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Trump Refugee Rule May Block Military Interpreters from US

Alex Unguist, left, interpreter, and U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Richard Holder, right, talk with the village elder Oct. 25, 2012, outside Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. (USAF photo/Staff Sgt. Jonathan.
Alex Unguist, left, interpreter, and U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Richard Holder, right, talk with the village elder Oct. 25, 2012, outside Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. (USAF photo/Staff Sgt. Jonathan.

A new executive order issued by President Donald Trump on Friday that temporarily halts the entrance of most refugees into the U.S. while indefinitely ending the entrance of refugees from Syria may impact a program that brings to the U.S. Iraqis and Afghans who have served with American forces as interpreters.

The executive order, signed Friday evening, puts at least a 120-day hold on new refugees from all countries while officials conduct a review of the refugee screening process. A separate rule also puts a 90-day hold on the entrance of all immigrants from a series of countries considered particularly high-risk, including Iraq. When the refugee program restarts, the order states, the U.S. will accept only 50,000 refugees annually, down from the current 110,000.

Currently, only one percent of the world's 19.5 million refugees are ever resettled, according to Catholic Social Services, a nonprofit that assists the U.S. government with refugees.

Interpreters who work for U.S. forces are able to apply for resettlement in the U.S. under a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program because they are often targeted for assassination due to their association with the U.S. The SIV program in Afghanistan is still accepting new applicants, according to the State Department, while a near identical program existed in Iraq until it was sunset for new applicants last April.

About 500 Iraqi applicants and their families and about 13,000 Afghan applicants and their families are still in the SIV pipeline awaiting final approval, officials with State Department said. The application for resettlement through SIV can take up to three years, according to SIV advocates, in part because SIV refugees receive vetting from every U.S. intelligence agency, they said.

To date, more than 34,000 Afghans and 20,000 Iraqis have received immigration benefits from SIV programs, State Department officials said. The department issued 12,086 SIVs to Afghan interpreters and their families in fiscal 2016, and 2,250 to Iraqis.

State Department officials declined to speculate about the impact any potential U.S. government policy change may have on Iraqi or Afghan refugees. But an official with No One Left Behind, a veteran-run nonprofit that helps former interpreters resettle in the U.S., said it is not clear whether Afghan and Iraqi applicants will be affected by the rule.

Officials with No One Left Behind said they are advocating for SIV applicants to be exempted from the new rule, said Jason Gorey, a veteran and the organization's chief operating officer.

A clause in the new rule allows for exclusions on a case-by-case basis "when in the national interest," when admitting the person is part of a prior international agreement, or if the person is "already in transit and denying admission would cause undue hardship."

"When [he was] president-elect, Trump said that 'extreme vetting' is the approach that he's likely to take for these individuals," Gorey said. "Our message is that the SIV program already includes extreme vetting. They are the most thoroughly vetted individuals to come to our country -- period."

The SIV program has bipartisan support, Gorey said, adding that the fact it's at risk as part of the executive order is likely an oversight.

"I don't think that it's malice or even intentional in any way on the Trump administration," he said. "This is sort of an in-the-weeds detail that this sort of small population of interpreters that clearly everyone supports coming to America is going to get caught up in this larger executive order."

Gorey said there are applicants who have U.S. visas in hand but are not yet in country who may be delayed. He said because the applicants are under threat, lives could be lost as the result of any delay.

"The reason the SIV process exists is that these people are being actively hunted," he said. "And I have no doubt that, especially if it goes beyond 120 days, it will cost lives."

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com.

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