The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion These Iraqis helped save American lives. Now we should help them.

Soldiers during a sandstorm on Aug. 8, 2005, in Fallujah, Iraq.
Soldiers during a sandstorm on Aug. 8, 2005, in Fallujah, Iraq. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

PRESIDENT TRUMP has displayed a passion about winning freedom for Americans unjustly imprisoned in distant places such as North Korea, Egypt and Turkey. In that spirit, we recommend Mr. Trump pay attention to another group that should not be left behind: thousands of Iraqis who served alongside Americans in war.

Congress approved special immigrant visas for translators and others who worked directly with U.S. troops in Iraq. That program expired in 2014 , but a related program is still on the books for a broader set of Iraqis who worked closely with the U.S. government, including contractors, journalists and employees of nongovernmental organizations who believe they or their families are at risk. This channel, known as the Direct Access Program , allows eligible Iraqis to apply for refugee status in the United States with their families. The program waived two requirements for refugees elsewhere: that they be located outside their country and be recommended by the United Nations. The program didn’t guarantee admission, but it at least offered a pathway and a hope to those who risked their lives during the war.

Now, the program is a mess. According to a Reuters account, as of the end of July, there were about 100,000 Iraqis who had applied and are at various stages of the process. But as of Aug. 15, only 48 Iraqis had been admitted under the program to the United States in this fiscal year. More than 3,000 had last year, and about 5,100 came in 2016. The promise of a new life has been reduced to a pathetic trickle.

There are multiple reasons for the massive backlog, according to the International Refugee Assistance Project. In 2014, when the Islamic State was on the march, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad evacuated nonessential staff, including those who would have conducted in-person interviews for the program. At that time, 38,000 Iraqis were waiting for interviews. Other factors were the Trump administration’s moves to slash the ceilings on refugee admissions to the United States and the legal wrangling over Mr. Trump’s executive orders barring nationals of certain countries from entry. According to Reuters, the backlog in the Direct Access Program has grown so severe that the Pentagon has complained of the impact on operations in Iraq and other war zones. And it should: Who will help the United States in the next war if it leaves its friends and allies on the battlefield in the last one?

Mr. Trump prizes loyalty. One way he could repay the loyalty of these Iraqis is to remove the Direct Access Program from the overall refugee ceiling of 45,000 for fiscal 2018, creating some breathing room for the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have applied. He should also order the government to fix the bureaucratic mess and clear up the backlog. These Iraqis withstood risks to their lives and those of their families to help Americans in a time of need. Clearing the pathway to possible refugee admission, as the program promised, is the right thing to do.

Read more:

David Miliband: On refugees, the Trump administration is competent and malevolent

The Post’s View: Trump spurns refugees — again

Becca Heller: The U.S. should not abandon those who helped in Iraq

The Post’s View: President Trump’s refugee ban is an affront to American values

Michael Chertoff: Cutting refugee admissions hurts Americans. Here’s how.