Army Captain: "This Executive Order Is a Death Sentence" for Iraqi Interpreters

The current travel ban does not currently have exemptions for Iraqi interpreters like this one working with the U.S. Army Bravo Company 82nd Airborne. Credit: Spencer Platt / Getty Images

UPDATE: Today, at the Pentagon’s urging, the Trump administration removed travel restrictions for Iraqi interpreters who hold Special Immigrant Visas. Since last Friday when the travel ban went into effect, more than a dozen interpreters and their families on their way to the U.S. had been removed from planes or stopped at airports and sent back to Iraq. “It’s about damn time,” says Captain Matt Zeller. “These people don’t have extra days to wait due to bureaucratic ineptitude.”

Zeller wants more. “The Trump administration should place them at the front of the line for admission and expedite the processing of the 12,000-plus Afghan and Iraqi visas stuck in the system,” he says. “They’re veterans and deserve to be home here in America with the rest of their brother and sister veterans.”

Former U.S. Army captain Matt Zeller doesn't pull punches when it comes to the Trump administration’s travel ban for citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from entering the United States: “This executive order is nothing more than a death sentence,” he says. Specifically, Zeller is referring to the lives of the Iraqi interpreters who fought side-by-side with the U.S. military and have waited years to receive special immigrant visas (SIVs) to settle here. All are at risk, and many are actively targeted by militants for their part in the war.

Zeller, who co-founded the nonprofit No One Left Behind, wouldn’t be here today without one of them: Interpreter Janis Shinwari shot and killed two Taliban and pulled a dazed Zeller to safety during a firefight in southern Afghanistan in 2008. It took him some three years of bureaucratic tape-busting to get Shinwari to safety in the U.S. Still seething from the process, Zeller started No One Left Behind to help bring home the rest. While he sounds determined as he talks from his four-employee office in Washington, D.C., you can hear in his voice the strain of someone facing an impossibility against which reason and effort have little sway.

Since the ban went into effect on Friday, he’s been inundated with requests for help — “It’s like we’re drinking from a fire hose,” he says. A clearly tired Zeller took time to talk with Men’s Journal before getting back to work.

When did all these requests start pouring in, and what’s it been like for you?

We’ve never had days busier than these. It started essentially as soon as the executive order was signed publicly and it’s been nonstop. I think we’ve had something like 4,000 requests for help since Friday afternoon, and 1,000 offers from people to volunteer their services. We’re overwhelmed right now.

Are the people who contacted you generally people who already put in for the special visas or people who haven’t yet got into that process?

These are people who have already put in, and in many cases have a visa, and they’re like, “What the hell am I supposed to do now?”

"My wife is pregnant," wrote one interpreter. "She’s in her second trimester. At the very least, can’t you let her and our unborn son in? How could he possibly be a terrorist? He’s yet to even be alive.”

So the people who have visas would effectively be turned away?

They’ve already been turned away. We’re tracking 15 cases of Iraqis who have been validated for travel to the United States who were either on their plane — in one case, ten minutes before they were supposed to pull away from the gate and take off, and the authorities in whatever country they were making their connecting flight to the U.S. from came on the plane and removed them, and sent them back to Iraq. Or in other cases, they were simply just prevented from boarding that connecting flight to the U.S. and sent back to Iraq. They’re all people who did exactly what you and I would have done if we were moving to another country forever: They quit their jobs, they sold their house, they sold their possessions, they took their kids out of school, they said goodbye to relatives. They’re coming to this country because, quite frankly, if they don’t they know they’re going to be killed by the very people we asked them to help us fight.

These countries that are hauling them out — which countries are we talking about?

We’ve had clients sent back from connecting flights in Egypt, Turkey, India, and parts of the E.U. When the order went out from the White House, I guess they told basically all airports around the world that send flights to the U.S. that certain classes of visas or people coming from certain countries should be barred from getting on planes to the U.S., or if they’re already on the plane, should be removed. It’s not the decision of the Turkish or Egyptian authorities. If they let them come here, it’s a major diplomatic incident.

What are the steps you’re trying to take to help these people?

There’s not much we can do for the Iraqis other than continue to fight for either the order to be rescinded or for an exemption to be carved out for them. Other than that, there’s really nothing we can do. If we can’t bring them to the U.S., our organization has no ability to support them abroad. There’s not really sanctuary for them anywhere else, other than this country. Again, I’m not messing around: This is a death sentence for these people.

"Anybody who’s currently waiting for a visa from Iraq has at least been waiting since October 2014. But in most cases they’ve been waiting since 2010, 2011, and some have been waiting a decade for this."

These 4,000 requests: What are they asking you to do specifically? Just anything you can to change this?

Yeah, I mean, “Please, please, please get them to fix this.” One guy wrote to me and said, “I quit my job, we sold our house, we sold all our things. My wife is pregnant. She’s in her second trimester. At the very least can’t you let her and our unborn son in? How could he possibly be a terrorist? He’s yet to even be alive.”

This was an Iraqi interpreter?

Yeah.

How long had he waited already?

The last point in time an Iraqi could have applied for one of these visas was the first of October 2014. We haven’t accepted new applications since that day. So anybody who’s currently waiting for a visa from Iraq has at least been waiting since October 2014. But in most cases they’ve been waiting since 2010, 2011, and some have been waiting a decade for this.

How many special visas holders are there, currently, in Iraq?

Currently, we know of at least 65 families that have contacted us that have valid visas to come to the United States. Fifteen of them were in transit when the order went into effect and have since been sent back. And the other 35 to 40 are currently in Iraq and had flights scheduled for today, next week, etc, and have been since told that those flights have been canceled and that if they attempt to come to the U.S. they will be turned back at whatever country they try to make a connecting flight to the U.S. from.

In addition to those people, we know that there’s anywhere from 800 to 1,000 applicants still in the backlog for Iraqi SIVs. These are people who have already submitted applications. We don’t know if they’ll be approved or not, but assuming that they are, they also would then fall under this travel ban. Again, these are all people who had submitted their applications before the first of October 2014.

There are rumblings that the Pentagon was going to issue a list, seemingly of special Visa holders. Is that something you’re involved in? 

We’ve heard rumors of that. We don’t know what that process looks like, or what they’re doing. I’ve heard rumors that they were soliciting individual recommendations for people as to who they should be recommending — individual, like, 'Hey, you should recommend this guy, or recommend this guy.'

That sounds pretty time-consuming.

Yes.

How would they begin to get in touch with these people?

I have no idea, man. I’m not involved with that process. I’m just telling you the rumor I heard.

How many hours are you logging these days?

I slept three hours last night. Maybe I’ve slept a total of 15 in the last four days. We’re all running on fumes at this point. It’s been nuts.