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OPINION

Interpreting tighter visa policy as unfair

By TRUDY RUBIN | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: October 1, 2019

Apart from Ukraine-gate, another White House scandal revved up recently, almost unnoticed.

The White House effort to block legal immigration shifted into overdrive. The State Department announced last week it would slash the already shrunken U.S. refugee program almost in half, to 18,000 admissions over the next 12 months, nearly eliminating America’s historic role as a safe haven.

And the Trump team is trying to limit the impact of a recent D.C. District Court ruling that it end years-long delays in granting special immigrant visas for thousands of Afghans and Iraqis who helped the U.S. military — as mandated by Congress.

What kind of moral bankrupts try to shut our doors to those who saved American lives?

Here’s the answer: These moves are part of a crusade by White House adviser Stephen Miller to slash legal refugee admissions to zero, if possible. Even before the latest move, the Trump administration had already cut refugee admissions this year by one-third to 30,000. (Historically, the number used to be around 95,000.)

“With one final blow, the Trump administration has snuffed out Lady Liberty’s torch and ended our nation’s legacy of compassion and welcome,” says the Rev. John L. McCullough, president of Church World Service, a cooperative ministry of 37 Christian denominations.

Never mind that demographers point out that U.S. population growth has hit its lowest level since 1937. Without immigrants, the United States faces a graying population — like Japan and Europe — that will be unable to provide sufficient tax revenue or workers.

Even more shocking is the White House willingness to betray Iraqis and Afghans who are at risk because they helped the U.S. military.

Last week’s court case, Afghan and Iraqi Allies v Pompeo, revealed that 14,000 Iraqi and Afghan applicants for SIV visas have been waiting for years in dangerous conditions. This, despite a legal requirement that their cases be decided within nine months.

Although the judge ordered the government to provide a plan within 30 days to expedite the visas, government lawyers want the decision confined to individual cases, not the whole backlog.

Administration callousness beggars belief. Many of these applicants and their families have been hiding for years under death threats. Meantime, State Department data show that only 1,649 Afghans got SIV visas in 2018, a 60% drop from 2017.

As for Iraqis, the situation is far worse. Those in greatest danger — such as military interpreters and their families — have been tossed into a huge pool of applicants also entitled to visas because they worked for U.S. civilians. That backlog has reached 100,000.

Under Miller, only 51 Iraqis were admitted in 2018 (as compared with 10,000 in 2016).

“They (the SIV applicants) served bravely in support of our missions abroad, and we promised them a pathway to safety in return,” points out Deepa Alagesan, the supervising attorney who brought the successful court case on behalf of the International Refugee Assistance Project.

Under pressure from Congress, 4,000 of the rare refugee slots will supposedly be reserved for Iraqis who worked for the U.S. military. But will they ever receive them?

To understand the sheer cruelty of the current immigration system, consider the story of the al-Baidhani brothers from Baghdad, who both worked for the U.S. Army.

Khalid Baidhani was shot in the face and the hand, and his brother Wissam was threatened with death; his uncle, also a translator, was murdered.

The brothers made it to America, thanks to Herculean efforts by Army Reserve Sgt. Peter Farley. Their immediate family, parents and younger siblings, entitled by law to follow, went through five years of background checks, quit jobs and sold a house, furniture and car. They were set to arrive in August 2016.

The day before their departure, the U.S. Embassy called and said they needed another background check. They are still waiting, living in total limbo, fearful for their lives and subsisting on the charity of relatives.

Now a computer technician in Alexandria, Va., Khalid told me: “If anyone finds out what we did, that’s it, my family is done.”

“I still feel proud of what I did,” Khalid says. “I am proud to be a U.S. citizen, and that I worked with the U.S. Army. I was a bridge between the U.S. Army and Iraqis.

“But you feel guilty that you are the cause of their suffering because working with the U.S. Army caused this to happen. And I am not proud of the way the government treats my family. I am desperate to get them back.”

And get this: After eight years, the Baidhanis have just been told they need to repeat the whole interview/checking process.

Despite the appeals of U.S. senators, House members, and a Change.org petition with more than 135,000 signatures, the Baidhani family is still being denied visas. Along with thousands of other Afghans and Iraqis who helped Americans stay safe.

In my mind, that is a scandal that tars Trump as much as anything else he’s done.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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