January 31, 2017 § 3 Comments
September 11, 2001 changed the lives of everybody in the United States and in many ways it also changed the way so many live around the world. After the despicable attack on the American people, the U.S. embarked on two armed conflicts in a land thousands of miles away from America, and in so many ways different from the west.
Many young Americans were sent to the Middle East to fight these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of them were brave service men and women unfamiliar with the geography, culture, traditions, and languages spoken over there. It became apparent that communicating in the local languages would be essential to the success of the military operations and to the safety of all Americans, military and civilian, in harm’s way. It was then that the United States armed forces recruited native speakers from the local population who spoke English, and were familiar with the culture and social structure of local tribes and governments, friend or foe.
Soon, these brave volunteers from Afghanistan and Iraq learned basic military skills and protocol, acquired the necessary knowledge to serve as a communication conduit between the Americans and the local dwellers, captured prisoners, and members of the official armed forces of Iraq and Afghanistan; they became the conflict zone interpreters of the United States Armed Forces. Many of them were motivated by their resentment towards the local governments and the corruption of their local officials, others did it out of hope for a new regime without religious persecution; some participated because of their sincere admiration for the United States and its values. All made the commitment to serve as interpreters for the Americans despite the fact that they well knew that they were risking their own lives and those of their family members.
In exchange for these invaluable and much needed services, the American government promised these interpreters that at the end of the conflict, those who were alive, and their families, would be taken to the United States to start a new life away from any potential risk they may encounter in their home countries as a result of their cooperation with the U.S. during the war. This was an essential part of the agreement. These conflict zone interpreters knew that their heads would have a price once they started working for the Americans. They understood that they were not just risking their lives during the fire exchanges or door-to-door raids; they knew that if left behind by the United States, they would be subjected to unspeakable harm by those who considered them traitors. These interpreters and their families would be killed without a doubt.
When it was time to honor their end of the bargain, these brave interpreters fulfilled their promise by acting as communication liaisons and cultural advisors, to the Americans they were embedded with. They interpreted under the most extreme conditions: in the middle of a fire exchange, during unpleasant interrogatories, when helicopters were flying over their heads making it next to impossible to hear what a soldier or an enemy were saying, and while they were running for cover.
Once the U.S. decided to withdraw from the region, the surviving conflict zone interpreters expected the United States government to fulfill its end of the bargain and take them and their families to the United States. They had risked it all honoring their commitment to interpret from Dari, Pashto, Arabic, Kurdish, Syriac, Armenian, Turkmen, Hazaragi, Uzbek, Balochi, Pashayi, and others languages, into English and vice versa. Now they waited for Washington to live up to its promises and protect them from the animosity and rancor that permeated their towns and villages.
The U.S. government slowly responded and started the immigration process for these born-abroad American heroes. Unfortunately, and to the dismay of the conflict zone interpreters, the men and women in the military they had helped and protected during the wars, and the international interpreter community, the process came ever so slowly. The entry visas were granted at a piecemeal pace. In fact, to this day, many of these interpreters and their families remain abroad, waiting for their entry visas, and worrying about the violence that constantly surrounds them back home.
Despite the efforts of many professional interpreter organizations and other non-governmental entities demanding that immigration authorities speed up the process, many of these conflict zone interpreters and their relatives have lost their lives during this wait. It is important to mention that the United States government is not the only one delaying the issuance of these entry visas; regretfully, most western governments are doing exactly the same.
I have been fortunate to meet several conflict zone interpreters, and I am honored that some of them call me their friend. They are regular people. They have interpreting stories they like to share just like you, and they have tales of horror that leave you speechless after you hear them. Tales of fathers killed right before their eyes, older brothers recruited for the army against their will in the middle of the night, mothers and sisters raped in their presence, friends and relatives they never saw again. They went through so much, and yet they are kind, friendly people full of gratitude to the United States for bringing them to a safe place.
