Problems of Perception: Unintended Effects of the Immigration Ban on Military Recruitment

By William Denn*

Like many Americans, I was deeply troubled by Hameed Khalid Darweesh’s detention at New York’s JFK airport on January 28th. Darweesh, a former U.S. military interpreter from Iraq, who received a special immigrant visa (SIV) on January 20th, was detained due to the recent travel ban affecting seven Muslim-majority countries. The action bans travel for 90 days and suspends all refugee admission for 120 days. Darweesh, who was later released with help from the ACLU, expressed dismay for his treatment as a criminal despite how many US soldiers he helped.

Darweesh’s story reminded me of the many interpreters I worked with during my own combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, interpreters who fought alongside U.S. soldiers at great personal peril. Today, many of these same interpreters are still seeking refuge and are watching closely this debate within the U.S. government.

In the most recent development, on February 3rd, a U.S. District Court in Seattle issued a temporary restraining order that effectively ended the ban nationwide. It can be expected however, that the government will seek to appeal this restraining order, seek to implement new legislation, or issue a more narrowly constrained order. Regardless, the current government infighting leads to a perception that the door may still be shut and could undermine efforts to recruit local assistance on battlefields like in Iraq.

Because of these problems in perception, and their unintended consequences for recruitment, our government should institute immediate exceptions for these interpreters and commit to expanding new SIV efforts to provide sanctuary for interpreters and translators.

Unfortunately, part of the problem is that the sacrifices and acts of heroism of these interpreters have received little publicity. One such story was on November 8th, 2007, when a patrol of about fifteen U.S. soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade was ambushed by the Taliban near the town of Aranas in the Waigul Valley of eastern Afghanistan. During the twenty-hour battle that followed, the patrol sustained ten wounded and five killed, including their platoon leader, First Lieutenant Matthew Ferrara. As the surviving soldiers continued to fight and rescue their comrades, Lieutenant Ferrara’s interpreter, Alex, an Afghan national, picked up Ferrara’s radio to guide in reinforcements and helicopter support. The soldiers’ battalion commander later stated, “Alex’s actions would have earned him a Silver Star if he were a US soldier.”

Despite being owed a debt of gratitude; Alex’s family went into hiding after the Taliban killed three family members, and Alex was unable to secure refugee status to the United States.

The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project estimates that since 2002, 50,000 Iraqi and Afghan nationals served as US military interpreters. But as the US military presence was eventually reduced, interpreters became more vulnerable targets for revenge. Because of this increased danger and the critical role interpreters played in helping the US military, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 granting the State Department the power to issue SIVs to Iraqi and Afghan nationals who worked with the US military. The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act granted up to 25,000 SIVs and the Afghan Allies Protection Act granted 7,500 SIVs. According to the Congressional Research Service, as of early 2016, 15,000 of these SIVs were granted, allowing more than 37,000 interpreters and their family members to receive special immigrant status.

The availability of the SIV program incentivized talented Iraqis and Afghans to work with the United States for the betterment of their countries. But sadly, the SIV program has been plagued by difficulties. Alex, for example, is still in Kabul waiting for his SIV application to be processed. During my interviews with other interpreters in 2014, many complained of a cumbersome application process that lasted years. Applicants frequently had difficulty showing identification documents in a war-torn nation where many did not have birth certificates, licenses or passports.

During the Obama administration, the State Department worked hard to reduce those wait times, but if a refugee ban affects SIV applications, these efforts may now be on hold. Without clear communication from the US government, the perception will remain that the door to the United States is shut despite ongoing efforts to recruit locals to assist U.S. forces battling ISIS. This perception may erode the locals’ trust, sending a signal that the U.S. may not honor its commitment to help those that are willing to help us. Recent reports from Iraq indicate that the debate is already having an effect on morale of Iraqi soldiers.

Our country has a moral obligation to see that these heroes are given sanctuary. By temporarily shutting the door, the government seriously undermines our ability to recruit locals in war zones. Vetting against potential terrorists is important, but not when it means jeopardizing the lives of people like Alex and Darweesh who have already passed the most extreme vetting—having served honorably alongside our military.

Maintaining national security means little if we compromise our moral values and erode our ability to recruit good people in the process. The U.S. government should communicate that it will protect the SIV program during any refugee ban, especially in light of the ongoing conflict in Iraq.


*William Denn is a US Army officer with combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, Harvard Kennedy School, and the US Army Command and General Staff College. He has written for the Washington Post, Boston Herald, and academic journals covering national security issues. The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the US government.

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