Ten years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and nearly two years after the war ended, a vital yet vulnerable group of Iraqis is still looking for a way out of their homeland. Threatened for their work with U.S. forces, these Iraqis seek refuge in the U.S. But red tape, security concerns and an expiring visa program have hampered their route to safety. We explore the plight of U.S.-affiliated workers in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan with Kirk Johnson, founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, and author of the new book, “To Be a Friend is Fatal.”

Guests

  • Basma Zaiber Director of Development and Research, The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies
  • Kirk Johnson Founder and Executive Director, The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies; author, "To Be a Friend is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind"

Transcript

  • 13:11:49

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAs we move on, Kirk Johnson just wanted to help a friend. It was 2007, and Johnson was trying to get on with his life after working in Iraq and surviving an accident when he returned. But then, Kirk Johnson got an urgent email from a former Iraqi colleague who said he was being threatened for his work with the US government. Could Johnson help him get to the US? Many phone calls and one powerful op-ed later, the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies was born.

  • 13:12:23

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIToday, more than 1500 Iraqis have found refuge through the List Project's efforts, but the list of former translators, drivers and fixers who did critical work for US forces is now thousands of names long. And red tape security concerns and an expiring visa program have left many in a dangerous limbo. Now, with US forces pulling out of Afghanistan by next year, the list may take on a whole new dimension, so what are our obligations after war is over to the locals who served the US? And what's next for the List Project?

  • 13:12:58

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Kirk Johnson. He is founder and Executive Director of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. He's also author of the new book, "To Be a Friend Is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind." Kirk Johnson, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:13:15

    MR. KIRK JOHNSONThanks for having me. It's a sad topic on a sad day.

  • 13:13:20

    NNAMDIOn a sad day, indeed. You can join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Do you think the US has a responsibility to protect those who are hired in war zones? How long should that protection last? 800-433-8850. Kirk, I talked to you a little more than two years ago, and that point, you had helped to close to a thousand, or you'd helped close to a thousand or so Iraqis, who had worked for the US government, resettle in the United States.

  • 13:13:48

    NNAMDIBut you were struggling then to overcome major bureaucratic hurdles to get many others out of harm's way. Can you bring us up to speed on your work and why it's still going strong close to two years after the war ended?

  • 13:14:01

    JOHNSONYeah, if I had known then that I would still be doing this, that we'd still be confronting the same impediments, I wouldn't have believed it. You know, my dad worked for the government for most of his life, and one of the lessons that he taught me was that the bureaucracy will always outlive mankind, and that unless you can change the guidance and the rules that the bureaucrats are given, you're never gonna win. And, to be honest, I don't feel like I've succeeded yet.

  • 13:14:39

    JOHNSONWe're still up against the bureaucracy that views these Iraqis, who are themselves running from terrorists, our government tends to view them as potential terrorists and makes them wait for years while their cases are adjudicated.

  • 13:14:53

    NNAMDIWell, I know you may feel that you are not successful yet, but please do not belittle your own accomplishments, because talk about how many Iraqis have now settled in the US with help from your List Project.

  • 13:15:06

    JOHNSONYeah, we're at over 1500 now, which I never thought possible, and which would never have been possible without this unprecedented amount of help from our top law firms. We have hundreds of lawyers so that every Iraqi on my list has access to their own free attorney to help them navigate this really confusing process. So, I would be nowhere without my team and without these lawyers.

  • 13:15:32

    JOHNSONI think it's always a little bit difficult for me, as happy as I am for those who have made it here, because at the end of every day, we log back in to our email and find new cases, and fresh cases, and people that are still running for their lives that we haven't gotten out yet.

  • 13:15:49

    NNAMDIAnd you're finding that in a situation where Iraq has shrunk from the headlines, and now crises in places like Egypt, Syria and elsewhere dominate, but those of us in the news business know that Iraq is as dangerous as it ever was. I think a lot of listeners might be surprised to hear that Iraqis who worked with the US are still being threatened and even hunted. Talk about a phone call that you recently got from an Iraqi gentleman who came home to find gunmen at his home.

