My friend — our ally — died waiting to come to the U.S.
I’ve watched the court cases on President Trump’s travel ban with interest, both as an army combat veteran who cares about our national security and as a student at the University of Colorado focusing on immigration, refugee, and asylum law. But I have an even more personal connection to this issue.
On my first deployment to Iraq in 2005-2006, an Iraqi named Kadum Jassup was assigned to my platoon as an interpreter. We grew to like and trust Jassup — who we called “KJ” — and he was treated as a full-fledged member of the platoon. He lived with us. He carried an AK-47 out on patrol with us. He interrogated suspected insurgents. He had our backs, and we had his.
Jassup often returned to Baghdad on his days off. This was incredibly risky given his association with the U.S. military, and we often urged him not to go. Jassup always responded that he was not afraid and that he needed to see his family. When we redeployed, Jassup started working for the unit that replaced us.
On my next deployment in 2007, our former lieutenant, now a battalion staff officer, sought to find Jassup and bring him to our new base so he could work directly for him. This was not an easy task, but that’s how much Jassup meant to him. Jassup continued his superb work. It was
wonderful to see him, and our friendship deepened. We left Jassup again when we redeployed at the end of 2008.
I chatted with Jassup on Facebook in the following years. It was surreal to talk to him the same way I would talk to someone who lived close by. Then, in 2009, word went around the platoon that Jassup had been killed.
Jassup had applied for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). But his application had been delayed, making a lengthy process even longer. Meanwhile, Jassup continued to serve the U.S. military. During his fourth or fifth year, when he was working for the 10th Mountain Division, a vehicleborne improvised explosive device detonated into his convoy, killing him.
In 2007, the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act was passed. Spearheaded by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, the bipartisan law was designed to ensure that Iraqis who risked their lives working for the U.S. military and government could seek protection in the United States. In addition to continuing the Special Immigrant Visa Program, it established the Direct Access Program under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Applicants could apply for resettlement without a referral from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. However, Iraqis applying via these means still must undergo all the intense security vetting required for resettlement of all refugees in the United States.
The Iraqi SIV program stopped accepting applications in 2014. Today the Direct Access Program is the lifeline for many brave Iraqis who served alongside us. Our mission would not have been possible without them; more U.S. service members would have died without their efforts. We owe them more than safe passage to the United States — but at bare minimum, we owe them that.
Now, the travel ban has gone partially into effect. A partial stay by the Supreme Court has suspended the entire refugee admissions program for 120 days. The Court granted an exception, however: any “individual seeking admission as a refugee who can credibly claim a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States” may still be allowed in.
The Trump Administration hasn’t indicated that this group of Iraqis is exempt. But surely, serving the United States government, especially at such great personal cost, is a bona fide relationship. Iraqis who qualify for the Direct Admission Program, which is based on an individual’s documented relationship with the United States, should be granted admittance.
The Secretaries of State and Homeland Security should issue guidance allowing U.s.-affiliated Iraqis to resettle in the United States. They should realize how important it is to get this right, and how devastating it would be to get it wrong. As Jassup’s story shows, delay can equal death in Iraq.
Iraqis who deserve safe passage to the United States should not have to remain in danger while we try to get our act together. Nor should they have to endure unnecessary delays or another process of establishing their bona fide relationship to the United States.
Like many other veterans who have served this country, I care deeply about our safety and security at home. But Iraqis like Jassup pose no risk or threat to us; quite the contrary. Jassup cared deeply about his nation, and also about the nation he hoped one day to call home: America. We should honor our promises to Iraqis like Jassup.
Travis Weiner is an Army veteran, a law student at the University of Colorado Boulder, and member of Veterans for American Ideals, a project of Human Rights First.