On Friday morning, Khalas, who served as an interpreter for American soldiers in Iraq, waited for his wife, Nada, at Dulles Airport with a bouquet of peach roses and lilies. Marcia Maack, the director of pro-bono activities for the law firm Mayer Brown, was with him, in case Customs and Border Protection officers used the authority granted to them by President Trump to detain or attempt to return Nada to Iraq. Khalas and Nada had been granted Special Immigrant Visas for his service to the United States, but those visas no longer seemed to count for much.
Khalas, who is thirty, sported a black fedora with a mottled feather tucked into its band as he shivered beneath the sleeting sky. Seven months of bureaucratic delay had separated him from his wife, but the week that passed since President Donald Trump signed the executive order barring all refugees, as well as citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, had been the hardest.
Eight hours after Trump signed the order, airline agents in Erbil had blocked Nada, who is thirty-four, from boarding her flight. She was one of almost nine hundred refugees en route to America who were turned away at airports. More than a hundred people were detained upon landing, and American airports were soon besieged with protesters. Within a day, a federal judge in New York issued a stay, preventing the forced return of detained passengers. Forty-eight hours later, a federal judge in Los Angeles granted a temporary restraining order, instructing immigration officials to admit anyone with valid immigrant visas.
On Monday, the Pentagon, which had hosted the signing ceremony in its Hall of Heroes, announced a hasty plan to pull together the names of Iraqis who had interpreted for U.S. forces, so that the White House could exempt them from the ban. As the founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, I spent the better part of a decade compiling such a list. That’s how I came to know Khalas and Nada, whose identities have been concealed in order to protect their safety. So I was curious: How would one get his name on it? Would Nada, an interpreter’s wife, be eligible? Did the Pentagon realize that the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security already had thousands of such names, in the form of visa applications?
By Tuesday, it was clear that the White House, embarrassed by the outrage over the interpreters’ plight, would exempt those with Special Immigrant Visas from the ban, deeming them “vital to the national interest.” But each spasmodic amendment to the order only produced more confusion.
“Matthew,” a thirty-five-year-old Iraqi, worked as an Arabic and Kurdish translator for U.S. Special Forces operating in Avghani, near the Syrian border. When the Stryker he was riding in was hit by I.E.D.s, Matthew climbed out and fended off insurgents while a medic stitched up wounded soldiers inside. Matthew had applied for the P-2 category of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, designated for interpreters, and had cleared every stage of the process. For two and a half years, his family had been waiting for February 2nd, when they were to receive a call informing them of their travel date to America. Last week, his two daughters, aged six and three, were brimming with excitement, unaware that the exemption didn’t apply to them. If interpreters with Special Immigrant Visas were vital to the national interest, Matthew texted me, why not P-2 interpreters? “What is going to happen?” he asked. “Can we come now?” “What have you heard from the U.S. Government?” America was broadcasting two distinct messages to the world. Our President said, “We don’t want them”; our judges said, “Hold on.”
Before Nada headed to the airport on Friday, Maack braced her for what might happen. Despite the exemption for Special Immigrant Visas and the mounting domestic legal challenges to the ban, she should expect to have difficulty boarding. If she was lucky enough to get on the flight to Dulles, she should expect to be placed in secondary detention for several hours or longer. If that happened, she should be prepared to unlock her phone and let Customs and Border Protection officers scan her contact list and explore her Facebook account. She shouldn’t expect the officers to be particularly friendly.
To improve her chances, Nada had obtained a memo from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that she could present to the gate agents in Erbil and Dubai. On Embassy letterhead, the memorandum stated, “The U.S. Government has determined that it is in the national interest to allow Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders to continue to travel to the United States.” Addressed to Emirates Airlines and Fly Dubai, the Embassy instructed the companies, “Please accept this memorandum as proof.”
But when Nada tried to board in Dubai, the Emirates agent would not accept the memo, and informed her that she would have to return to Iraq. Khalas texted Maack in a panic, worried that his wife would once again be blocked.
The Emirates agents said they would need to hear from the U.S. Embassy on the phone that S.I.V. holders were indeed exempt, but they would not call the Embassy themselves. Maack persuaded the Baghdad Embassy to call the airline, but she provided the number of an Emirates supervisorwho turned out to be on a lunch break. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking on Nada’s connecting flight.
Around this time, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews was grilling Kellyanne Conway, a counsellor to President Trump, about the ban. In defending the executive order, she referred to two Iraqi refugees who were arrested in Kentucky, calling them the masterminds of “the Bowling Green massacre.” “Most people don’t know that,” Conway scolded, “because it didn’t get covered.”
Of course, there was no massacre, as the mocking hordes on Twitter made immediately clear. In 2011, the two refugees were nabbed in a sting operation. They were trying to purchase weapons to ship back to Iraq, where they would have been used to fight the Iraqi government. Neither of the men had entered the country through the programs for U.S.-affiliated Iraqis, but the Obama Administration responded by adding even more layers of vetting to a process that already took two years for well documented interpreters to clear. Trump has defended his order as being no different from Obama’s, but there was not a month in 2011—or during Obama’s eight years in office—when Iraqi refugees were not allowed entry: more than six thousand were admitted in 2011.
As the weekend approached, I was in a dark mood. Entire nations had been banned from entering the United States. Tens of thousands of students and doctors from the seven countries had their valid visas provisionally revoked; now they were terrified to leave for fear that they wouldn’t be allowed back in, but were worried about overstaying their visas and being deported for good. Refugees who had just received visas were blocked from boarding planes. And, after a week of withering criticism—on legal, strategic, and moral grounds—the best defense Trump’s representative could muster was a fantasy.
Tony Benn, the late British member of Parliament, once said that “the way a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.” Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, who reportedly helped write the executive order, has said that he sees both legal and illegal immigrants as a problem, and would like to halt the admission of refugees indefinitely. The “progressive plutocrats in Silicon Valley” have been bringing in foreign workers to take jobs from American citizens, Bannon claimed in an interview last year. He also questioned the expense of vetting refugees from Muslim-majority countries. “Why even let ’em in? Can’t that money be used in the United States?” he said in 2015. “Should we just take a pause and a hiatus for a number of years on any influx from that area of the world?”
Bannon sees himself as battling a “globalist” élite that supports open borders, working on behalf of “the middle class, the working men and women in the world, who are just tired of being dictated to by what we call the party of Davos,” as he put it in a speech at the Vatican, in 2014. But the people knocked over this past week were not wealthy, vested interests. Two and a half years ago, Nada and her family, who, like Khalas’s, are part of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, were fleeing the Islamic State in Sinjar. Matthew, the Special Forces interpreter who remains stranded, has never heard of Davos. Most of the refugees the Trump Administration has put at risk have only suitcases, visas, and a dream of forging something new in America, in peace.
As the morning dragged on, Khalas waited nervously for Nada at Dulles. Nearby, behind a small desk, sat a group of immigration attorneys, ready to assist anyone affected by the ban. How long would C.B.P. detain her? Would officials understand that she was one of the exempt few?
When Nada at last appeared through the security doors, with blond streaks in her hair and a fierce smile, it was over, for them at least. Later that day, a federal judge in Seattle issued a nationwide restraining order. Depending on how the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, rules on the Administration’s case, the whole sordid thing could end up before a split Supreme Court in a matter of weeks.
When I asked Khalas if he and his wife planned to stay in America for good, he laughed and said, “Nada has to sign the executive order on that.”