It is in the middle of this environment that President Trump’s executive order requiring “extreme vetting” before allowing entry to citizens of several countries becomes enforceable on January 28, 2017. Immigration officers inspecting foreigners arriving at all ports of entry to the United States are ordered to deny entry to all people from seven countries: Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Iraq. The ban includes those individuals who present a visa to the immigration authority, and even those who have been adjudicated status as lawful permanent residents of the United States. Tragically, the executive order includes all Iraqis without any distinction; among them: all Iraqi conflict zone interpreters who were entering or reentering the country (certain individuals were excluded from this order for national interest reasons, but that is irrelevant to this post). To add insult to injury, the first Iraqi denied entry to the country at JFK International Airport in New York City was a conflict zone interpreter: Hameed Jhalid Darweesh!
What happened to the promised made to our Iraqi colleagues a decade and a half ago? They fulfilled their commitment to the United States, are we not?
Dear friends and colleagues, President Trump’s executive order covers many issues and has many consequences in the real world. As expected, it was challenged in federal court, and like all lawyers knew, the court granted a stay pending a hearing on the merits in February. I understand that many of you oppose the executive order in its entirety; I am also aware that many of you support it. This is not the place to attack or defend these different points of view. As a lawyer, I believe that some of its content will be overturned and some will be upheld by the courts. Those of you in favor or against the order will no doubt pursue different means to make your voice heard. What I ask you on this entry is non-partisan: We must protect our profession, we have to support our conflict zone interpreter colleagues.
Please understand that the stay ordered on Saturday by Judge Ann Donnelly is temporary. Do not believe news reports, like Yahoo News, that immediately informed that the president had lost. That is false. What the judge did this time happens very often in cases when the potential damage caused by a government act could be serious and irreparable. The court has to hear the case on its merits and then decide. This will happen next month, and at that time, she may decide that the government is right, that the government was wrong, or most likely, that part of the executive order is constitutional and part of it is not. Even in the event that the judge rules the order unconstitutional, the Administration will appeal the decision. I have no doubt that this case will end up before the United States Supreme Court.
This is too much of a risk. We have to defend our profession. We have to make sure that the promises to our Iraqi conflict zone interpreter colleagues are kept; that the agreement they entered over ten years ago is honored by our government. We have an opportunity to set precedent in our legal system so that it is clear that in the future, those foreign colleagues who cooperate with the United States in other conflict zones, regardless of geographical location, are protected and treated honorably once it is time to come back home.
Regardless of anything else you may do for or against this executive order, I invite you to contact the White House and the Department of Homeland Security and tell them to support an immediate exception to the executive order excluding from the ban all conflict zone interpreters and their families. Explain to them that they risked their lives for the sake of our country, and that the United States promised to protect them and bring them to America. Ask them to keep our promise the same way they kept theirs. If you live in a State of district where your senators or representatives are Republican, please call both: their local and Washington office to let them know that these colleagues are heroes who fought for the United States and saved the lives of many of their constituents’ sons and daughters by putting their own lives on the line. We have to do this. We cannot wait for the outcome of a court case that could take a long time and could grant admission to some of this interpreters and exclude others, particularly those who have never entered the U.S.
We have to make sure that the exception to the executive order, and any future legislation, will cover three types of conflict zone interpreters and their families, regardless of their country of origin: (1) Those already admitted to the United States who may reenter the country after a visit abroad; (2) Those already granted a visa to come in who have yet to enter the U.S., and (3) Those colleagues whose application for admission is still pending adjudication or pending a final decision after an appeal or reconsideration of an original denial. They all assisted the members of our armed forces. All of them have to be protected.
I know that some professional associations like AIIC, FIT and IAPTI, nonprofit organizations like Red T, which advocates for interpreters in high risk settings, and some interpreter programs like InterpretAmerica will make their voice heard on this issue. That is great; however, nothing gets the attention of a legislator like the voice of their own constituents; this is why you must call, email, or physically go to their local office. Let them know what interpreters do and how crucial is our work. Many of you have spent a lifetime educating attorneys, judges, physicians, nurses, agency managers, event organizers, sound technicians, and many others, so this should come naturally to you.
To conclude, I thank you for supporting our Iraqi colleagues, for defending our profession, and for setting aside your personal political agendas for the cause that we all have in common: The interpreting profession. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your experiences with conflict zone interpreter colleagues, from Iraq or elsewhere, you have met here in the U.S. or abroad if you were serving in the military with any of them. I ask you to please do so without any politically charged arguments for or against the administration, and I ask you to limit your comments to conflict zone interpreters or their family members.