A year ago I wrote a column titled "From Iraq, a good-news immigration story."
It concerned the reversal of a cruel injustice the U.S. bureaucracy had perpetrated on the Al-Baidhani family, whose two sons paid a high price for working as interpreters for the U.S. Army in Iraq.
I wrote too soon.
In the current anti-immigration era, when blocking refugees has become a top priority, few exceptions are made — even for those who risked their lives to help Americans. So, my good-news story has turned into a shameful saga of U.S. callousness toward Iraqis who helped our soldiers.
The story isn't finished, but its ending may depend on you.
First, the background: After the U.S. troops left Iraq, Khalid Al-Baidhani was shot in the face and his brother Wisam received death threats — all because they had worked with the U.S. Army. The brothers' uncle, also an interpreter for U.S. forces, was shot dead.
It took years of security checks and Herculean efforts by Peter Farley, the former Army sergeant with whom Wisam went out on daily patrols, to get the brothers to Haverhill, Mass. — under a special visa program for Iraqis and Afghans who worked for the U.S. military. Wisam adjusted rapidly to American life, speaking to veterans' groups and running the Boston Marathon on behalf of a children's charity sponsored by the credit union he works for.
Once here, the brothers applied to bring their parents and younger siblings – who were also living under death threats. After five years of extensive vetting, the Al-Baidhani family was set to fly from Baghdad to Massachusetts on Aug. 31, 2016, having sold all their possessions.
On Aug. 30, as the family prepared to leave for the airport, the U.S. Embassy called and told them to stand down because there was another security check. On the day before Thanksgiving, Wisam got notice that their visas were refused. No reason given, no way to learn why.
Farley, now an elementary school teacher, waged a phenomenal campaign to reverse the refusal (even though such reversals are rare). He gathered 100 letters of support from U.S. citizens, raised support from several members of the U.S. House and Senate, and mobilized a Change.org petition that garnered 22,000 signatures.
Miraculously, the rejection was withdrawn at the beginning of June 2017. That's when I wrote my upbeat column. Then came the latest, bitter chapter of this story.
One year on, Wisam's family still has not received their visas. "My family sold everything, house, car, belongings, because they were told they didn't need to stay," Wisam told me. "Now they are living in limbo. There is danger every day. When we call [the U.S. consular agency] the response is always the same — still pending, check back in six months. They don't even have any updates.
"It's really discouraging. I feel like at some point this is not the place we were dreaming about. At least the government should allow the families of people who helped U.S. soldiers to come here. All I ask is to be fair."
But "enhanced vetting procedures" instituted by President Trump seem crafted more to block entry than to strengthen security. For example, they require every address at which a family has lived for more than 30 days in the last 10 years, and data on extended lists of relatives.
Only 113 Iraqi refugees have been admitted as of May 21 in fiscal 2018 as compared with 6,886 last year, according to State Department figures. This includes relatives of those who worked with U.S. troops.
"Extra vetting is just a code word for not letting Iraqis in," Farley told me, his frustration palpable. "In this case, they looked over 600 pieces of evidence. They've dug and dug and done all the security checks you can imagine for people who sacrificed for this country.
"These are the people we rely on in our war efforts. What message are we sending?"
Unfortunately, the message is pretty graphic: The United States betrays those who fight by our side.
I heard equal frustration from Scott Cooper, a Marine vet who did five tours in Iraq and heads Veterans for American Ideals, an organization that has taken up the Al-Baidhanis' cause. "This case is as clear-cut as you can imagine," he says, "but even though they won their appeal they had to go back to ground zero.
"People like Wisam are brothers," Cooper adds. "You want to do right by them. I feel a great sadness that we can't get this right."
So the question becomes, can things be put right, at least in this one case? Immigration lawyers tell me that, in the current grim immigration climate, the only hope is to rally widespread public support for a particular case. That makes bureaucrats take notice.