Trump Administration Has Drastically Dropped Visas For Afghan And Iraqi Interpreters

May 1, 2019
Originally published on May 3, 2019 4:03 pm

Khalid al-Baidhani found out early about the risks of being an Iraqi working for the U.S. military in Baghdad. In 2006, he was waiting for a ride home outside a U.S. base.

"A car stopped right away, took out the pistol and start shooting me," Baidhani recalls, "I [couldn't] feel anything after that."

Baidhani survived, recovered and went back to work with U.S. forces.

"I want ... good communications between U.S. military and Iraqi civilians over there," he said.

His uncle also volunteered. So did his brother Wisam, who worked with Peter Farley, a former Army sergeant from Massachusetts.

"I couldn't imagine in a million years that I'd go over there and come back with one of my best friends being an Iraqi national," Farley told NPR.

In light of the sacrifice made by Iraqis and Afghans who assisted U.S. forces, Congress created the Special Immigrant Visa Program to get them and their families to safety in the U.S. Farley says it was about gratitude and also an incentive for local nationals to help U.S. troops. Now veterans such as Farley, as well as dozens of lawmakers, say they're afraid the promise they made is being broken. Under the Trump administration, the number coming to the U.S. has dropped drastically.

"This administration is hostile to refugees," says Adam Bates, with the International Refugee Assistance Project.

Bates says in Iraq there is a backlog of more than 100,000 people now in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program P-2 Direct Access Program. Last year about 200 were cleared — down from nearly 10,000 in 2016.

The number of Afghans getting visas also is slowing — down about 60% in recent years, Bates says. More than 4,000 were cleared in fiscal year 2017, compared with about 1,650 in 2018.

"It would be impossible to say that these substantial drops are not a part of some policy. These are people who put themselves at risk because they served with U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan," he says.

A U.S. State Department official told NPR that it is working closely with U.S government partners to accelerate the visa processing, while maintaining national security as a highest priority. In response to a bipartisan letter from Congress, the Department of Homeland Security said it was aiming to speed up the visas after recent changes in the program, also with security as an overarching concern.

None of that makes sense to Farley, who says that if the Baidhanis were a threat to Americans, they could have killed him any number of times in Iraq.

"I mean, this family has sacrificed more than most American families," Farley says.

Farley (left) with Wisam al-Baidhani at the Boston Marathon. Baidhani ran the race for charity after moving to the U.S. as part of a program to protect Iraqis and Afghans who assisted American troops.
Courtesy of Peter Farley / NPR

He lobbied the U.S. government to get both Baidhani and his brother Wisam to the U.S. in 2011. They've been living and working here ever since. But the program came too late for Khalid's uncle — gunmen killed him in 2008, on his way home from an American base.

Baidhani's father and younger siblings also qualified for visas, but they're stuck in Baghdad.

"We worry about this family every day," Farley says. Wisam declined to be interviewed, he says because he has become depressed.

"It's hard to keep hope with the way things have gone," Farley says.

The way things have gone is that the family is still in Baghdad. After years of waiting and red tape, Baidhani's father, stepmother and three younger siblings were granted U.S. visas in 2016. They sold their family home in Baghdad, and all their other assets, and packed their bags. The day before their flight, they got a call that the visas had been put on hold pending yet another security check.

"I was shocked. It was like someone shot me with a bullet. I collapsed," Mohammad, Khalid and Wisam's father, told NPR.

I just want to ask them to see us as a family who actually wants to serve the country. - Ahmed al-Baidhani

He's now crowded into a rundown rented house with his eldest daughter and her husband — two bedrooms for the seven of them, trapped in a tough neighborhood in Baghdad. The family has no idea when it might get permission to travel.

Khalid's younger brother, Ahmed, is now 23. He quit his job when he thought he was leaving in 2016 and hasn't had steady work since then.

"We sacrifice a lot — my brother shot twice," he says. "Why us? Security check after security check. I just want to ask them to see us as a family who actually wants to serve the country," he said.

Farley — like many other vets who promised their interpreters safety in the U.S. — says he is angry that his promise has been broken. And he thinks that is a national security issue.

"If I was in their shoes, and I learned about the stories of the U.S. not offering protection to people that stepped up and fought alongside their soldiers — or to their families of those heroes," Farley asks, "why would I ever sign up to do that for the U.S.?"

: 5/03/19

In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we conflate the number of Iraqis waiting in a backlog of the Special Immigrant Visa Program with those in the backlog for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program P-2 Direct Access Program. According to the State Department, there are only 200 Iraqis still waiting for visas from the SIV program. The backlog of Iraqis in the DAP program is over 100,000.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are sounding the alarm about a broken promise - not to them but to thousands of translators and others from those countries who worked with American troops. They were told that in exchange for risking their lives and exposing their families to danger, they would get visas to come live in the U.S. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Programs like the Special Immigrant Visa are really about the bond between American troops...

