Former Iraqi interpreter has mixed feelings on Trump ban

FILE - In this Jan. 23, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump sits at his desk in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. The legal fight over President Donald Trump’s refugee ban is likely to turn on whether the president has the authority to control access to America’s borders and whether targeting people from a particular region in the world violates the Constitution. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 23, 2017 file photo, President Donald Trump sits at his desk in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. The legal fight over President Donald Trump’s refugee ban is likely to turn on whether the president has the authority to control access to America’s borders and whether targeting people from a particular region in the world violates the Constitution. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

When, one week after taking office, President Donald Trump issued an executive order temporarily barring from the United States all refugees as well as citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, public outcry was swift.

Protesters turned out at airports across the country. Lawyers held up signs at arrival terminals offering legal help to family members of those who'd been detained.

There were news reports of refugees, who had been approved for resettlement in the U.S., being put back on planes. And in the days that followed, the Pentagon began compiling a list of Iraqi interpreters who had helped the U.S. military, and recommended they be exempt from the temporary ban.

A former Iraqi interpreter who worked for the U.S. military early on in the Iraq War said he wasn't surprised by Trump's original order, and he wasn't completely against it, either.

"Yes, we need more vetting, and we need to know people who are coming to this country before they come," said the interpreter, who asked that he be referred to as Abdallah instead of his real name because he has family in Iraq and is concerned for their safety.

He became a U.S. citizen in 2013 after coming to the country in 2007 on a special immigrant visa, he said in a recent phone interview.

"There are people who come here wanting to harm the country and they don't integrate into this community. They're not supposed to be admitted to this country," Abdallah said. "But at the same time, you cannot brush everybody with the same brush."

On March 6, following legal opposition to his first order, Trump issued a new order. It removes Iraq from the list of predominantly Muslim countries impacted by the 90-day travel ban, reportedly at the request of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. It also imposes a 120-day freeze on refugees from Syria. Permanent residents and current visa holders are exempt from the travel ban, among other changes.

The new order, like its predecessor, is facing legal challenges. In defending the travel ban in a speech in Nashville, Tenn., last week, Trump floated the idea of re-issuing the original version.

"I think we ought to go back to the first one and go all the way, which is what I wanted to do in the first place," the president said.

While the new ban is a "relief" for Iraqis wanting to come to the U.S., it makes those from the six Muslim-majority countries that remain on the list — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — feel they are unwanted or unwelcome in the U.S., Abdallah said.

"It has negative impacts, of course. It's good recruitment propaganda for ISIS and the Islamic extremist movement. It feeds their agenda. I'm not completely against it, but it could've been done in a different way," he added.

He specifically mentioned cracking down on terrorists who use fake passports to try to come to the U.S. and inflict harm here.

"But I also believe that the present administration is aware of this problem and they didn't take any security measures," he said.

Abdallah was one of about 50 Iraqi interpreters who received special immigrant visas, enabling them to become lawful permanent residents of the U.S. The interpreters had to get a recommendation from a general officer in the U.S., were vetted by several U.S. agencies, including the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and had to go to a U.S. embassy for an in-person interview.

When he arrived in the U.S., Abdallah was greeted at the airport by his close friend Mike Zacchea, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel whom he worked with in Iraq. He stayed with Zacchea in Connecticut for the next eight months.

Zacchea, who was an adviser to the 1st Iraqi Army battalion, which was built, trained and led in combat by the U.S. military, credits Abdallah with saving him from an assassination attempt. Abdallah survived his own assassination attempt, and shortly thereafter Zacchea helped him come to the U.S.

"This is a man who served the U.S. in combat. He did special operations and performed hundreds and hundreds of missions for Americans," Zacchea said of Abdallah. "We're lucky to have men like him who want to be Americans."

While Abdallah felt relief at being safe in the U.S., he remained worried about his family in Iraq. While he had worked for the U.S. military for almost four years, he still struggled with English, particularly the "street language" used by civilians.

In the beginning, he worried about finding work, and became frustrated when he applied for jobs and didn't hear back. He picked up a seasonal job at Macy's in the men's department selling clothes, then part-time janitorial work at a hotel. The man who gave him the hotel job was a former Marine whose son served in Iraq. Abdallah later attended the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University to train to become a federal interpreter.

Abdallah, 45, now lives in New York with his wife and 4-month-old daughter. He said he hopes his daughter will learn Arabic and wants her to learn about Iraqi history and culture.

Zacchea said he was "really shocked" and "very disappointed" by Trump's first order. He penned an op-ed on CNBC's website opposing the inclusion of Iraq; he's happy that the country later was removed from the list. He said that on the one hand he understands Trump's orders but feels "there's probably better ways to accomplish what they're trying to accomplish."

"What I would like to see at U.S. embassies and in our country is some biometric vetting — DNA, the biometric eye printing, things like that. I think that would help a lot," he said.

He also suggested an intermediate holding period where those seeking entrance to the U.S. would go from a U.S. embassy to a U.S. military base and then to the U.S.

j.bergman@theday.com

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