Former USAID staffers and security experts warn President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration executive action will undermine the U.S. development agency’s ability to carry out crucial work in conflict areas.
“There are really serious ramifications for how USAID and other organizations work on the ground,” said John Norris, executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress.
The executive order, titled Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry To The United States, imposed a 90-day suspension on those traveling on passports from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya and Yemen. It also suspends all refugee admissions for 120 days. Due to the dangers of working with U.S. agencies, NGOs, military and other institutions, local staffers from a number of countries have long been eligible for special visas and preferential refugee status.
Norris, who formerly worked for USAID and the State Department, told Devex that he feared there would be significant “operational fallout” as crucial interpreters, trainers and operational staffers reconsider the attendant risks of working for U.S. embassies, aid agencies and the military. Those organizations often rely on large teams of local staff to carry out everything from logistics to intelligence.
Working with the U.S. government, particularly in a situation of ongoing conflict, can put local staff at severe risk, which is why those with U.S. affiliation and recommendations from commanding officers and chiefs of mission have been earmarked for special visas and priority refugee status. Translators, who often work on the frontlines and play a key role in mitigating potential conflicts, are particularly at risk; they are an estimated 10 times more likely to be killed than their American counterparts.
In Iraq, thousands of those staffers are now in limbo.
“It’s going to be bad for business, bad for alliances. It’s going to make it so people on ground really think twice about what it means to cooperate with the U.S.,” Norris said.
USAID referred Devex’s requests for comments to the State Department, which had not responded at the time of publication. A leaked draft memo expected to be signed by hundreds of foreign service officers and sent to the president through the State Department Dissent Channel expressed deep concern. The internal, government channel allows staffers to offer criticism to senior management without fear of reprisal. The memo cautions that the order will sour international relations, “increase anti-American sentiment,” have a humanitarian impact, and weaken the economy.
Special Immigrant Visas were created in 2008 for Iraqis with exceptional records who had been employed by the U.S. government. The program was halted but an extension has allowed for 5,000 new SIVs to be issued in 2015 and 2016. Because the processing takes so long, however, visas are still being issued.
Those who missed the deadline, meanwhile — as well as those who worked for a U.S. contractor, a U.S.-based media organization or an NGO in Iraq — are eligible for priority refugee status. Although the State Department does not sub-divide its figures based on priority status, some 9,880 Iraqis were resettled in the U.S. last year. Between 2006 and 2016, more than 16,000 Iraqi SIV holders were resettled in the U.S. along with nearly 140,000 Iraqi refugees.
Kirk W. Johnson — a former USAID staffer in Fallujah and founder of the List Project, which pushed for an expanded SIV program — bluntly criticized the executive order. “Men and women in uniform understand the sacred vow to leave no man behind. In abandoning their interpreters, our President has just jeopardized their missions,” he said in a statement. On Twitter, Johnson elaborated that there were “national security consequences” to the new policy.
“One senior military officer with extensive experience in Iraq and Afghanistan told me it was “heinous and counterproductive,” wrote Johnson. “They won’t be able to recruit anyone to help them in the fight against ISIS, and if America becomes the country that abandons its allies, nobody will help us in future wars.”
In Iraq, applicants and visa holders who had worked for the U.S. government told Devex they were fearful for their future and devastated by the about-face.
A former USAID interpreter living in Baghdad said he had spent years preparing himself and his family for a move to the U.S. and was due to leave next month on a Special Immigrant Visa. On Saturday, the International Organization of Migration told him and other SIV holders that their flights had been canceled.
“I’m just hanging in there now. It’s so terrible, nobody knows what is going to happen,” he said via a phone interview. “The process has been going on for the last three or four years, it’s very slow. It’s not just anyone who can get these visas, you have to have an officer recommend you.”
The interpreter, who asked that his name not be used for security reasons, said he was injured by an IED while working for USAID and later spent years working on a range of U.S. and Australian military operations. He said that his wife was unable to leave her job as a high school teacher until the end of the school year, so the family had decided he would go ahead and set up their housing, jobs and daughters’ schooling. Already, he had left his family and job and had been staying at a friend’s home awaiting the flight.
“So many people quit their jobs, sold their furniture. The people who already finished the process should be allowed in,” he said. “The U.S. government gave us their promise. They said if you’re in trouble we won’t leave you behind. We risked our lives and this is how we’re repaid?”
Another SIV holder worked for two years for a mission run by USAID, the U.S. embassy and Army Engineer Corps. After receiving a threatening message warning him to quit his work with the U.S., Yusuf — who asked that a pseudonym be used to protect his identity — was forced to move numerous times. Almost seven years after applying for the visa, he and his family were given the approval two weeks ago. Both Yusuf, a civil engineer, and his wife — a biologist — were looking forward to pursuing advanced degrees and enrolling their children in American schools. Yusuf said he had been studying three hours a day to prepare for the citizenship exam.
“I was very happy, but now I have stopped my dreams,” he said. “This story isn’t only my story — thousands of people are in this situation.”
“I just hope one thing: As we supported the U.S., they will support us,” he added. “I assume they will not abandon us.”
While Trump has defended the order, saying “extreme vetting” is necessary to reduce the risk of attack on American soil, many of the applicants pointed out that the process is already extremely thorough. Applicants undergo multiple interviews with embassies and the Department of Homeland Security, have biometric data taken, are subject to medical examinations and cross-checked against blacklists. They are not even allowed to apply without a minimum of two years work experience with U.S. organizations, multiple recommendations from American employers, diplomats or soldiers, and proof of ongoing security threats. The average processing time takes more than 400 days, although waits of five years are not unusual.
“I saw the draft executive order,” said an Iraqi interpreter who asked to be referred to by his American nickname, Danny. “They said they have to make sure we’re not extremist. We used to do missions to arrest and fight extremists… Security check for what? We’ve already been checked. I worked two-and-a-half years with American soldiers, sleeping in the same tent with them, going on the same missions.”
Danny said he and others worked for the U.S. government because they believed it was the best way to help Iraq. Instead, they have become targets. “We risked everything — our lives, our families’ lives. The disaster is we can’t be normal people in Iraq anymore. Everyone looks at us as traitors and we have to hide,” he said. “The funny thing is, in the U.S., they see us the same way.”