Abandoning Our Allies: Refugee Policies Leave Iraqi Employees of U.S. Armed Forces at Risk

Aymen lives with his wife, 4-year-old daughter, and newborn baby in Iraq. He has a growing family to care for, but lives like a prisoner in his own home. As an Iraqi citizen, he worked for the U.S. Army from 2007 to 2011. Aymen recalls that, at the time, he was worried about the safety of his family. “But I believed that the U.S. government would protect us,” he explains. “Sadly, I am yet to experience that.”[1]

Now, he is known as an American “agent” to anti-U.S. factions. “I am afraid to leave my house because I feel the danger with every passing minute, especially when I don’t know my enemy,” describes Aymen. “The looks on peoples’ faces are messages of hatred and disdain directed at me, because they consider me an agent for the U.S. government.”

Aymen’s fears are well founded. He and his family have received numerous violent threats. In 2007, one of his brothers was kidnapped and brutally tortured. Aymen himself later received a death threat signed by the Islamic State of Iraq, citing his work with the U.S military. The threats drove Aymen and his family to flee their home city in 2014.

To protect his family, Aymen applied for resettlement in the U.S. through the Priority-2 Direct Access Program nearly four years ago. This program was designed to create a streamlined pathway to resettlement for Iraqis who put themselves at risk by supporting the U.S. Armed Forces. See Dep’t of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, U.S. Refugee Resettlement Processing for Iraqi and Syrian Beneficiaries of an Approved I-130 Petition—Frequently Asked Questions (Mar. 11, 2016). Today, these intentions seem callously disregarded by policymakers. Current restrictions on refugee admissions have jeopardized such programs and put their intended beneficiaries in great danger—including Aymen. See Human Rights First, Fact Sheet: How the Trump Administration’s Executive Orders on Refugees Harm Our Iraqi Wartime Allies (Sept. 2018).

Although Aymen is now too afraid to leave his home, the urgency of his situation has done nothing to accelerate his application. As of November 4, 2018, he has spent 20 months waiting for a simple interview to proceed with his case—an eternity to live in fear for his family.

Aymen’s initial application was denied in December 2016, due to “questionable employment documents.” Aymen was distraught. “I was frustrated when I got denied,” he remembers. “Especially when I served the U.S. government for more than five years. I wondered why it could be that I got denied, and if that’s how I am rewarded for serving the U.S. military?”

Aymen sought help from the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), which connects lawyers and law students to provide legal services for refugees and displaced persons. See International Refugee Assistance Project, Mission & Values (last visited Nov. 29, 2018). A team of law students in the IRAP—Northeastern University School of Law (NUSL) Chapter helped Aymen obtain official copies of the documents in question and submitted his appeal in March 2017. The appeal was successful, but the students’ excitement at overcoming this hurdle has long since dwindled.

In October 2017, Aymen received notice that an initial resettlement interview would be scheduled. He has not heard anything since. In the meantime, living a safe and peaceful life in Iraq seems increasingly impossible, as hostilities toward his family persist.

Aymen’s case is not unique. Current refugee policies are threatening the lives of many others like him, whose work was crucial to U.S. operations in Iraq. See Human Rights First, Fact Sheet: How the Trump Administration’s Executive Orders on Refugees Harm Our Iraqi Wartime Allies (Sept. 2018). As the Trump administration rolled out new guidelines with unprecedented vetting procedures in 2017, it became clear that Aymen’s outlook would only get worse. Id. Experts working with refugee populations echoed these fears, warning of the inevitable and egregious delays to come. See Betsy Fisher, Trump’s New Refugee Vetting Rules Will All But Stop the Resettlement Process, ACLU (Oct. 26, 2017, 11:15 AM).

The numbers make it shockingly apparent that the experts’ predictions came true. According to reports from the Department of State, there was an approximate 22% decrease in the total number of Iraqis resettled in the U.S. between 2016 and 2017. See Dep’t of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, Office of Admissions Refugee Processing Ctr., Cumulative Arrivals by State for Refugees and SIV Reception and Placement (R&P) Recipients–Iraqi FY07–FY17 (last updated Nov. 19, 2018). 2017 marked the first year since 2008 that the annual number of Iraqi resettlements to the U.S. dropped below 10,000. Id. But this number truly plummeted in 2018—from October 2017 through October 2018, only 745 Iraqis were resettled to the U.S. Aymen’s overwhelming fear for his family’s safety shows us what these falling numbers mean in human terms. Id.

Meanwhile, the State Department currently advises American citizens not to travel to Iraq, and government personnel working in-country are kept to strict security guidelines. See Dep’t of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Iraq International Travel Information, (last updated June 7, 2018).  The hypocrisy is blatant—as a U.S. ally, Aymen faces grave risks every day. Yet our government has deserted him, his family, and thousands of others like him.

Abandoning U.S. allies in hostile environments deters others from providing crucial support as U.S. forces remain in combat in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Former U.S. military, intelligence, and foreign service officials, along with many veterans, recognize the national security interest in providing viable pathways to safety for our allies. See Human Rights First, Fact Sheet: How President Trump’s Executive Order on Refugees and Immigration Impacts at risk Iraqis with U.S. Affiliations (Feb. 2017). Refugee policy under the Trump administration goes beyond a conservative shift on immigration; the processing delays and severe decrease in refugee placements has removed a safety net that protected the lives of American soldiers in Iraq and other conflict zones where U.S. forces continue to have a presence.

The U.S. owes Aymen, his family, and others like him safety in return for their service to our military. Supposedly, no man is left behind by the U.S. military. This is no longer true; countless men, women, and children are being left behind. Abandoning thousands of U.S. allies in Iraq flies in the face of morality, justice, and American values, and will have grave consequences when the U.S. must call on such allies again.

After all the terror his family has endured, Aymen still does not regret his decision to work for the American military. In fact, he is still willing to work with them again. He has not forsaken the U.S., and only asks that America treats him the same. His request is simple: “We always supported you in Iraq. Similarly, we hope that you could save our families from danger or death at the hands of the extremists and the militias.”

[1] Due to the ongoing nature of Aymen’s case, any citations and references relating to communications with Aymen, threats against Aymen and his family, and his application documents have been omitted for confidentiality purposes. They are on file with the author.