  • 13:16:19

    JOHNSONThere was a case, that we're working with right now, of an Iraqi who worked on a USA ID project for nearly five years. Over two years ago, he applied for a visa and his application had just been waiting, like so many of these Iraqis. And several weeks ago, he returned home to find several gunmen in his house. They herded his wife, his young son and infant daughter into a bathroom, and then forced him to his knees and pressed a rifle to his head and said, this is it. This is your last threat.

  • 13:16:58

    JOHNSONI escalated this case immediately with the Assistant Secretary of State and with the folks at the State Department. And, while they were initially responsive, they've told us what they tell us all the time. It's a complicated case, Kirk. Can't promise anything. And there's been no movement on his case. And so, we're left to try to figure out what to tell this guy when our country has made this promise of giving tens of thousands of visas to those that have worked for us.

  • 13:17:30

    JOHNSONBut, we've instead not honored that promise. We've implemented it with this sclerotic process that doesn't work.

  • 13:17:38

    NNAMDIWell, I know what you don't want to happen to this individual. You have a death certificate hanging on the wall in your office as a reminder of the work that you do. Can you tell us about the man behind that death certificate?

  • 13:17:53

    JOHNSONYeah, it was a guy who I -- actually, it's the final chapter of the book. I refer to him as a -- under a false name. I call him Omar. But, he was a, frankly a simple Iraqi. He was working as a forklift operator for the US Army in Kirkuk in one of our bases there. He was helping us literally unpack the food and supplies for our troops, to keep the troops fed. Six months before the end of the war -- so, June 2011, he submitted his first application, which had something like six or seven letters of recommendation with 12 signatures of American Army officers.

  • 13:18:38

    JOHNSONOver the course of the next 12 months, and I have put all of these emails in the book, so that the reader can see just what it's like for these Iraqis who are trying to get out, he sent a series of escalating emails where he was forwarding copies of the death threat and begging the State Department for somebody to do something with his case. And all he got in reply were, were these sort of robotic auto replies, and they kept asking him for information that he had already submitted months earlier.

  • 13:19:09

    JOHNSONAnd, last summer, he was decapitated, and his widow and five year old son received a threat shortly the funeral. And his brother in law has received a threat, and so we've been trying to help this family out, and we just recently managed to get the widow in. But, this is a fairly common occurrence, but it's as you say, Iraq is ancient history, at this point.

  • 13:19:41

    NNAMDIAnd, you know, given the immigration debate that we're having in this country, a lot of Americans are leery of people who are trying to get into the country, suspicious of their motives. So, I guess we need to be clear here. I began the summation by saying that Colin Powell used the pottery store analogy when he said, if you break it, you own it. We're talking about people's lives who were broken as a result of their cooperation with the United States. Were it not for our presence there, these people's lives would not be threatened.

  • 13:20:15

    NNAMDITheir lives are being threatened because they worked with U.S. forces. And those threats are ongoing because we're still facing a chaotic situation in large measure in Iraq. And these are not people who are simply popping out, out of nowhere. These are people who have the credentials and who have the documents to indicate that they were in fact working with and cooperating and that's why their lives are being threatened. I just wanted to be clear about that.

  • 13:20:40

    JOHNSONNo, and it's a good point. And you know, I sometimes get in trouble for saying this because it sounds a little bit emotional, but these Iraqis, many of them have done more for this country than your average American has done. They have literally dragged American soldiers and marines and aid workers out of fire fights. They've tipped us off to caches of weapons and IEDs. They've risked their lives in service to this country and we've repaid them with a horrendous bureaucracy.

  • 13:21:12

    JOHNSONAnd so I do find it offensive when there's this sort of general idiocy where we say, well we've got to watch out for who we bring in. These are the most documented refugees on the face of the planet. We have their eyeballs scanned, we have their fingerprints scanned. They have letters of commendation from generals, colonels, captains, lieutenants, all the way on down. We know who these people are and that's why this is such a core issue.

  • 13:21:36

    JOHNSONIf we can't find it in ourselves to just have an ounce of nuance in this where we can somehow differentiate between those who helped us and those who want to hurt us, you know, it to me gives the lie to this idea that, you know, the terrorists hate us for our values because we're not acting out our values at this point.

  • 13:22:02

    NNAMDIFive years ago, the U.S. opened up 25,000 visa slots specifically for Iraqis and Afghans who worked for the U.S. That visa program expires at the end of this month. Can you bring us up to speed on how many of those slots have been filled?

