Iraqis who risked their lives helping the American military were taken off planes and returned to their war-torn country over the past week before the Trump administration exempted them from a ban on immigration from Iraq and six other Muslim-majority countries.
At the urging of the Pentagon, U.S. officials welcomed Iraqis who were given special immigrant visas, saying they are now exempt from the 90-day ban.
The initial denial of entry to the United States caused panic among dozens of Iraqis who had served the U.S. mission in Iraq as interpreters and cultural advisers. It was the latest hiccup in the special immigrant visa program. Here is a look at the program, its problems and proposed solutions.
Q: WHAT IS THE HISTORY OF THE SPECIAL IMMIGRANT VISA PROGRAM?
A: Since 2006, Congress has enacted a series of legislative provisions to allow Iraqis and Afghans to become permanent residents of the U.S. if they worked as translators for the U.S. military or U.S. government in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Q: WHO QUALIFIES?
A: Applicants must have worked a minimum of 12 months directly for the military or government and must have a letter of recommendation from a general or flag officer from a military branch or from an American embassy. Applicants can also get visas for their spouses and children.
Q: HOW MANY SPECIAL IMMIGRANT VISAS HAVE BEEN ISSUED?
A: More than 37,000 Iraqis and Afghans were granted special immigrant status by the end of fiscal year 2015, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The Obama administration in 2011 slowed processing for Iraqi nationals seeking refuge in the U.S. after two Iraqi nationals were arrested on terrorism-related charges. But that year, 618 Iraqis were allowed to enter the U.S. with special visas. In 2014, no new special immigrant visas were provided for Iraqis, but U.S. officials continue to process the backlog of applicants and are down to about 1,000, according the veteran-run nonprofit, No One Left Behind, which helps translators get to the United States.
HOW ABOUT AFGHANISTAN?
More than 13,000 Afghans and their immediate family members are waiting to get special immigrant visas for aiding the U.S. mission, according to the State Department. Congress approved 1,500 visas in December and extended the program until the end of 2020, but advocates say that number is woefully inadequate.
WHY IS THE PROGRAM IMPORTANT?
Veterans credit interpreters with saving their lives. Many say their translators helped them traverse dangerous terrain, enter hostile communities and tipped them off to planned attacks by insurgents. Some even killed militants aiming to attack. The interpreters translate but also provide advice on cultural norms, helping prevent misunderstandings between troops and locals.
WHY WERE THEY DENIED ENTRY AFTER PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP'S EXECUTIVE ORDER?
Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said there was an initial problem with communication between agencies, but officials were spreading the word about the exemption. He said some airlines also "overinterpreted our guidance."
At the urging of the Pentagon, the Trump administration agreed to exempt special immigrant visa holders. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said entry of the Iraqis with special visas was "deemed to be in the national interest."
HOW CAN PROGRAM BE IMPROVED?
Combat veterans have been lobbying Congress and raising money to get their translators to the United States because the translators' lives are threatened in their homelands for helping American troops. Many say the United States is not doing enough to protect them, and thousands have lived in fear for years while they await visas.
Former U.S. Army Capt. Matthew Zeller, co-founder and chief executive of No One Left Behind, said the military needs to implement a permanent policy that would include better concealing their identities. He suggested the military use the U.S. government's witness protection program as a model and that there be no cap on visas and more money to help them resettle in the U.S.