WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has virtually closed the door on Iraqis who worked as interpreters for the American military, issuing only two U.S. visas to former interpreters last year, according to government statistics obtained by NBC News.
The interpreters have faced threats, abductions and attacks for their association with American forces, and hundreds have been killed by militants since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Former interpreter Shaker Jeffrey fled to Germany while awaiting admission to the United States, but he says that even there he has been targeted by the Islamic State group’s militants.
“I am a hunted man,” Jeffrey, who has been waiting for a visa for 10 years, said. “If I return to Iraq, I will be assassinated.”
A backlog of tens of thousands of Iraqis — who worked as interpreters or in other jobs for the U.S. — have applied for admission to the U.S. but have yet to receive a final decision, despite legislation designed to help them gain entry, according to refugee advocates and several former officials.
In fiscal year 2016, 325 Iraqis who had worked as interpreters were admitted to the U.S. In 2017, the number dropped to 196. And for fiscal year 2018 ending in September, only two former interpreters from Iraq received visas, a more than 99 percent decline over three years, according to statistics from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) obtained by NBC News.
It remains unclear why the number of visas issued to Iraqi interpreters has declined so dramatically but refugee advocates and lawmakers say it appears to be a case of collateral damage from the Trump administration’s overall crackdown on immigration and refugees. Under the administration’s more restrictive policies, applicants from Iraq and other mainly Muslim countries are subjected to “enhanced security vetting.”
The administration also has slashed the overall ceiling for how many refugees can be admitted to the U.S., lowering the cap to 30,000 this year from a previous limit of 45,000. That unprecedented reduction has lowered the odds for former interpreters even more, humanitarian organizations say.
Jeffrey, from the country’s small Yazidi community, worked as an interpreter in northern Iraq and was wounded twice.
“Every time I went out on a mission with my American team without a weapon of any kind, I was marked,” he said. “The infidel helping the infidels.”
Jeffrey applied for a U.S. visa while still working for U.S. troops in Iraq. A decade later, he is still waiting.
When ISIS militants overran Yazidi villages in Iraq in 2014 and sought to wipe out their population, Jeffrey helped some of his fellow Yazidis escape and called his old U.S. military contacts to appeal for help.
In 2015, still waiting for a visa, he fled Iraq and made his way to Germany.
U.S. officials have told him his visa will be issued any day. But in the meantime, he said he has been targeted in Germany by ISIS militants, who have hacked his email account, broken into his apartment and physically assaulted him.
Jeffrey said he has no regrets about volunteering to work as a “terp” for U.S. forces in Mosul at the age of 17, but he said he is disappointed that it has taken so long to try to secure the visa he was promised. “I did my part to help keep the military safe and secure and they have let me down by not fulfilling their part of the promise.”
Humanitarian organizations, lawmakers and veterans who served in Iraq say denying or delaying visas to former interpreters represents a betrayal of partners who risked their lives to help the U.S.
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While thorough vetting and background checks should be accomplished (including any input from those who served with them), those who have helped our troops should be given expedited treatment to enter our country. No doubt the games the left plays with illegal immigrants complicates every visa application, if these brave guys qualify, they should be welcomed with open arms and government assistance if necessary.