  • 13:22:19

    JOHNSONI remember the afternoon that that bill passed, a number of folks that had worked with Senator Kennedy on it were patched through to his cell phone on the Senate floor. And we were all kind of overjoyed. And I remember collapsing onto my couch and thinking, this is it. We've won. At the time my list was 1,000 names long. Even if every one of the Iraqis on my list got a visa there'd still be room for tens of thousands more. I never imagined that five years later -- and we're coming down to literally two weeks as of today -- that program is going to expire and there are something like 17,000 visas that were never given out because of the pathetic nature of this system.

  • 13:23:05

    JOHNSONAnd, you know, we were told by the embassy in Baghdad that if a case is not expedited, which is a rare instance, that an Iraqi who applies at our embassy for a visa will likely wait for two years before their initial interview. And that's even just for the -- to start the process. It could take another year. And this is what the largest embassy on the face of the planet and in human history has been able to offer to these Iraqis.

  • 13:23:35

    JOHNSONAnd so we're frantically trying to get the thing -- to get the special immigrant visa reauthorized. And, you know, there are versions that have passed in comprehensive immigration reform which isn't going to go anywhere in the House. But as of right now, the program dies on September 30. And so any congressional staffers or members that are listening to this, now's your moment to act on this. But I would just say that we should not pat ourselves on the back if we reauthorize it because we're reauthorizing a broken program. It would take something like 15 years to give out those remaining visas. So I just want to caution us against, you know, applauding the low bar of success.

  • 13:24:19

    NNAMDILet me put the number out again, 800-433-8850. What do you think is going on here? Do you think the U.S. should have a responsibility to protect those who were hired by the U.S. in warzones? And how long should that protection last? Or do you think well, Iraq is over? Forget about those people, 800-433-8850. You could send an email to kojo@wamu.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:26:31

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Kirk Johnson, founder and executive director of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. He's also author of the new book "To Be a Friend is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Should the U.S. extend its special visa program for those who work for the U.S. in warzones or should there be a time limit, 800-433-8850? Kirk, what are the prospects for this program being renewed for another five years?

  • 13:27:04

    JOHNSONFor five years, that's a tough one. There's a continuing resolution that needs to be passed in order to basically keep the thing from collapsing at the end of this month. There's a one-year extension in the Defense Authorization Act. But, you know, like I said, I mean, I think there's a part of me, this is maybe the cynical side of me, but I'm trying to look beyond reauthorization. I mean, congress has already in a bipartisan manner five years ago made a declaration that we were going to give 25,000 visas out.

  • 13:27:45

    JOHNSONSo to me it should -- it's a simple question. They ought to at least reauthorize the programs. It would be a travesty if they don't. But I'm also trying to remind folks that we would need to reauthorize for another couple decades to live up to the promise that we've already made.

  • 13:28:06

    NNAMDIBut you point out in your book that getting people out of danger does not have to be this complicated, does not have to be this bureaucratic. Allies like Britain, Denmark, Poland, Australia apparently got their interpreters out once it was clear that they were being targeted for assassination. And the U.S. has its own history of airlifts. Let's talk about them and especially what you call the Guam Option.

  • 13:28:29

    JOHNSONYeah, you know, I -- the frank reality here is that coalition partners are simply better than us on this. They have looked at the fate of their Iraqi employees and they have not implemented some ridiculous program where it takes years to navigate. They've ordered their military to evacuate their Iraqis and fly them directly to military bases where you can still do security screening, so you're not jeopardizing the security of the homeland. But you're actually saving the lives of the Iraqis.

  • 13:29:04

    JOHNSONWe've done this, as you mentioned, in what we call the Guam Option. We used our military base in Guam in '96. We evacuated over 7,000 Iraqis in a couple weeks where the average processing time was 90 days. We used Guam for tens of thousands of Vietnamese. And, you know, I think the Vietnam, you cannot ignore that precedent because we did not have a policy to evacuate the Vietnamese until it became clear that many of them were getting killed and left behind.

  • 13:29:36

    JOHNSONAnd the key difference between what we're facing right now and what happened in Vietnam was that you had the leadership of an American president who went in front of the public and said, listen people, we're going to help these Vietnamese. I know it's been a long war but to do less would be to add moral shame to humiliation. And in six months we had something like 160,000 Vietnamese resettled. In a few years we had over a million. Congress passed the $600 million Indochinese Refugee Migration Act, which current congress has done nothing even close. So, you know, we can do this if we want.

