• The Star Staff

Refugees who assisted the U.S. military find the door to America slammed shut

By Zolan Kanno-Youngs

The certificate of appreciation that Hanadi Al Haidari’s family received for providing shelter, food and translation services for the U.S. military still looks brand-new, without even a crease. She keeps it next to her Iraqi passport in her new home in Denver.

The document is both proof of the risk the family took to assist American soldiers and a reminder of a promise unkept. Al Haidari’s brother, Ahmed, whose work as a translator for the troops allowed his family to apply for a priority refugee visa to the United States, remains in limbo in the Middle East, struggling to support his 9-year-old son.

“He just wants the basic rights of a normal person,” Al Haidari said, adding that she did not blame any specific official or government for the delay in approval for her brother’s resettlement. But she was also quick to note that her family’s displacement was rooted in the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the ensuing upheaval. “We wanted to come here because we don’t have a home,” she said. “We don’t have a country anymore.”

The Trump administration had reserved 4,000 slots for Iraqi refugees who had helped American troops, contractors or news media or who are members of a persecuted minority group in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. It ultimately admitted only 161 Iraqis — or 4% — to the United States, the lowest percentage of the four categories of refugees the administration authorized for resettlement last year. While the coronavirus pandemic caused refugee flights to be canceled for months, immigration lawyers also cited the lasting effects of President Donald Trump’s initial refugee bans and expanded vetting of those fleeing persecution. Of the 5,000 slots reserved for victims of religious persecution, 4,859 were filled — a reflection, perhaps, of the administration’s political priorities.

Al Haidari’s hopes for her family’s reunion dimmed further last month when Trump told Congress he planned to cut the cap on refugees for a fourth straight year. The number of refugees admitted depends on the administration and world events, but the ceiling for the current fiscal year, 15,000, is the lowest in the program’s four decadelong history. During the Obama administration, the cap was at least 70,000 a year. The announcement came as Trump fell back on the kind of anti-immigration messaging that has been a staple of his campaigns, tarring refugees as threats to public safety and the economy, despite multiple studies debunking such generalizations. He also used the issue to attack his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, who has proposed raising refugee admissions to 125,000.

But families like the Al Haidaris make for unlikely political targets. Veterans and active-duty service members fear that the exclusion of those who assisted the military from resettlement is the real threat to national security because such cooperation will be harder to come by in future conflicts. More than 9,800 Iraqis were welcomed to the United States in 2016, according to State Department data. By the 2019 fiscal year, that was down to 465.

“If the message is sent that those who stepped up to help American service members were left behind, forgotten, and to die, then it’s going to significantly reduce the likelihood of people stepping forward in the future in other countries to help U.S. service members with their missions,” said Allen Vaught, a former captain in the Army who served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004.

Vaught has helped two Iraqis and their families resettle in Texas, his home state, where he served in the Legislature from 2007 to 2011. Two other translators who helped his squad were executed, Vaught said. He has spent years lobbying for the approval of a fifth who fled to Egypt in 2014 to escape retaliation from Iraqi militia groups. At least 110,000 Iraqis are waiting to be approved as refugees based on their assistance to U.S. authorities, according to resettlement organizations.

Those seeking refuge in the United States have long had to undergo multiple interviews with immigration officers and organizations contracted by the Department of State to obtain approval to travel to the United States. In Iraq, those interviews were slowed last year by the withdrawal of nonessential employees from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The administration now requires additional information from many refugees and their families. Applicants from 11 countries — most of them with Muslim majorities — have to wait for their social media accounts to be vetted, exacerbating delays. Their relatives, including children, have been subjected to additional security screenings.

And refugees have been asked to provide phone numbers and addresses dating back 10 years instead of five — no easy task for a family that may have been searching for a permanent residence for years, according to a report published this month by the International Refugee Assistance Project, or IRAP.

“It creates a really convenient feedback loop if you actually don’t want to admit refugees,” said Becca Heller, the group’s executive director.

The Department of State’s press office said in a statement that the agency needed to conduct the additional security screenings to ensure that those being allowed to resettle in the country had been properly vetted.

Vaught’s former translator, now in Egypt, is caught in that loop, waiting to clear security checks even after he was told to prepare to travel to the United States in 2017.

The translator earned the support of the troops he helped. In an interview, he asked to be identified as Sam, the nickname Vaught’s team gave him.

“I believe it is too dangerous for him to work in Fallujah any longer,” an Army officer wrote in a 2004 memo requesting that the Army relocate Sam. “He has been loyal and trustworthy and deserves our appreciation.”

That same year, a militia group fired more than a dozen shots at Sam and lobbed a bomb at his home, according to written testimony he provided in a lawsuit against the administration’s expanded vetting. He decided he needed to get away from his wife and two daughters for their safety. After bouncing from home to home in Iraq, he escaped in 2014 to Egypt, where he hoped to complete the refugee process.

Sam said he still feared for his family’s safety.

“Even death is better than the situation I’m in,” he said in a phone interview. “They took my integrity with all of this.”

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