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Trudy Rubin: Visa delays a betrayal of wartime allies

If Donald Trump really wants to help the U.S. military and make American great again, I've got a suggestion. What better way to promote both goals than by keeping Congress' promises to admit Iraqis and Afghans who helped U.S. troops?Yes, I know the presid

If Donald Trump really wants to help the U.S. military and make American great again, I've got a suggestion. What better way to promote both goals than by keeping Congress' promises to admit Iraqis and Afghans who helped U.S. troops?Yes, I know the president-elect is anti-immigrant, especially when it comes to Muslims. But how can he square that with the frustration of scores of U.S. military officers who have tried for years to bring their interpreters here legally, only to be blocked by Washington bureaucracy. Meantime these Iraqis and Afghans live under death threat from militias that want to kill them for saving American lives.

Take the case of Wisam and Khalid Albaiedani, Iraqi brothers who both worked as translators for the U.S. Army. Because they helped U.S. soldiers, Khalid was shot in the face and Wisam received death threats.

It took years of security checks and Herculean efforts by Peter Farley, the U.S. officer with whom Wisam went out on daily patrols, to get the brothers to Haverhill, Mass. They came under the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program that applies to Iraqis and Afghans who worked for the U.S. military or civilians. The program has been hobbled by woefully inadequate staffing that leads to lengthy delays.

Once here, the brothers applied to bring their parents and younger siblings, left behind, who were still under death threat. As I wrote in a previous column, the family was finally granted visas after five years of vetting. They were set to fly from Baghdad to Massachusetts at the end of August, having sold their home and all their possessions.

On Aug. 30, however, as they prepared to leave for the airport, the U.S. Embassy told them to stand down because there was a new security check.

A couple of weeks ago the family's visas were rejected, no reason given, no chance to appeal. Maybe it was a clerical error - many Arabic names are similar - but there's no way to know unless a reason is given. The family is now living in total limbo with no jobs, no home, and death threats hanging over their heads.

On Nov. 11, Wisam spoke at a Veterans' Day commemoration at the town hall in Marblehead, Mass., that was organized by U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton (D., Mass.), a four-tour Iraq veteran. The audience was made up of U.S. vets who had fought in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Wisam spoke about his family's case, veterans told stories of their losses, and the gathering got "very emotional." Many of the vets thanked him for his service.

"Not a lot of Americans know what these vets went through," Wisam told me. "Not a lot of Americans know what we interpreters went through."

With his years of military experience in Iraq, Moulton knows a lot about both.

The Massachusetts legislator just fought a tough battle to reauthorize the SIV program for Afghans who worked with the U.S. military; its expiration would have left around 10,000 applicants in limbo.

The program used to have bipartisan support, led by veterans such as Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.). Rep. Mac Thornberry (R., Texas), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee on which Moulton serves, did finally back it.

But in this campaign year of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, several Republican legislators fought against the Afghan program and pared the number of new visas down to 1,500. "Because of the new president, other Republicans were emboldened by his anti-immigrant positions," says Moulton, "and they were able to cut it down."

As for the Iraqi visa program - which is much larger and broader - it is hobbled by a dire shortage of staffing by U.S. consular and contract officials. It can take months or years just to get a first interview. Then comes the security vetting process, which is already "extreme" and takes two or more years.

"We have tried to address the issue of too few interviewers with the State Department," Moulton told me by phone. "But if State under President Obama can't make the bureaucracy function appropriately, what about under Trump? There is no sympathy from him for the brave Afghans or Iraqis who risked their lives for us."

"One of my translators went with us on all our missions and slept in the same room with me, and he's been trying to get here since 2008," Moulton recounted.

"He's gotten help from [me], a Marine officer who worked for Gen. [David] Petraeus and who is a U.S. congressman. He's gotten help from a whole group of Marines, and from a top immigration lawyer pro bono in Boston. And he's still not here."

It does look like Moulton's interpreter will finally arrive soon.

However, the understaffed, opaque process that has trapped Wisam Albaiedani's family is a disgrace. For anyone who cares about the honor and safety of the U.S. military, it should be self-evident that American must keep its promises to Iraqi and Afghan interpreters.

If Trump has no empathy for the interpreters, perhaps his choice for defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis, will press to improve the process. I'm certain Gen. John Kelly will if he is confirmed to head Homeland Security.

After all, how can America call itself great if it betrays Iraqis and Afghans who saved U.S. military lives?