  • 13:30:10

    NNAMDIWe have callers on the line who'd like to talk about that. But before we get to those calls I would like to introduce Basma Zaiber, director of development and research for the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. Basma Zaiber joins us in studio. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:30:24

    MS. BASMA ZAIBERThank you for having me.

  • 13:30:26

    NNAMDIYou were one of the first people on Kirk's list who made it to the U.S. Kirk hired you back in 2007 to help manage this growing list, a job you've been doing ever since. Can you talk about what you did in Iraq for the U.S. and why you wanted out?

  • 13:30:41

    ZAIBEROkay. In 2003, immediately after the war, my first job was I worked for an American company to rebuild Iraqi schools, which I found very exciting to help the country. And then it was in 2003, 2004 the situation in Iraq was pretty -- I can't say it's stable but it wasn't that violent, especially for those who worked for American forces. But then it got more complicated. End of 2004, beginning 2005, the project that I worked for ended. And then I worked for USAID when I met Kirk there. For USAID, I worked as a human -- I mean, personnel, like...

  • 13:31:37

    NNAMDIHuman resources?

  • 13:31:37

    ZAIBER...HR, exactly, the human resources personnel. And the situation was really bad at that time. My sister was killed -- my sister who used to work with me was killed in 2005. I was threatened -- a couple months after that I was threatened and was forced to quit my job. Then we fled Iraq. We went to Jordan where I actually with my family we didn't know what to do in Jordan. We -- the only option we had is to establish a new life in a country where you can't get, like, residency, you can't have work authorization unless you start like your own investment. And it's very complicated situation.

  • 13:32:27

    ZAIBERAnd while waiting in Jordan, you know, when you are waiting for you don't know what, you're waiting for nothing, just living there one day by day. And then I got that email from Kirk saying, I know -- I heard that you're in Jordan. Do you want to get out? I was like, of course I do. It was like something -- you know, I read that email maybe ten times. And I called my husband and said, like, do you understand the same thing that I understand? Do you read the same thing?

  • 13:33:01

    ZAIBERThen I responded and like, yes. So what should I do? And he said, you know, you just go and register for you on HDR (sp?) . At that time, Iraqis were just (unintelligible) had to wait. Like, they stand in front of the building from maybe 3:00 a.m. in the morning, wait for their turn to just register their name. And then they go home and wait for couple months to get a first interview, and maybe a year or two years to get the second interview. And this really, really frustrated and long process, which I never thought of going...

  • 13:33:43

    NNAMDIEven though you had all of the documents indicating the work you had done for the United States in Iraq.

  • 13:33:49

    ZAIBERYes, yes, that's true.

  • 13:33:50

    NNAMDIIt still take a very long time.

  • 13:33:52

    ZAIBERThat's true.

  • 13:33:53

    NNAMDIAllow me to go to the telephones because some of our calls have been waiting for quite a while. And Alex in Washington, D.C. wants to talk about the Vietnam experience. Alex, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:34:03

    ALEXHi, Kojo. Yeah, I was listening to you all go on about this. And I remembered how in Vietnam, a lot of the pressure for bringing Vietnamese over came from the military. In fact, around Fort Bragg, N.C. there are large settlements of Hmong people who were brought back by the Special Forces people, as Fort Bragg's a headquarters for Special Forces. And I wonder at how it is that we're not getting that kind of pressure from the military today, or are we? You know, my inclination...

  • 13:34:39

    NNAMDIKirk -- go ahead, Alex, then I'll have Kirk respond.

  • 13:34:43

    ALEXOkay. My information is to go to my congressman from California -- I'm from California, just in D.C. now -- and he's a Vietnam veteran. He was a combat veteran of the Marine Corp. there. And I'm going to go talk to him and say, well what's the story with these Iraqis? Because if we did this for people who helped us back in Vietnam, why not do it today for people that are helping us in Iraq and elsewhere?

  • 13:35:06

    NNAMDIKirk Johnson.

