US pulls back on ban of some Iraqis who worked for the US government

A member of the U.S. army and an Iraqi interpreter speak with a local. Photo by: Kamaile O. Chan / U.S. Forces Iraq / CC BY-NC-ND

The United States government has backed away from blocking Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa holders from traveling to the U.S., saying they will be permitted into the country despite a ban on travelers from the country.

Iraqis who worked with the U.S. military and government, including with USAID and other agencies, were eligible for the special visas due to the severe personal safety risks linked to their jobs. But after the immigration suspension was announced late last week, SIV holders were told by the U.S. Embassy and International Organization of Migration that they were being barred from the United States.

On Wednesday morning, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad called SIV holders and told them they would be permitted to travel. The embassy also announced they would “continue to process and issue SIVs to applicants who are otherwise qualified,” according to an email sent to SIV holders and applicants and seen by Devex.

“The US Government has determined that it is in the national interest to allow Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa holders to continue to travel to the United States,” the email reads.

At a press conference Tuesday evening, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told reporters that “Special Immigrant Visa holders are allowed to board their flights... and will be processed for a waiver upon arrival.”

He also said that this had been the case all along, but the lack of consistent implementation as reported by SIV holders highlighted the haphazard nature of the executive order.

As news of the executive order spread last week, Iraqis struggled to gather concrete information about their status. On Friday morning, the U.S. Embassy was still processing SIV applications, giving some visa holders hope that the order would exclude them. A day later, however, those with flights were told by IOM that their plane tickets had been canceled until further notice.    

The exemption does not appear to extend to Iraqis given special refugee status for their U.S.-affiliation, which includes thousands who are eligible for asylum due to their work with U.S. NGOs, contractors and media.

One former USAID interpreter, who spoke anonymously out of fears for his safety, said he was elated to receive the news from the U.S. Embassy after a particularly distressing few days.

“The U.S. Embassy called me this morning and said I’m good to go and that my visa number is still registered. The ban [is] still a ban, but SIVs and linguist translators who worked with the U.S. army are allowed to go,” he said. “I am very excited.”

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About the author

  • Abigail Seiff

    Abby Seiff is a reporter focused on human rights, land issues, and politics. She has been covering Southeast and South Asia since 2009, working previously for Devex and freelancing for Time, Newsweek, Al Jazeera, and others. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in anthropology.

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