Transcript

607:

Didn’t We Solve This One?
Transcript

Originally aired 01.06.2017

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/607

Prologue.

Ira Glass

So say your name. Say who you are.

Seth Moulton

Sure. Seth Moulton, a congressman from the sixth district of Massachusetts. I should say, Seth Moulton, the congressman from the sixth district of Massachusetts.

Ira Glass

You added the "the." That's the difference between--

[LAUGHING]

Seth Moulton

Because there's only one of me, so.

Ira Glass

And before you were a congressman, you served for how many tours in Iraq?

Seth Moulton

I did four tours in Iraq as a Marine infantry officer.

Ira Glass

Back in 2003, Seth Moulton was in the first company of Marines to enter Baghdad during the invasion. And once they liberated the country, one of his weirder assignments was to show the Iraqis how to start a free press and help them get uncensored news operations up and running. Up till then, the news media was just propaganda for Saddam Hussein.

Seth Moulton

And although my primary job was just to teach the Iraqis how to produce their own TV shows, we started doing some announcements, some messages ourselves. And this little thing that Mohamed and I put together-- he was my translator-- proved remarkably popular. Kind of a news commentary show, sort of like 60 Minutes.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. Sort of like 60 Minutes? You mean, like you would investigate stories and run after people in the parking lot?

Seth Moulton

Right. Exactly. Exactly. So we'd go out and we'd hear people complaining about the electricity situation, and so we'd go to the power plant and say, what's going on here? And they'd say, oh, well, we've got a problem with the transmission lines. So then we'd go out and follow the transmission lines and see what was being done to fix them. And Iraqis had never seen this before. I mean, trust me. I didn't know how to put together a TV show. I mean, this was very low-quality stuff, but it was the best the Iraqis had ever seen. And it was far better than just getting these tapes from the Ministry of Information in Baghdad.

Before long, we were signing autographs in the street. We were getting fan mail. Everywhere we went, we had to pose for pictures. I mean, it was extraordinary. I'm a congressman now, and no one does that back home.

Ira Glass

But the success of that show led to a problem for his interpreter, Mohammed. As the years passed, an opposition to the Americans and the new Iraqi government increased. It became incredibly dangerous for any Iraqis who were working with US forces. People were getting killed. Their families were sometimes killed. Mohammed came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship.

Seth Moulton

And his family said it's a death sentence for you to come home. They were receiving threats. They had to pick up and move their family to a new city because of the threats they received due to Mohammed's work with me.

Ira Glass

Due to him being on television with you.

Seth Moulton

That's right. They all knew Mohammed. They knew who he was. He was sort of like the local poster child for quote, unquote "collaborators with the Americans."

Ira Glass

While Mohammad waited to get asylum in the United States, he moved in with Seth Moulton's parents. Seth was actually back in Iraq on his fourth tour.

Ira Glass

Was he in your room?

Seth Moulton

I think he was technically in my brother's room, but--

Ira Glass

Your brother's room? OK.

Seth Moulton

Across the hall.

Ira Glass

I was wondering if your stuff from high school was still on the walls when he was there waiting for you.

Seth Moulton

I think it still is, so yeah. It was. I mean, my parents had an Iraqi son while their son was deployed to Iraq.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Seth Moulton

And he's really become like a son to them and like a brother to me. He comes to all our holidays, to Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Ira Glass

Mohammed was allowed to stay in the United States. But he's one of the lucky ones. Congressman Moulton hears about, and personally knows, other interpreters who have not been allowed here. And in fact, thousands of interpreters and others who work with the United States in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are still back there. Many of them, their lives are in danger.

And that's true, even though in 2008, a law was passed to expedite their entrance to the United States. It's frustrating, the congressman says.

Seth Moulton

I've been back and forth over email over the past few weeks with a very close interpreter from 2007, 2008, who's trying to come over with his family. We're still fighting. Still fighting to get him here. And you know, I wouldn't be here today, Ira, without my translators. They risked their lives to keep me and my Marines safe.

Ira Glass

And do you understand what is the holdup? Like, if these people are in the pipeline, how come so few of the slots that have been allocated for them are actually getting filled?

Seth Moulton

Well, I think there are some problems. I hear from a lot of veterans who have their own translators and say, hey, can you help my guy? Can you help my guy get in? And a lot of times they'll say, you know, I have statements from every Marine or soldier that he worked with saying that this is one of the most trustworthy guys I know, and yet, because they don't check some box for the State Department, they can't get through.

Ira Glass

The day I spoke with the congressman-- just a few weeks ago-- was the day the House was supposed to decide whether to renew the law that issues special visas to help these people who worked with the United States move to our country. He's on the House Armed Services Committee and he just heard the news.

Seth Moulton

Yeah, we've actually just found out that the final bill includes 1,500 additional visas, which is a step in the right direction.