  • 13:35:08

    JOHNSONIt's a great point and you're right in that the military did play a huge role in agitating for the resettlement of the Vietnamese. The church community in the United States also had a very important role back then. A lot of veterans have spoken out on this. In fact, in the op-ed page of the Washington Post this morning, Medal-of-Honor winner Dakota Meyer has an op-ed about...

  • 13:35:35

    NNAMDII saw that.

  • 13:35:35

    JOHNSON...the abandonment of the Afghans who are working for us. I have not seen any sort of institutional pressure from the Department of Defense for example. In fact, over the years I've lost count of the number of referrals that I get from high-ranking people in the Pentagon who want me to help their interpreters. You know, everybody gets that this is not just a moral issue but that it's a strategic issue. That, you know, I don't think America is done fighting wars. And I think this is why the military on an instinctive level gets it, that we -- no one's going to want to step forward to help us in the future if we're just screwing over everybody who helps us now.

  • 13:36:23

    NNAMDIWhy is it that you're getting requests from high level Pentagon officers to help their interpreters? Can't they put that kind of pressure on the White House?

  • 13:36:32

    JOHNSONIt's a question that I asked myself every day for the last five or six years. There are a lot of people in the government that they know that this is the right thing to do but they're not -- they haven't really been willing to put their own credibility on the line or really fight for it. And I don't -- you know, I don't work for USAID anymore. I sometimes wonder if I had never left the agency, maybe I would've never stepped forward to help because I'd be worried about my career or something.

  • 13:37:06

    NNAMDIYes, people would like to know, you're an Arabic scholar for starters. That's what brought you to work for USAID in Iraq. Can you tell us and tell our listeners a little bit about what you did in Iraq and what happened when you got back to the States, or out to the Bahamas?

  • 13:37:22

    JOHNSONYeah, well, I was opposed to the war, but I had -- as you mentioned -- I'd been studying Arabic for a long time and I had a degree in Middle Eastern studies. And I did feel that ethically I had an obligation to try to help with the reconstruction. So I went over as a young 24-year-old with USAID, spent the first half of the year sort of as a lackey in the public affairs office in Baghdad. But then I began to push for a post in the field because I didn't want to just hang out in a green zone all year.

  • 13:38:00

    JOHNSONAnd so the agency sent me out as their first coordinator for the reconstruction of Fallujah where I was living with the marines and coordinating about $25 million worth of aid projects. The Caribbean adventure you hinted, I took what was supposed to be a five-day vacation to visit with family in the Dominican Republic after a year in Iraq. And my second night there had what's called the dissociative fugue state which is driven by PTSD.

  • 13:38:39

    JOHNSONBut the short version is that I essentially sleepwalked out of my hotel window, fell and broke both my wrists, my jaw, my nose, I cracked my skull in two places. And then spent most of the next year recuperating, battling PTSD and just a general sense that I had completely failed in Iraq. That I had just risked my life there for a year and it amounted to nothing. I didn't do anything to improve the situation. And I think in some regards it was my friend writing to me for help that snapped me out of all of this sort of self pity and made me realize I could stop feeling whiny and try to help somebody else.

  • 13:39:27

    NNAMDIThat there were people who were in a very difficult situation, people who had facilitated your work in Iraq and were apparently being ignored. Alex, thank you very much for your call. Basma, what happens after an Iraqi makes it into the list? How do you get them through this pipeline?

  • 13:39:45

    ZAIBERIt depends on where they are in the process, if they contact the list without knowing what to do. We will walk them through the process, applying for them after we verify all the information they submitted. We verify -- we try to get all the documents that they need to be eligible for the process. So we first start with their employment. We get all the, like, employment verification, letter of recommendation, whatever they need. Then their civil documents, and apply for them.

  • 13:40:24

    ZAIBERThen they have to wait. The waiting period for getting the first interview now is around two years.

  • 13:40:33

    NNAMDIWhy?

  • 13:40:33

    ZAIBERTo get the first interview. Because I believe there is not enough resources that the U.S. government is using to process all these cases, and it could be also the bureaucracy that takes them to verify the employment. It could be...

  • 13:40:51

    NNAMDIWell, allow me interrupt, because Kirk, the U.S. has cited security concerns among others as reasons for these long waiting periods to process immigration papers. What do you think of that? How do you verify that the people on your list did indeed work for the U.S.? Did it take two years?

