The Cable

Pentagon Scrambles to Make Exception for Iraqi Translators

Fearing it will lose cooperation on the battlefield, the DoD is trying to come up with a list of Iraqis who should be exempt from the immigration ban.

BAGHDAD, IRAQ - AUGUST 23:  An interpreter with the U.S. Army Bravo Company 82nd Airborne participates in a patrol August 23, 2007 in Baghdad, Iraq. There are increasing calls for the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki due to his failure to quell walkouts by Sunni members of Parliament and his inability to bring about agreements on power sharing within the divided government.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - AUGUST 23: An interpreter with the U.S. Army Bravo Company 82nd Airborne participates in a patrol August 23, 2007 in Baghdad, Iraq. There are increasing calls for the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki due to his failure to quell walkouts by Sunni members of Parliament and his inability to bring about agreements on power sharing within the divided government. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Blindsided by Friday’s order from the White House that temporarily slammed the door on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, the Department of Defense is scrambling to put together a list of Iraqi nationals who helped U.S. forces over the past 14 years that might be in line for a waiver.

The list would consist of “those who have tangibly demonstrated their commitment” to support U.S. forces, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday.

Davis wouldn’t confirm if the Pentagon asked the White House for permission to start compiling the list of names, but said, “we have been provided the opportunity by the White House” to submit the list. Reports have indicated that the executive order wasn’t shared outside of the White House before it was signed on by President Trump on Friday.

The president signed the order in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes, which honors Medal of Honor recipients, backed by Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis. Davis would not comment on any input Mattis might have had on the order before it was signed, and said the building is “still assessing the impacts” of the order.

Among the questions hanging over the order and its implementation are the fate of Iraqi military pilots currently training in Arizona, as well as other Iraqi officers in the United States, and the thousands of U.S. service members who hold foreign nationality. Defense officials couldn’t provide a breakdown by country, but said that the Pentagon typically recruits about 5,000 non-citizen, legal permanent residents per year, and the average number of non-citizens on active duty has averaged about 18,700 since 2010.

On Monday, the Iraqi parliament asked Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to respond to the White House order, demanding that American contractors and journalists be banned from entering Iraq, a move that could potentially affect operations for the 6,000 U.S. troops currently deployed to Iraq.

Department of Homeland Security officials initially did not respond to requests for comment on whether Trump’s executive order represents a blanket ban on Iraqi nationals with Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, who served as interpreters for the U.S. military; on U.S. service members who are citizens of the seven Muslim countries; and on Iraqi pilots and officials who come to the U.S. to train with the U.S. military.

DHS spokeswoman Gillian Christensen later told Foreign Policy that under the order, Iraqi SIV holders are to be treated essentially the same as legal permanent residents, such as green card holders.

“Special Immigrant Visa holders, under which Iraqi translators for the most part fall under, are in the same category as green card holders, in the sense that they are going to be allowed to board the airplane and come to the U.S. to be processed and reviewed in person,” Christensen said.

Asked why the Pentagon was then currently compiling a list of Iraqis they’re requesting be exempted from the ban under the executive order, Christensen attributed the disconnect between the departments of Defense and State and Homeland Security to the rapid developments surrounding the order.

Defense officials told Foreign Policy on Monday that they were unaware of the DHS reading of the presidential order.

DHS’s legal counsel and top officials were largely left to interpret the executive order after it was already signed on Friday evening. They deemed it would not apply to legal permanent residents, such as green card holders — as well as Iraqi nationals on SIVs, apparently — but were overruled overnight by the White House. On Sunday, White House officials clarified that green card holders from the seven barred Muslim countries would in fact be able to re-enter the United States. But after White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and others further muddied the water, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly issued a public statement late Sunday night deeming entry of legal permanent residents “in the national interest.” Barring any derogatory national security information, Kelly said, immigration officials would let them in on a case-by-case basis.

That is also the case for Iraqis holding SIVs, though the memo apparently hasn’t yet reached the Pentagon, Congress, or some at the White House and on the frontlines of implementing the executive order at airports across the country and the world. Christensen could not say what would be done for those with SIVs who had already been pulled off planes or had U.S. government-arranged flights canceled in the wake of the executive order.

That clarification, as well as the list of potentially thousands of names of Iraqis that the Pentagon is compiling, would be welcome news to the Iraqis who worked as translators, informants, cooks, truck drivers, and other jobs supporting the U.S. war effort in their country since 2003 — and to many of the U.S. troops who worked with them, often under fire. Some former interpreters with SIVs and their families have already been turned back.

Fred Wellman, a retired Army officer who served for 22 years, including four combat tours, said the executive order blocking those who served with the U.S. military is “very personal to me.” One interpreter he worked with is struggling to get by in Erbil, Iraq, while another, who was approved for an SIV, was due to come to the United States this spring but is now in limbo.

“My first interpreter was murdered by Al Qaeda and we were able to get his family here very quietly in 2005,” Wellman told Foreign Policy Monday. “Now we have thousands stuck, and it will make it incredibly difficult to get local help now and in the future if we don’t keep our promises to those who risked their lives and now pay a price for it at home.”

Brandon Friedman, a former officer with the 101st Airborne Division, has worked for years to bring home Hameed Khalid Darweesh, an interpreter who worked for more than a decade on behalf of the United States government in Iraq.

“I’ve always felt that we owed him a debt that wouldn’t be very hard for us to repay and that’s why it’s disappointing to see this,” said Friedman, who also served in the Obama administration.

“It’s about the other people who are like him, or the other people and families who are fleeing ISIS terror. These are the people we need to be helping, not blocking.”

Darweesh was detained for more than 19 hours at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City on Friday, but was released after a court order Saturday.

Updated at 4:15 p.m. with DHS comment. 

Photo Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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