PETER FARLEY: I couldn't imagine in a million years that I would go over there and come back with one of my best friends being an Iraqi national.

LAWRENCE: ...And the Afghans or Iraqis who helped them survive.

KHALID AL BAIDHANI: I want him to get them a good communication between the U.S. military and Iraqi civilians over there.

LAWRENCE: That's Peter Farley, a former Army sergeant from Massachusetts, and Khalid Al Baidhani, who was an interpreter in Baghdad. Working with Americans made Baidhani a target for insurgent groups and not just in theory. In 2006, he was waiting for a ride home outside a U.S. base in Baghdad.

AL BAIDHANI: A car stop right away, you know, take out the pistol and start shooting me. Then I wasn't feel anything after that. I get shot.

LAWRENCE: Bullets hit Baidhani in the cheek and the arm. He came to in the back of a pickup truck headed to the hospital. Baidhani recovered and went back to work with U.S. troops. So did his uncle and his brother, who worked with former Sergeant Peter Farley.

FARLEY: This family has sacrificed more than most American families.

LAWRENCE: Farley lobbied the U.S. government to get both Khalid al Baidhani and his brother Wisam to the U.S. in 2011. It shouldn't have been hard since this special visa program was designed for people just like them - Iraqis who risked their lives to help the U.S. The program came too late for Khalid's uncle. Gunmen killed him in 2008 on his way home from an American base. But Baidhani's father and younger siblings also qualified for visas, says Farley.

FARLEY: And we worry about the safety of this family every day. It's hard to keep hope with the way that things have gone.

LAWRENCE: The way things have gone is the family is still in Baghdad. After years of waiting and red tape, Baidhani's father, stepmom and three younger siblings were granted U.S. visas in 2016. They sold their family home and all their other assets and packed their bags. The day before their flight, they got a call that the visas had been put on hold pending yet another security check.

MOHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken).

LAWRENCE: That's Khalid's father, Mohammad.

MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) I was shocked that someone shoot me by a bullet. And I was collapsed after that.

LAWRENCE: He's now crowded into a rundown rented house with his oldest daughter and her husband...

MOHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken).

LAWRENCE: ...Two bedrooms for the seven of them now trapped in a tough neighborhood in Baghdad. Peter Farley lobbied again and incredibly, he says, the security hold got reversed in 2017. But since then, the Trump administration appears to have put the brakes on visas for those who help the troops. In Iraq, there are more than 100,000 people stuck in the program's backlog. Last year, less than 200 were cleared.

ADAM BATES: This administration is hostile to refugees.

LAWRENCE: Adam Bates is with the International Refugee Assistance Project.

BATES: It would be impossible to say that these substantial drops are not part of some policy. These are people who put themselves at risk on behalf of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and are facing threats because of that service to the U.S.

LAWRENCE: The number of Afghans getting visas is also slowing, down about 60% since last year. A U.S. State Department official told NPR that it is working closely with U.S. government partners to accelerate the visa processing while maintaining national security as a highest priority. None of that makes sense to Baidhani and his family who are still under death threats and have no news about when they may travel. Khalid's younger brother Ahmed is now 23. He quit his job when he thought he was leaving in 2016 and hasn't had steady work since then.

AHMED: We give a lot of sacrifices. Actually, my brother shot twice, one in the head, one in the arm. I just want to ask why us security check after security check after security checks? I just want to ask them to see us as a family who actually want to serve the country there,

LAWRENCE: Peter Farley, like many other vets who promised their interpreters' safety in the U.S., he's angry.

FARLEY: If I was in their shoes and I learned about these stories where the U.S. wasn't offering protection to people that stepped up and fought alongside their soldiers, the U.S. did not offer protection to the families of those heroes that did the same, why would I ever sign up to do that for the United States?

LAWRENCE: That view is shared by more than 30 members of Congress from both parties, some of them veterans. They wrote to the Trump administration in March demanding to know why this law isn't being implemented. In April, the Department of Homeland Security responded that it expects the refugee process will speed up after adjusting to recent changes to enhance security.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we conflate the number of Iraqis waiting in a backlog of the Special Immigrant Visa Program with those in the backlog for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program P-2 Direct Access Program. According to the State Department, there are only 200 Iraqis still waiting for visas from the SIV program. The backlog of Iraqis in the DAP program is over 100,000.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.