  • 13:41:09

    JOHNSONNo. You have to -- in fact many of these cases are referred to us by actives members of the armed forces. Officer ranks. You have to willfully blind yourself into thinking that these are not -- that these are doubtful cases. These are very obviously Iraqis that have worked for us. I mean, Basma mentioned the budget, and LBJ once said that -- and I'm sure many people have said it since then, but that a budget in the end is a reflection of our values, and, you know, we are spending -- I think the Pentagon on average is spending something like $15 billion a year just on fuel to keep the bases air conditioned.

  • 13:42:01

    JOHNSONBy contrast, I mean, I won't even hazard a guess as to how much money is being spent to try to evacuate these Iraqis who are still running for their lives, but I can tell you it's not 15 billion, it's not one.

  • 13:42:14

    NNAMDIWell, allow me to cut to the chase here, because what you seem to be suggesting is that we are in an era where there's White House and -- there's a president, a White House, an administration, and a Congress that all wants so badly for Iraq to be in our rearview mirror that they have chosen not to facilitate the resettlement of people who worked for us because they're uncomfortable about the whole war, and would simply like to forget about it. Is that what you're saying here?

  • 13:42:45

    JOHNSONWhat I'm saying is that -- and I actually give Congress pretty good grades on this. I think we are in a state right now in this country where we pass laws and we make these grandiose statements about how great these Iraqis were, and how we're going to help tens of thousands of them, and then nobody really looks -- we all look the other way when those laws are shredded by bureaucrats at the State Department and Homeland Security.

  • 13:43:11

    JOHNSONAnd there is -- this does go to the White House. If Barack Obama told the State Department and Homeland Security, this is absurd, issue these Visas, do you really think that the embassy in Baghdad is going to say, sorry, Mr. President, it takes us two years? What this ultimately is at the core, it's an apathy about these Iraqis and Afghans as we're going to see over the coming year, but they kind of drape this mantle of protecting us against terrorists over the failure of the bureaucracy.

  • 13:43:45

    JOHNSONThey tell us that they're keeping us safe and that's why it takes them two years to call up an Iraqi who's running for his life whose eyeballs have been scanned and who's been polygraphed in order to work alongside of our troops.

  • 13:43:58

    NNAMDIBasma.

  • 13:43:58

    ZAIBERWell, I just wanted to add something. The waiting period is -- the security clearance, the waiting will be after the second interview which is the -- when you apply you have to wait for more than a year to get the first interview. Before even the security clearance I believe started. So that one year is only to verify the employment and to schedule you for an interview. It's not even a security issue.

  • 13:44:29

    JOHNSONThere's no sane person that could look at what these Iraqis have to go through and what the Afghans are going through and think that the United States actually wants to help them.

  • 13:44:38

    NNAMDIGo to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on the List Project, resettling U.S. affiliated workers under threat. The number is 800-433-8850. Should the U.S. put more time and resources into resettling vulnerable refugees? What do you think? You can also send email to kojo@wamu.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:46:43

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on resettling U.S. affiliated workers under threat. We're talking with Kirk Johnson, founder and executive director of List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. He's also author of the new book, "To Be a Friend is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind." Also joining us in studio is Basma Zaiber, director of development and research for the List Project.

  • 13:47:10

    NNAMDIWe got an email from a State Department who wishes to remain anonymous I guess for obvious reasons who said, "I worked in a remote area of Afghanistan three years ago and have maintained contact with numerous Afghans who have served as interpreters and in various positions for the Department of State, two with whom I worked very closely for the entire year I was there and whose employment continued almost to the present have recently seen their cases denied. One because he purportedly could not prove he worked for the government for a year, and the other for unspecified derogatory information.

  • 13:47:40

    NNAMDI"In the first case, I reviewed the applicant's documents and can affirm what I know from experience, that this applicant served for well over 12 months for the U.S. government. In the second case, it appears that the derogatory information may come from a botched polygraph which there is no clear basis on the law to conduct in any case. However, there is nowhere for the applicant to know or challenge whatever information may exist.

