For Iraqi Military Interpreters, Trump Travel Ban Chaos Is ‘Life and Death’
In Washington, it’s bureaucratic infighting. In Baghdad, it’s betrayal.
NEW YORK — Munther Alaskry, a former interpreter for the U.S. military in Iraq, raced through Baghdad International Airport on Thursday, Feb. 2. He and his family reached the gate just 10 minutes before boarding closed — and learned the good news. They were officially approved for travel to the United States and would be heading to a new life in Rochester, New York.
“At that moment, you start to appreciate time,” Alaskry told Foreign Policy a day later, at a hotel in Manhattan. “Three days for a normal person means nothing. In my situation, it meant the whole world. It was the difference between life and death.”
But even as Alaskry tracked his plane on the in-flight screen, watching as he and his family finally entered U.S. airspace, another former interpreter in Iraq watched the news and wondered if he and his family would be able to resettle in the United States, too.
Assim Ali, who worked with the U.S. Army in some of the deadliest days of the Iraq War, began his application for a Special Immigrant Visa in 2014 after the Islamic State took over large swaths of Iraq and his wife gave birth to their daughter. Iraqi and Afghan nationals who have been threatened for working with U.S. forces in those countries can apply for an SIV, but the program has been notoriously slow and frequently under attack by hard-liners in the U.S. Congress. The Department of Homeland Security has since clarified that Iraqis with SIVs should be allowed in under the executive order, but Ali is waiting on the final step to get his visa and now fears it may never come.
“Good to hear that SIV applicants are out of this cage,” Ali wrote to FP from Baghdad after the clarification. “Though seemingly [the] U.S. won’t be the same homeland that I have believed in.”
Alaskry and Ali are among tens of thousands of people whose lives have been turned upside down by President Donald Trump’s abrupt issuance of an executive order on Jan. 27, which banned refugees and travelers from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.
Since the chaotic rollout, the order has been subject to a series of street protests, legal challenges, emergency stays, conflicting legal rulings, a nationwide temporary restraining order, and the president’s ire.
The whiplash of differing guidelines and conflicting legal advice has confused immigration authorities and airlines and prodded people with visas from the seven Muslim-majority nations to rush to squeeze through the door in case it slams shut again. Even the heavily vetted Iraqis who fought alongside U.S. troops remain in a potentially deadly limbo.
The White House initially said the directive caused “minimal” inconvenience to just over 100 people, but more than 700 were prevented from boarding planes to the United States in just the first three days, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Last week, the Justice and State departments said anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 visas had been revoked as a result of the order.
One of those yanked off a flight was Alaskry. Just a week before, on Jan. 28, he and his wife and two children tried to fly to the United States, just as Trump released the immigration ban. But they were pulled off a connecting flight in Turkey and sent back to Baghdad. (FP in that article referred to Alaskry by a pseudonym, given his sensitive security situation at the time.)
Alaskry, who said he had moved his family in Baghdad at least four times for safety reasons since he stopped working for the U.S. military, had undergone extensive vetting and waited seven years for his SIV. But in a span of hours, he was branded as unwelcome.
“Everyone was looking at us like we did something wrong,” he said of getting pulled off his flight by police officers. “It was a situation that I don’t wish to happen to anybody.”
As the holder of a special visa, Alaskry’s fortunes changed because Defense Department officials and members of the military, such as the advocacy group No One Left Behind, pushed for an exception for Iraqis who helped U.S. forces over the past 14 years. Days earlier, the Department of Homeland Security was forced to clarify the directive — for both the public and, apparently, the White House.
Soon after, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad called and told Alaskry that he was free to book another ticket.
Still, even under the new guidelines, his trip wasn’t smooth sailing. Though Alaskry had a letter from the U.S. Embassy, he encountered pushback from confused airline officials who hadn’t received the latest interpretation of the U.S. rules. “I have a letter and a valid visa all saying, ‘This guy is OK to go,’ and they didn’t let me onboard,” he said.
The U.S. Embassy had to call and negotiate with the Qatar Airlines main office in order to let him through, he said, leaving him dashing across the Baghdad Airport and cutting in line at multiple checkpoints to make the flight.
On Friday, Feb. 3, he landed in New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. After completing a secondary screening that lasted a few hours — the border control officer was “very polite,” he said, and the children were given biscuits and water — Alaskry finally entered America to find members from No One Left Behind and other supporters cheering his family’s arrival.
Soon after Alaskry made it in, many, including refugees already approved for resettlement, students with multiple-entry visas, and others who’d been suddenly affected by the ban, learned that they would still have a chance to enter the United States. On Feb. 3, a federal judge in Seattle blocked key parts of the executive order. The Department of Justice is appealing the ruling, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could rule as soon as Tuesday. On Monday night the court set an hourlong oral argument for Tuesday afternoon.
That leaves border officials and airlines struggling to anticipate what comes next.
In the week since Trump’s order immediately took effect (and even for several days before), refugees authorized to resettle in the United States, permanent residents with green cards, Iraqis with SIV holders such as Alaskry, and many others were turned away from flights, detained, or, in some cases, deported.
As judges across a handful of states temporarily blocked aspects of the directive to prevent removals, reports continued of immigration authorities ignoring the rulings. The White House doubled down and vowed to continue implementing the directive.
DHS officials told FP that the executive order was never intended to bar Iraqi translators, even as the Pentagon and top lawmakers called on the White House to carve out an exception for them.
Some SIV holders continued to report confusion and problems over the weekend, though the administration has said it will comply with the temporary restraining order, and the State Department on Saturday said that it was reversing the initial revocation of visas. In the meantime, advocates are urging the previously barred travelers to use the narrow window of opportunity to travel to the United States.
But Trump’s rhetoric and the order’s Kafkaesque implementation have led some to feel that they are no longer welcome. While Alaskry was moved by the outpouring of support he received and feels positive about his new home, Ali, the other Iraqi interpreter, said he was shocked by Trump’s decision.
With the presence of the Islamic State and militias in Iraq, Ali said his work with U.S. forces could cost him his life at any moment.
“After all these years of sufferings, threats, fears, and also waiting, unfortunately,” he said, “all my and my daughter’s dreams have gone.”
This story was updated at 7:45 p.m.
Photo credit: STEPHANIE KEITH/Getty Images