The Long, Frustrating Fight to Get an Iraqi Interpreter Out of Baghdad and Into the U.S.
Bringing Bandar Home
He called to say that he'd be murdered if he couldn't get out.
As an interpreter—my interpreter, actually—working for coalition forces in Iraq, Bandar had already lost several friends and colleagues, including his 15- and 10-year-old cousins, to insurgents determined to exact revenge on anyone perceived to be aiding an occupying military force. From 7,000 miles away, he phoned me to ask for help.
When he was a teenager, Bandar reconnected with an uncle who had been an opposition leader against Saddam Hussein's authoritarian regime. After fleeing the country and spending nearly a decade in the United States as a political asylee, his uncle returned to Iraq."When my uncle came back in 2003, he told me all about America, and he supported my plan to work with the U.S. military," Bandar told me.
Bandar had always maintained an idealized vision of the United States, having consumed as a child whatever bootleg American movies and television he could get his hands on. (He believed then, as he does now, that The Tyra Banks Show is America's greatest export.) "I used to always dream that one day when I get older I'll go to America," he said.
In 2004, at age 17, Bandar became an interpreter.
When he called me from the other side of the world, I was a 25-year-old college student, back in Oregon after a yearlong deployment to Iraq as a sergeant in a U.S. Army cavalry unit. I had been stationed at a base 50 miles from Baghdad within the Sunni triangle, just a couple of miles from Bandar's home.
Our mission was to be a Quick Reaction Force for the base. Essentially, we were a 911 for soldiers operating in the surrounding area. On good days, this meant providing convoy security and area patrols. On bad days, it meant responding to unforeseen emergencies and backing up units that found themselves in precarious situations. Whatever the day's agenda, our job required constant talk with Iraqi civilians. We couldn't have done it without help from local translators.
I first met Bandar after he'd joined the rotation of Iraqi interpreters working with our unit. He was 18, and he'd been assigned to join my platoon on patrols of several villages within our area of operations. This was a fraught assignment for Bandar: He'd spent his entire life a couple of miles from the fence line and might easily have been recognized.
Neither the State Department nor their contractors kept close records of the number of local translators employed during the war. Estimates vary widely, but several thousand Iraqis may have been enlisted to aid the American cause. To secure these jobs, Bandar and other interpreters underwent a rigorous security screening, which was repeated every six months.
The interpreters worked with combat and support soldiers, and even in field hospitals. Depending on the situation, they often filled the role of intelligence officer, diplomat, etiquette coach, soldier, or peacekeeper. In a war zone, where misunderstandings can end in bloodshed, they're crucial in keeping both U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians safe.
Translators put themselves in extreme danger—arguably more so, and for much longer, than many soldiers. They are "outside the wire" on dangerous patrols, facing the same danger as troops but without weapons to defend themselves. And they must keep their identities secret, for fear of retaliation against themselves or their families.
Of course, the job doesn't last forever. When U.S. forces finally withdrew from Iraq, local contractors were on their own again. This has left many of them in a precarious—and often life-threatening—position. In fact, the U.S. military is still deployed in Iraq, and continues to employ Iraqi contractors.
Early in the occupation, Baathists initiated a whisper campaign to foment distrust and animosity toward translators working with coalition forces. The stigma persists today. "Interpreters are branded forever," Bandar recently wrote to me. "When I go to market or anywhere people keep calling me 'traitor!' Pretty much they call all interpreters the same thing."
Before my unit arrived in 2005, Iraqi contractors were already an established target for violence perpetrated by both Sunni insurgents and Shia death squads. The New York Times reported that in Baghdad alone, 45 interpreters were killed within the first nine months of 2004.
By 2005, murders of Iraqi contractors and translators had become common.
In 2006, Bandar received three separate written threats at the house he shared with his mother. She had found the threatening messages but couldn't read them, so she held them for Bandar until he returned from work. He never told her what they said. Each was a slight variation on the same theme: "Stop working for the infidel and go back to your God. Or face death."
Bandar brought one of the notes to an Air Force officer he'd been working with on base, who passed the information to the intelligence officers. According to Bandar, "They said I [shouldn't] leave the base at least for four months." So he didn't.
'I Don't Have a Place in My Country' The nonprofit organization Human Rights First estimated in 2009 that 146,000 "U.S.-affiliated Iraqis" have worked to assist the U.S. government, contractors, nongovernmental organizations, and media.
For U.S.-affiliated Iraqis—Bandar and other translators among them—resettlement in the United States is a critical lifeline. It fulfills a promise to important allies and signals to potential future partners that the U.S. will have their backs.
In 2007, The Washington Post reported that Ryan Crocker, then the ambassador to Iraq, was dismayed by the government's inadequate response to the growing refugee crisis in Iraq. "Resettlement takes too long," Crocker said, pointing to "major bottlenecks" in the security review process.
Soon after, Sens. Ted Kennedy (D–Mass.) and Gordon Smith (R*–Ore.), citing Crocker's "plea for help," introduced the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, which was signed into law six months later.
Expanding on the existing Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program—which was capped at 50 total visas per year for Iraqi and Afghan translators—the Act created a parallel SIV program for Iraqis who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government. The new program set aside 5,000 SIVs, and it made U.S.-affiliated Iraqis eligible for consideration for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). But while this widened the pathway for Iraqis looking to escape the violence, the application process remained long and burdensome.
In 2007, when I began wading through the process, applicants for SIVs required a letter of support from a general or flag officer. I was able to secure one for Bandar through connections within my former Army unit, but this can be a very heavy lift for soldiers with a lower rank or a smaller network. For former interpreters lacking a plugged-in American sponsor, securing this sort of letter is nearly impossible.