  • 13:48:02

    NNAMDI"When the increased numbers for Afghan special immigrant Visas were announced, the applications were not processed at least partly because certain executive branch officials disagreed with the program in principle. As the processing system developed its own freestanding bureaucracy, it seems a combination of incompetence and unfounded presumption of fraud and/or nefarious intentions on the part of the applications has taken hold. It is extremely upsetting to watch those with whom my life was trusted in Afghanistan being treated as presumptive liars or worse now."

  • 13:48:41

    JOHNSONThe -- I get emails from within the system like this on a weekly basis from people within the State Department, within the military, and in fact, I know about the case -- one of those cases, and one of the cases that he just referred to, because I'm trying to help this Afghan now, I think he's possibly the longest serving local employee in the entire War on Terror. He's been working for us for 11 years, and I counted something upwards of 55 letters of recommendation.

  • 13:49:18

    JOHNSONHis most recent one was a Meritorious Honor Award from Ambassador Cunningham who is our Ambassador in Kabul right now. He received that in April of this year. The base that he's been living in as an interpreter, and he's been working on aid projects, has just been dismantled around him. So he applied for special immigrant Visa as an Afghan, and after 11 years of service and 60 days after receiving this Meritorious Honor Award from our own Ambassador, he was denied on derogatory information grounds, and there is no right to appeal.

  • 13:49:52

    JOHNSONIt's just that's it, it's over. And so, you know, I imagine that when the State Department hears this show that they may consider, but this is no just policy. I mean, for years we've been able to escalate a case and get somebody in the media to focus on it, and it embarrasses the State Department and they change their mind. But ultimately that's just the bureaucracy of flyswatters. There's nobody in there -- and this all comes down to the Executive Branch, it comes down to the White House.

  • 13:50:21

    JOHNSONNobody in there has said we have to do better. What they're doing are these sort of small ball little tweaks that just delay and delay the program, and they get away with it because they can tell us in these condescending terms that they're keeping us safe from terrorists.

  • 13:50:38

    NNAMDIHere's Helen in Annandale, Va. Helen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Helen, are you there?

  • 13:50:46

    HELENOh, yes. I just wanted to say I thought we could bring those people from Iraq over here and then investigate them if they think they need investigating.

  • 13:50:58

    NNAMDIFrom the impression that I'm getting, though, from Basma Zaiber is that you do quite a bit of investigating yourself when these people first make the application, correct? Well, not investigation, but verifying.

  • 13:51:10

    ZAIBERYeah. We do verify the employment at least and also the civil documents to make sure that it is as we see, it's legitimate. And then the State Department would do a long, long investigation because they bring them over. That security clearance could take up to two, three years in some cases.

  • 13:51:32

    JOHNSONBut Helen makes the very obvious point which is that nobody is calling for some sort of willy-nilly, let's just bring them all over at once, but we have these very clear precedents where she's right. We flew 12,000 Kosovo Albanians directly to Fort Dix. No Americans were put in jeopardy during that operation, and it actually allowed the government to process applications more efficiently because they're not operating in a war zone. This is what the Guam option is, and this is what the Brits -- what all of our allies have done. We're the only ones that have constructed this, you know, labyrinth of a process that just doesn't work.

  • 13:52:15

    NNAMDIHelen, thank you for your call. Here's Mohammed in Fairfax, Va. Mohammed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:52:22

    MOHAMMEDHello?

  • 13:52:22

    NNAMDIHi, Mohammed. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:52:24

    MOHAMMEDHi, how are you?

  • 13:52:25

    NNAMDIDoing well.

  • 13:52:27

    MOHAMMEDFirst of all, I just wanted to thank your guest about his effort to get those people -- to help the people. I worked with the U.S. since 2003 -- July 2003 until December 2009. Okay?

  • 13:52:45

    NNAMDIYes.

  • 13:52:45

    MOHAMMEDI hit it five times, three IEDs, two RBGs. Okay? Me and my wife, we were working with the Army. We faced death many times. We were threatened, my son kidnapped. I think we were lucky because we get out of there. Okay? But those people who serve this country, they deserve to get out of there.

  • 13:53:18

    NNAMDIHow long did it take for you to get a Visa Mohammed?

  • 13:53:21

    MOHAMMEDThe process took me more than two years.

