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March 02, 2017

Rumored Revisions to Executive Order Not Enough to Protect Iraqi Allies

The White House is expected to soon release its revised executive order on refugees and immigrants. The administration’s first order, signed January 27, placed a minimum 90-day ban on individuals coming from seven Muslim-majority countries and slashed the number of refugees the U.S. would admit by 60,000 after putting a minimum 120-day moratorium on the entire U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

While the legality of its first order is pending in federal court, the White House stated the revised attempt is necessary “for reasons of national security,” though some might find it odd that the administration delayed such an ostensibly important security measure in order to bask in press surrounding the president’s recent speech. In addition to key changes designed to circumvent another court battle, President Trump’s new policy is rumored to make a surprisingly astute move: removing Iraq from the seven nations affected by the immigration ban.

At a time when Iraq is currently working side by side with U.S. forces, including Iraq in the original ban lacked foresight—as outspoken members of the military and veteran communities pointed out. Lt. General Stephen Townsend, commander of the U.S.-led effort against ISIS, praised the rumored removal of Iraq from the list of banned countries, stating that any new executive order should reflect a “very strong partnership” between the United States and Iraq.

When the first order came out, U.S. military veterans who served in Iraq passionately spoke up. Many hold strong personal ties to Iraqis that served with them in vital interpreter and translator roles. The rollout of the White House’s ban initially barred these Iraqi allies from entering the country, even though many had risked their lives for the United States and already completed an arduous and painstaking screening process.

The program that grants visas to these Iraqi interpreters and translators, called the Special Immigrant Visa program, was created after Congress recognized the clear need to protect the Iraqis who allied themselves with the U.S. government from reprisal. While the program no longer accepts new applications, according to the State Department there are still nearly 1,000 Special Immigrant Visas remaining to issue to waiting Iraqi allies.

Hours after Trump’s first executive order was issued, Hameed Darweesh, an Iraqi man who served alongside the 101st Airborne Division was detained at the JFK airport and faced potential deportation. National backlash prompted the Department of Homeland Security to issue a statement exempting these Iraqi allies from the travel ban “on a case by case basis.” Reports indicate, under President Trump’s new directive, these Special Immigrant Visa holders won’t be affected.

While an improvement, this revision is not yet cause for celebration. The Special Immigrant Visa program, while vital, is not the primary method of protecting our vulnerable Iraqi allies. The majority of these individuals enter through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Under the bipartisan Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, Iraqis that served with the U.S. government, media, or non-governmental organizations were given a direct access pipeline to enter the refugee admissions program. This population includes interpreters and translators that served with combat troops but missed the cutoff to apply for a special immigrant visa.

As of now, the State Department says that there are tens of thousands of individuals waiting in the intensive vetting process to qualify for entry. The revised executive order will likely still leave these Iraqi allies, and other vulnerable refugees, stranded. The minimum 120-day moratorium on the entire U.S. Refugee Admissions Program will apply to them, grinding processing to a halt and causing security clearances to lapse, further delaying the admission of U.S. affiliated Iraqis.

While it appears President Trump and his cadre of national security advisors, most battle-forged Generals of the Iraq war, have realized that any executive orders affecting Iraq must be reflective of our ongoing partnership with that nation and its citizens, an exemption for special immigrant visa holders is not enough. These allies might be some of the most vulnerable in the world, all due to their commitment to our shared mission. Security enhancements can be added without derailing the entire refugee admissions process, safeguarding both Iraqi allies and other vulnerable refugees who have been fully vetted. President Trump should do right by our Iraqi allies and not suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which is vital to protecting those who have served our shared mission faithfully.