Applications for SIVs were fairly rare in the early years. Human Rights First speculated in a 2009 report that contractors in Iraq were likely unaware of the SIV system, and were instead applying through the much more limited old program due to a lack of access to information or legal counsel. Since then, Congress has passed several bills urging the State Department to streamline the application process and to limit long delays. The purpose, after all, was to fast-track applications and acceptances for allies who'd already undergone repeated screening during the course of their contract jobs.
Congress let the SIV program sunset in 2014, limiting eligibility for visas to those who had submitted applications by the September 30, 2014, deadline. Those who managed to squeeze into the pipeline have faced long wait times, ranging from one to over six years.
Applicants were required to provide an Iraqi police certificate—essentially another background check. And they had to produce evidence that they had been employed by the U.S. government. That can be difficult. Sometimes records have been lost, if they ever existed. The U.S. Army withheld $3 million in payments to Titan Corp., the largest government contractor that employed translators, due to accounting "deficiencies."
As Bandar was struggling to gather the documents for his application, he became so afraid for his life that he felt compelled to flee Baghdad. I was able to send him a few thousand dollars to help him take refuge in the relative safety of Kurdistan. By the time he felt he could return safely, we'd found an immigration attorney willing to work on his case pro bono. They spent the next several months preparing his application.
Bandar would visit internet cafés under cover of darkness to print, sign, and scan documents, terrified that the wrong person might see they were written in English. He slept all day in a friend's small apartment and waited until nightfall to go out again. He lived this way for a year.
"Joey…I don't have a place in my country. And I can't continue like this," he wrote to me in 2008. "I am without freedom now. I cannot move and I cannot do anything."
'A Huge Number of People in the Pipeline' A Democratic Hill staffer who works on refugee issues told me that the SIV program was allowed to sunset because Congress thought the Direct Access Program, administered through the ordinary refugee system, would be good enough. It's not. It has left tens of thousands of Iraqis who worked with the United States stranded in serious peril.
It also isn't equipped for triage. "There is a huge number of people in the pipeline," the staffer explained to me, "and some of them are in imminent danger and others are not. It's logistically challenging to sort those two groups."
President Donald Trump's recent executive orders have made matters even worse. Six weeks after his first travel ban was blocked by federal courts, Trump signed a revised order suspending visa applicants from six predominantly Muslim countries for at least 90 days, and suspending all refugee admissions into the United States for 120 days.
SIV holders were not specifically targeted, but the latest version of the administration's travel ban suspends, and also drastically reduces, the Direct Access Program.
According to U.S. State Department figures, only 22 visas have been issued to interpreters and their families through the SIV program since 2014 (the year it stopped accepting applications). There are fewer than 700 visas left to be issued. Meanwhile, 61,257 U.S.-affiliated Iraqis are currently in the USRAP pipeline, according to the agency. And Trump's travel ban, if ultimately upheld by the courts, would reduce total refugee admissions by more than half, to only 50,000 in 2017, a number reached on July 12 of this year.
Together with Trump's promise to slash the refugee cap to a historic low—which he can do next year, whether or not his executive order survives Supreme Court scrutiny—the travel ban makes it a virtual certainty that thousands of Iraqis who risked their lives working for and with the United States will be left to twist in the wind.
But lawmakers can step in. Despite the toxic environment surrounding immigration and refugee policy, the SIV program largely enjoys bipartisan support. Congress should reauthorize it, and increase the available visas, for as long as the U.S. military remains in the region. In addition, Congress must require more stringent record keeping and reporting by both the government and its contractors.
After a thorough but timely review, the application and processing system should be reformed to allow for a more expedient nomination process and faster vetting. And in cases where applicants can demonstrate an imminent personal threat, safe locations should be made available for those awaiting final approval from the State Department.
At the least, Congress, the courts, or both should demand that the administration provide a categorical exemption for U.S.-affiliated Iraqis to the 120-day ban and refugee admissions cap.
'Thank You for Your Service' Nearly three years passed between that frantic phone call and Bandar's final meeting at the U.S. Embassy. There he finally received his visa to travel to the United States.
In all of that time, he never once mentioned his plans to anyone in Iraq beyond the embassy officials who needed to know—not even to his mother. He did this not just for his safety and hers, but because he couldn't bear the thought that someone might convince him to stay.
Only 10 hours before his flight would leave Iraq for America—the first flight he'd ever been on—Bandar told his mother he was leaving. She didn't think he was serious, until she saw the small bag he'd packed for his trip. "She was happy for me, and sad at the same time," he says. "I'm all she has."
Bandar was only able to bring a few personal items with him from Iraq. The most cherished among them is a slim photo album. It does not contain pictures of his family—his mother is his only close blood relative—but of friends, many of whom had also worked in some capacity for the U.S. government.
For a year, Bandar lived in a small room in my apartment. On more than a few occasions I came home to find him weeping, clutching his album. Every time it was the same story, unique only in its grisly details. Another interpreter, another friend, had been slaughtered.
Whatever our views of this war, the Iraqis who worked alongside our soldiers deserve better. Bandar more than earned his American citizenship. But he's one of the lucky ones. His lamented interpreter friends earned theirs too. Instead they were rewarded with ingratitude and death.
"Thank you for your service." People often say that to me when they learn I fought in Iraq. But I don't want to be thanked. I want you to thank Bandar. I want you to thank all the brave Iraqis who put their lives on the line to help soldiers like me make it home. Thousands of them need new homes because they helped us, because they served. Let's unbolt the door. Let's bring them home.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified Sen. Gordon Smith as a Democrat. He is a Republican.