Matt Zeller is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and the co-founder and chief executive of No One Left Behind
With his latest executive order and immigration ban, President Trump has shut the door on thousands of foreign interpreters, our wartime allies, who have served alongside our military since 2001. As a combat veteran who has served in the U.S. Army, this action deeply disappoints and angers me. I shouldn’t be alive today. I am only here writing this piece because of my Afghan Muslim translator, Janis. He shot and killed two Taliban fighters who nearly ambushed me in a firefight in Afghanistan in 2008.
The president’s actions on Friday are troubling for so many reasons. First, the sweeping ban doesn’t take into account that our allied military translators are quite possibly the most vetted individuals aligned with our military. The stringent background checks begin long before they are cleared to work alongside Americans in a combat zone. Then the process for granting the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), which allows them to resettle in the United States, is even more painstaking. To even apply for the SIV, one must meet ALL of the following criteria:
Be a national of Iraq or Afghanistan; and
Have worked directly with U.S. armed forces or under Chief of Missions authority as an interpreter for at least 12 months; and
Have obtained a favorable, written recommendation from a military or civilian member of the U.S. government.
All this to simply apply for the SIV. To be approved, the interpreter must clear these additional hurdles:
• Receive the written nomination;
• Prove he or she provided at least 12 to 24 months of honorable and valuable service to the United States war effort;
• Prove he or she is under immediate duress due to that service;
• And, lastly, pass the most extreme form of vetting the United States can muster — a comprehensive national security background investigation completed by every single component of the U.S. national security apparatus (the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency, etc.). All agencies conduct separate investigations and do not coordinate cross-agency. The decision from the national security apparatus must be unanimous, meaning that all the agencies involved must approve the application package. If even one agency dissents on a visa approval, that applicant is barred from entry to the United States and placed on the no-fly list — forever.
These men and women have served our country honorably — in some cases, for more than a decade. A decade of combat service to America, fighting alongside Americans, wearing the same uniforms, bleeding their blood for our country. Is that not the most American thing one could do — fight for the ideals they believe in to better one’s country? These wartime allies are true-blooded Americans, though they were born half a world away.
Would we deny a man who was injured in multiple improvised explosive device (IED) attacks, repeatedly led U.S. service members through enemy territory safely and fostered local relations? Would we deny a man who is credited with saving five American soldiers lives, including mine? Remember, this man’s name is Janis, and if he were an American-born veteran, we’d pin medals to his chest and call him a hero.
This ban leaves thousands of our wartime allies to fend for themselves against the very enemies we asked them to fight. Veterans of the Vietnam War speak often of their half-century injury at having abandoned so many of our Vietnamese allies. Friday, the president cast the same injury upon our newest generation of American veterans and we didn’t get a say. Many of our wartime allies have already been waiting on their visas for years and some, with approved visa in hand, will simply not be able to make it to safety because of the president’s decision.
We are permanently harming the fabric of U.S. national security. Our credibility is forever tarnished if not eroded. Why would any potential ally trust the United States to keep its word again? It pains me to think how many U.S. service-members will die in future conflicts because we were unable to recruit the local, on-the-ground support that is often the difference between life and death. These men and women have sacrificed so much for the United States. Friday’s order means the enemy wins, and we have turned our backs on our own ideals.