  • 13:53:25

    JOHNSONAnd this is -- Mohammed, I'm glad you called in, because, I mean, this is -- for Americans that are doubtful about this, all they have to do is meet people like Mohammed and Basma, and this is why I wrote a book which is, I think, one of the first books that actually has Iraqis in it. You cannot meet this people and not be immediately moved and convinced by the obligation to help them. They have done everything for this country, and as a result, they've lost their own country.

  • 13:53:57

    JOHNSONAnd so, you know, there are -- people like Mohammed, that's the reason the List Project exists, and that's why this is still such a critical issue, because there are many that haven't gotten out yet.

  • 13:54:09

    NNAMDIMohammed, thank you very much for your call. We got an email from John in D.C. who says, "By leaving these Iraqi helpers to swing in the wind, what are we doing to our future military, because the next country will certainly of our betrayal to these people. Future American forces will reap unwillingness from the way our government is treating this shameful issue. If our military personnel say someone helped them do their job and, therefore, deserves to come to America, that's good enough for me."

  • 13:54:37

    NNAMDIBasma, how have your expectations of your -- or your perceptions of the U.S. government and its policies changed since you started working for the List Project?

  • 13:54:47

    ZAIBERWell, it is pretty frustrating to see all these people waiting and waiting and sometimes getting culled while waiting for their applications to get processed. And sometimes when you sit there and see that your client is being threatened and you can't do anything, or for someone who worked for the U.S. government for like eight years and then their case get rejected, and there is no real reason for the rejection, the denial letter shows that the reason is not like the persecution of others, not like the information they gave, it's just other.

  • 13:55:29

    ZAIBERThey check one box called other which saying nothing for the denial. No reason for the denial. And then I'm glad that we were able to help many of those who -- through the process show them how to apply, help them if they get denied, but what about those who cannot access the system, who don't have access to emails, who can't just like -- there is no way for anyone to just walk in the (word?) building and says, well, I need help. No one will let them. So there are many people out need help.

  • 13:56:08

    NNAMDIOn a, I guess, maybe more hopeful note to end with, Kirk, what happened to that first name on your list? The former Iraqi colleague named (word?) who found a threat against on a dog's severed head at his front door?

  • 13:56:24

    JOHNSONHe was identified by militia member, someone who lived on his street, and yeah, he received his death threat in the form of a severed dog's head, and that's what really led to the creation of the List Project. He was the first person to get in, and he and his wife moved in with my parents in West Chicago, Il. We call them -- we call him the fourth Johnson brother, and they're doing great. They have a wonderful young son and they just became American citizens about six months or so ago. So they're on their way here after a very harrowing journey.

  • 13:57:08

    NNAMDISo there is some hope, but there is also a great deal of disappointment. I should mention that Kirk Johnson will be at DuPont Circle Books tonight at 6:00 P.M. DuPont Circle Books A Million tonight at 6:00 P.M. reading from his book "To Be a Friend is Fatal." Kirk Johnson, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:57:30

    JOHNSONThanks for having me.

  • 13:57:31

    NNAMDIKirk Johnson is founder and executive director of List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. He's also author of the new book, "To Be a Friend is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis Left Behind. Basma Zaiber, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:57:44

    ZAIBERThank you.

  • 13:57:45

    NNAMDIBasma is director of development and research for the List Project. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney who is visiting with several grandparents and a posse today. Welcome to them all. Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein with help from Stephannie Stokes. Brendan Sweeney is the managing producer. Our engineer, Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones.

  • 13:58:10

    NNAMDIPodcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org. To share questions or comments you can email kojo@wamu.org. Join us on Facebook or send a tweet @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Related Links

Topics + Tags

Comments

comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows

Forging and Maintaining Adult Friendships

Wednesday, Nov 26 2014The health benefits — both mental and physical — of friendships are myriad. But as we get older it becomes increasingly difficult to forge lasting bonds with new people. We consider the ways communication, emotions and our phase of life effect our relationships with friends.

Feeding the Hungry

Wednesday, Nov 26 2014We check in with three local soup kitchens on the eve of Thanksgiving to look at who they're serving and how their programs and clients have changed in recent years.

Meline Toumani: “There Was And There Was Not”

Tuesday, Nov 25 2014A journalist by training, Meline Toumani shocked friends and family by moving to Turkey and embarking on a journey to understand a people and a country she'd been taught were the enemy. The result is "There Was and There Was Not," part political history, part deeply personal memoir.