WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has virtually closed the door on Iraqis who worked as interpreters for the American military, issuing only two U.S. visas to former interpreters last year, according to government statistics obtained by NBC News.
The interpreters have faced threats, abductions and attacks for their association with American forces, and hundreds have been killed by militants since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Former interpreter Shaker Jeffrey fled to Germany while awaiting admission to the United States, but he says that even there he has been targeted by the Islamic State group's militants.
"I am a hunted man," Jeffrey, who has been waiting for a visa for 10 years, said. "If I return to Iraq, I will be assassinated."
A backlog of tens of thousands of Iraqis — who worked as interpreters or in other jobs for the U.S. — have applied for admission to the U.S. but have yet to receive a final decision, despite legislation designed to help them gain entry, according to refugee advocates and several former officials.
In fiscal year 2016, 325 Iraqis who had worked as interpreters were admitted to the U.S. In 2017, the number dropped to 196. And for fiscal year 2018 ending in September, only two former interpreters from Iraq received visas, a more than 99 percent decline over three years, according to statistics from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) obtained by NBC News.
It remains unclear why the number of visas issued to Iraqi interpreters has declined so dramatically but refugee advocates and lawmakers say it appears to be a case of collateral damage from the Trump administration's overall crackdown on immigration and refugees. Under the administration's more restrictive policies, applicants from Iraq and other mainly Muslim countries are subjected to "enhanced security vetting."
The administration also has slashed the overall ceiling for how many refugees can be admitted to the U.S., lowering the cap to 30,000 this year from a previous limit of 45,000. That unprecedented reduction has lowered the odds for former interpreters even more, humanitarian organizations say.
The White House is debating reducing the cap still further, with some officials proposing a goal of zero admissions, according to two sources familiar with the matter. The proposal was first reported by Politico.
Jeffrey, from the country’s small Yazidi community, worked as an interpreter in northern Iraq and was wounded twice.
"Every time I went out on a mission with my American team without a weapon of any kind, I was marked," he said. "The infidel helping the infidels.”
Jeffrey applied for a U.S. visa while still working for U.S. troops in Iraq. A decade later, he is still waiting.
When ISIS militants overran Yazidi villages in Iraq in 2014 and sought to wipe out their population, Jeffrey helped some of his fellow Yazidis escape and called his old U.S. military contacts to appeal for help.
In 2015, still waiting for a visa, he fled Iraq and made his way to Germany.
U.S. officials have told him his visa will be issued any day. But in the meantime, he said he has been targeted in Germany by ISIS militants, who have hacked his email account, broken into his apartment and physically assaulted him.
Jeffrey said he has no regrets about volunteering to work as a "terp" for U.S. forces in Mosul at the age of 17, but he said he is disappointed that it has taken so long to try to secure the visa he was promised. “I did my part to help keep the military safe and secure and they have let me down by not fulfilling their part of the promise.”
Humanitarian organizations, lawmakers and veterans who served in Iraq say denying or delaying visas to former interpreters represents a betrayal of partners who risked their lives to help the U.S.
"It's a scandalous situation and the Trump administration has given no good reason for it," said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., who has pressed the administration over delays in visa decisions for former Iraqi and Afghan interpreters. "Who will want to work with us in the future if we don't keep our promises?"
Asked about the declining numbers, a State Department spokesperson said U.S. authorities "will continue to process and screen U.S.-affiliated Iraqis for possible resettlement to the United States while prioritizing the safety and security of the American people."
Vulnerable refugees who have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution are given a priority in refugee admissions, and there "is no bar on any nationality, including Iraqis," the spokesperson said.
More than 142,000 Iraqis have resettled in the U.S. since 2007, including 47,000 who were admitted under a program for those who worked with the U.S. government, known as the Direct Access Program, the spokesperson added.
Successive administrations have come under criticism for delays in granting visas to Iraqis who served alongside U.S. troops, and a backlog of applicants preceded Trump’s arrival in the White House. But the number of admissions has plunged to an unprecedented low, refugee advocates said. The number of Iraqi refugees admitted to the U.S. has declined from 9,880 in 2016 to 140 in 2018.
Combat interpreters are vetted by the U.S. military before they are ever approved to venture out on patrols with American troops. But they have to start from scratch in a 14-step application process to be admitted to the U.S.
As part of their work, interpreters were often asked to contact militants or informants to obtain information for U.S. forces. But in some cases, U.S. authorities have stalled or rejected applications from former interpreters when their phone records listed numbers associated with extremists, according to refugee and veterans' groups.
"We've seen cases where people were denied even though they were doing their job [by calling those numbers]," said Betsy Fisher, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, which provides legal assistance to refugees.
By denying or delaying decisions on visas, the U.S. government is placing the former interpreters in grave danger due to their ties to America, refugee advocates said.
"Interpreters and their families cannot be safe even if the general situation of the country improves, because they are targeted by terrorists for having aided the U.S. military. So leaving them behind is effectively a death sentence," Kristy Perano, who has championed the cause of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters, said.
"People's lives are on the line here," said Rep. Jason Crow, a Democrat from Colorado who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan with the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne and the 75th Ranger Regiment. "We have an obligation to make sure we're doing right by them and to keep our promises."
There is no precise death toll for interpreters who worked alongside American troops in Iraq, but veterans and advocates say hundreds died in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion. Between 2003 and 2008, 360 Iraqi interpreters recruited by a private contracting firm were killed and more than 1,200 wounded, ProPublica has reported, citing records from the contractor.
Last year before he resigned as defense secretary, James Mattis, who commanded troops during the Iraq war, urged the White House not to lower the ceiling for refugee admissions, citing Iraqis who worked for U.S. forces and the need to "honor our commitments to those who supported the U.S. in combat."
In a Sept. 14, 2018 memo, first published by Politico, Mattis wrote: "Over the last 17 years of war, numerous Iraqi nationals have risked their own lives and their families' lives by aligning with our diplomats and warfighters providing essential mission support. We owe them support for their commitment."
The Trump administration lowered the ceiling despite his memo.
Republican Sen. Jim Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and retired Gen. David Petraeus, the former U.S. commander in the Iraq war, personally intervened on behalf of former interpreter, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey met Petraeus during his work as an interpreter for U.S. forces in northern Iraq, where the general first led troops in the Iraq war.
Jeffrey, whose memoir "Shadow on the Mountain" is due out next year, said he feels grateful for the help he received from Petraeus and Risch, but he worries about fellow "terps" still in Iraq, particularly Yazidis, who he said are more vulnerable as a persecuted minority.
The interpreters who are still in Iraq, he said, "live as prey."