News & Politics

Iraqi Interpreters Faced the Same Enemy Fire as U.S. Troops. Now That’s Not Enough to Get Them to America.

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The aliases of interpreters working with the American military have always reminded me of superhero names. There was the man who called himself Cruise whom I met during my first deployment to Iraq. A small, muscular guy who was perpetually smiling, Cruise had taken his alias from the star of the Mission: Impossible movies. He was with us in Baghdad during some of the most brutal days of 2007, on raids, cordons, and patrols — not just as an asset, but as a vital part of the team. He was brave because he was optimistic in the sincere hope that our governments were working together toward the shared goal of a peaceful and secure Iraq. He was brave because he believed deeply in both his country and our own.

I met the man called Castle during my second deployment, in the more rural Diyala Province. He was the complete opposite of Cruise physically and temperamentally. Moody and sarcastic, we passed the days on our combat outpost ribbing each other, telling ghost stories, and arguing. But, like Cruise, Castle had faith in America. He was certain that if he served as a translator, our country would keep its promise and fast-track him for a visa. Even if he didn’t have faith in American foreign policy, he had faith in America.

I always wondered if we actually kept up our end of the bargain and granted Castle a visa. The odds aren’t necessarily good. Acting as an interpreter for the American military is an incredibly dangerous job with a notoriously high attrition rate. There’s a reason they use aliases and cover their faces when out on patrol.

These are the kinds of people that Donald Trump’s travel ban threatens — men and women already targeted, with their families, for death in their own countries. One of the Iraqi immigrants detained at Kennedy Airport, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, was a translator for American forces in Iraq. Returning him to Iraq would have been as good as a death sentence, one signed by the president.

Dane Bowker, who served in Afghanistan, writes in the Washington Post that “Interpreters are routinely killed by insurgents because they’re aiding the United States.” After identifying the address of one interpreter Bowker worked with, insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at his car, wounding his father and killing his brother.

Stories like Bowker’s are common. Farah Marcolla, an Iraqi interpreter who is trying to get her family to safety in America, told Public Radio International that insurgents have already burned down her house and murdered her father and husband in retaliation. “I’m scared. The chance to see my family reunited again is very slim now,” Marcolla told PRI. “People like me and my family who helped and supported America, I believe we should be reunited. The history of the United States is to support people and help them, not to separate the families.”

Despite bipartisan bills mandating that special immigrant visas (SIVs) for interpreters from Iraq and Afghanistan take no longer than nine months to process, many wait in vain for years. State Department numbers show that the average Iraqi interpreter waits nine months over the legal limit. The average Afghan waits nearly a year longer.

Now they will wait longer still, if they’re ever allowed in at all. It’s difficult to get precise numbers for exactly how many people have been killed in retaliation for assisting our military. Some just disappear and are never heard from again. The stories that we do have, though, illustrate our failure to do more for our allies on the ground — a moral failure with devastating consequences. Sakhidad Afghan had been a translator for the Marines and the Air Force and was waiting for an SIV when he was snatched out of a bazaar by insurgents. He was tortured before being executed in the back of a pickup truck. He had been waiting for a visa for four years.

American vetting of immigrants is already among the most stringent in the world. The United States spends years vetting allies from war-ravaged countries, a process that neatly ignores American culpability in making them war-ravaged in the first place. Written into Trump’s executive order are the lies we tell, about the world and ourselves, crafted into policy.

Also written in there are the empty promises we made to military interpreters. I wonder if they’ll ever trust us again. I wonder if Cruise and Castle are still so optimistic. I wonder if they’re still alive.