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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
 

Rubin: Biden should clear way for visas for Iraqi allies

By Trudy Rubin
Published: September 23, 2023, 6:01am

There’s a gaping hole in the endless argument over immigration — and it drives me up the wall. It involves a crisis that should have united both immigration hawks and doves, yet you rarely hear it mentioned.

Indeed, few Americans are aware that as many as 100,000 Iraqis have yet to receive the visas to which they were legally entitled by an act of Congress — under the P-2 Direct Access Program — because their family members worked for the U.S. military or civilian officials in wartime. This has put their lives at risk to the present day.

Former President Donald Trump shut these families out entirely with his travel ban on Muslims. President Joe Biden has barely done better. And while there is lingering sympathy for Afghan military translators left behind by the chaotic U.S. withdrawal, you rarely hear these days about our betrayals of Iraqis.

One endangered Iraqi family, whose struggles I have been reporting on since 2016, is caught in this shameful mishandling of visas. Khalid and Wisam Al-Baidhani, both U.S. military translators from 2006-2010 and now American citizens — have been trying to rescue their parents and siblings since 2011.

Their latest, jolting disappointment occurred late last month.

As a result of his service, Khalid was shot in the face by Shiite militiamen while leaving a U.S. base in Baghdad (he returned to work after he recovered). Three years later, Wisam was sent a single bullet wrapped in a note: “This is for your heart if you do not stop working for them.” Khalid’s uncle, also a translator, was murdered and his body left in a dumpster.

In 2011, the officers for whom the brothers worked helped them get special immigrant visas for translators for the U.S. military, a program that no longer exists.

Given the risk to their family, the two brothers applied immediately to the P-2 program to get them to America. After five years of security checks and interviews, the family was informed by the U.S. Embassy in 2016 that they were cleared for visas.

But the night before departure, the family received a call from the embassy informing them that their travel clearance was revoked, and shortly afterward, their visas were denied.

The refusal was reversed on appeal. But then nothing.

With the election of Biden, the Al-Baidhanis hoped their chances would improve. Yet the Biden administration suspended the P-2 program for Iraqis in early 2021 because of some suspected misuse, and only restarted it in March 2022. The numbers are creeping up to around 100 admissions a month, which barely touches the backlog.

The Al-Baidhani family was finally reinterviewed in Baghdad on Aug. 23 for nine hours about every mundane detail of their lives. But instead of finally getting visa approval, they received a printout stating that further “review of your eligibility” was required. This, after 12 years in process.

“We served in the army, we proved our loyalty. This is so frustrating,” Khalid told me by phone this week. “There is no way to find out how long it will take.”

Equally upset was Wisam’s congressman, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. “We have a special obligation to those who helped us, and this family should be reunited,” McGovern told me. “Yet we have been given no reason why it hasn’t happened. There clearly is no sense of urgency.”

That’s unacceptable. The White House could make this program a bipartisan success story that would offset America’s growing reputation as a country that betrays its allies.

But in the meantime, the immigration service should let the Al-Baidhanis’ family in immediately. There is no conceivable excuse for holding them in limbo.

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