States, according to two refugee and immigrant advocacy groups familiar with the draft document.
The order being considered by the Trump administration probably would affect Iraqi interpreters who apply for the Special Immigrant Visa, said Mac McEachin, a national security policy associate at the International Refugee Assistance Project. If authorized, the executive action would temporarily block visas from seven countries for 30 days and suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days.
“We’re trying to prepare for any eventuality,” McEachin said.
Though a far cry from President Trump’s call during the election campaign for a “complete shutdown” on Muslim immigration, the move is aimed at immigrants and refugees from countries whose citizens “would be detrimental to the interests of the United States,” according to the document. Besides Iraq, those countries outlined in the draft are Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia. The order would also effectively ban Syrian refugees from the United States for the foreseeable future. Though the listed countries are considered Muslim-majority countries, places such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey are not listed.
If Trump’s final version of the order overlooks the program for interpreters and translators, the administration would be making a “tactical error” when it comes to future conflicts, McEachin said.
“We might need interpreters in the future and the last thing you want to do is make people think we’ll use them when it’s politically expedient and then get rid of them as soon as the next administration comes in,” he said.
The Iraq and Afghan Special Immigrant Visa programs were started in 2008 and 2009 respectively as a commitment to help “those who have helped us.” While the Afghan program is ongoing — with roughly 13,000 applicants currently going through the visa process — the final allotment of visas for Iraqis was in 2014. As of June 2016, more than 800 applicants and their families are awaiting Iraqi special immigrant visas, according to recent State Department data.
Once some restrictions are eased following Trump’s temporary ban on refugees, priority for visas would be given to those claiming religious persecution, “provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual’s country of nationality,” according to the proposed order.
Matt Zeller, a former Army captain and the co-founder of the interpreter advocacy group No One Left Behind, said that he has tried reaching the White House and State Department in recent days to persuade them to put a clause in the order to no avail.
“It’s a complete 180 from a week ago,” Zeller said, noting that under the Obama administration both offices were quick to engage on the subject. “This is an overreach. We’ve attempted to talk to the administration and our pleas have fallen on deaf ears.”
Officials in the Trump administration are mistaken if they think more vetting is possible for candidates in the program, Zeller said. Current requirements for the visa include proof that the applicant served alongside U.S. troops for at least 12 months; a rigorous background check from multiple intelligence agencies; and a letter of recommendation from a U.S. military officer who worked with the visa candidate. The letter must vouch for the applicant and indicate that the person is in danger after having served with U.S. troops, Zeller said.
“We’ve let thousands of people in since 2008 and not a single one has been convicted,” Zeller said. “If this goes through, we will fully have failed to keep faith with our allies.”
Chase Millsap, a former Marine officer and Army Green Beret, said the notion of a ban on refugees has devastated his friend, an Iraqi Army officer whom Millsap credits for protecting him from sniper fire in a 2006 incident.
“He saved my life,” Millsap said, who has spent the last two years trying to get his friend to the United States. “If this executive order gets signed, the chances of him coming here are done.”
The Iraqi veteran, who has been living in Turkey since fleeing Iraq in 2014, applied to come to the United States under the Refugee Admission Program and was setting up his visa interviews when Trump’s proposed plan leaked.
The Iraqi officer, who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution from the Islamic State, said he feels “lost” and hasn’t slept since the draft leaked Wednesday.
“I wish to speak to my children when they grow up [about] how my relationship with my brother Marines and how we shared everything,” the officer said. “I do not want to tell them there are people who abused humanity under the name of religion.”
This article has been updated with more current visa data.