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 in an effort to resolve it, yet you rarely hear it mentioned.
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 so-called 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 up until the present day, from Iraqi Sunni and Shiite Islamists.
Former President Donald Trump shut these families out entirely with his travel ban on Muslims. President Joe Biden has barely done better. 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 former U.S. military translators from 2006-10 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But the night before departure, the family received a call from the embassy informing them that their travel clearance was revoked, and shortly afterward, their visas were denied.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 family had already sold their home and all their possessions and had to move in with a daughter. Khalid told me the reversal shattered his father's health.
Amazingly, the refusal was reversed on appeal — a rare occurrence, spurred by a campaign by Peter Farley, the former U.S. Army sergeant with whom Wisam went out on daily patrols. Farley gathered nearly 150,000 signatures on an online petition, and the family was conditionally approved again in 2017.
But then nothing.
Wisam told me in May 2018, "Now my family is living in limbo. I feel like this is not the place we were dreaming about. At least the government should allow the families of people who helped U.S. soldiers to come here. All I ask is to be fair."
Farley, Wisam's U.S. military buddy, added: "These are the people we rely on in our war efforts. What message are we sending?"
Under Trump, that message was clear: betrayal. The P-2 program was virtually shut down during his four years in office. Only 158 Iraqis were admitted to the U.S. in fiscal year 2018.
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.
One apparent reason is the huge lack of sufficient personnel to interview and adjudicate visa applications. But such problems are fixable, as the International Refugee Assistance Project has laid out in an excellent 2022 report.
Nor has the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services made its impenetrable procedures any clearer. The Al-Baidhanis' family was finally re-interviewed in Baghdad on Aug. 23 for a total of nine hours about every mundane detail of their lives, friends, work, travel, and associations.
But instead of finally getting visa approval, they received a printout stating that further "review of your eligibility" was required, and "we are unable to estimate how long it will take to make a final decision."
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. And during the interview, they never mentioned us brothers, or my uncle, or the sacrifice we made."
Equally upset was Wisam's congressman, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who has cowritten a letter about the case to Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "This is not only frustrating, it is outrageous," McGovern told me. "This family is put on an endless merry-go-round, given that the two brothers served and got threats, and were shot."
"We have a special obligation to those who helped us, and this family should be reunited," McGovern said. "Yet we have been given no reason why it hasn't happened. There clearly is no sense of urgency."
That's absolutely 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. That would also require visa action on left-behind Afghans who helped Americans.