Ira Glass

But the backlog is more than 13,000 people right now. So 1,500 visas was disappointing to him. He was hoping for a lot more. There was a lot more in the past. He says vets in Congress from both parties understand how important this is. He has Republican allies like John McCain. But he gets a lot of pushback from other people in Congress.

Ira Glass

And can you explain what's the argument on the other side for making the number of slots so low? When people argue with you and say, no, no. Let's make the number slots low, what do they say?

Seth Moulton

You know, it's just this anti-immigrant sentiment in the Republican Party. And unfortunately, it's from a lot of Republicans who haven't served overseas who don't understand how important this is. They say, oh, we can't trust these people, or we know of Iraqis and Afghans who want to kill Americans. Well, right, of course, but not the ones who put their lives on the line to work for us. I mean, these people took tremendous risks. They've taken greater risks for our country than these folks in Congress who are opposed to their immigration and have never served in our military.

Ira Glass

Do you say that to them?

Seth Moulton

Well, I try to be a little bit more diplomatic about it, but.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Seth Moulton

There's a lot of fear out there among my colleagues right now that Trump has been so successful with his crusade against immigration. People are afraid that if they stand up for a program like this it will be used against them in some future election.

Ira Glass

President-elect, of course, campaigned against allowing people from Muslim countries to come into our country.

Seth Moulton

Of course, my fear is that the Trump administration won't be willing to work with us at all. I mean, I don't think someone who-- I mean, what did Trump have, five deferments or something so he wouldn't have to go to Vietnam? I don't think that he's going to understand this at all.

Ira Glass

Yeah. Wait, are you calling him like a draft dodger?

Seth Moulton

No, I'm not calling him like a draft dodger. I'm calling him a draft dodger.

Ira Glass

What is going to happen?

Over the years on our program, we have covered the stories of several different people who worked with US forces and tried to get relocated to America when they put their lives in danger. In the first half of today's show, we return to one of those people, to somebody who started trying to come here eight years ago. Yes, they've been at this for eight years. We wanted to understand what's going to happen to her now with this new administration arriving.

In the second half of the show, we have the amazing and disturbing story of how we got to this point as a country. Like, why Congress authorized these special visas in the first place to solve this problem, and why they have not worked so well.

A warning before we start that if you're listening with small American children, this is not a story that's going to make you feel good to be an American. But of course, it's always good to understand the facts, to see clearly what has happened and why. And we will do that now. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. Good Things Come to Those Who Wait. But Not Always.

Ira Glass

Act One, Good Things Come to Those Who Wait, But Not Always.

So the interpreter that this story's about is named Sarah. She worked with US forces in Iraq. But we know her because she worked with us, interpreting for our producer Nancy Updike in Iraq for about a month back in 2010 as we were putting together an episode about US forces pulling out of that country. Back in 2011, Nancy did a story about Sarah's attempts to get a visa to move to the United States. And that story resulted in a flood of emails from listeners who wanted to help in some way. Not that there was a lot they could do.

Nancy's been in touch with Sarah on and off over the years. And she's checked back in with her this fall.

Nancy Updike

Sarah spent most of December-- this December, just a few weeks ago-- working with a reporter going in and out of Mosul. That's the city Iraqi forces have been fighting to take back from ISIS. That's one of Sarah's skills, keeping her nerve in a dangerous place.

But the reason people open up to Sarah-- the reason they remember her-- is because, no matter what's going on around her, who she was before the war still comes through. This warm, chatty housewife, who, for most of her life, was raising her two boys, getting up every morning and putting on clothes that will be familiar to anyone who's ever spent the whole day at home.

Sarah

Normally I was wearing in my house like, you know, a tracksuit and pajamas. And then a uniform.

Nancy Updike

The uniform was an American military uniform. And Sarah is laughing because she can still barely believe the arc of her adult life. She worked alongside US soldiers during one of the most violent stretches of the Iraq war. And she went straight into that having never worked outside her home in her life. So Sarah's story-- the story you're about to hear-- is about an ordinary woman with no heroic ambitions who took on a role for which she was the unlikeliest of candidates and thrived.

Sarah started working as an interpreter as a last resort. The war had been going on for a few years already and interpreters were being targeted and killed because they were working for the United States. But Sarah was desperate. She and her family had been bombed out of their house, and her husband's business had been taken over by militias.

Even before the war, Sarah's marriage had not been happy. Her husband never let her work outside the home. Didn't even let her finish college. Now the family was broke and sometimes going hungry, including her kids, Mustafa, 16, and Baqir, who just turned 10.

Sarah's husband refused to go out and look for work out of fear that he'd be killed. And people were being killed in the streets. But someone had to do something. Sarah took an English test at a US military base. She'd always been good at languages. She passed the test and was offered a contract with a starting salary of $1,150 a month. That was the good part of the contract.

Sarah

The contract said 27 days in the camp and then four days vacation. So it's a very long time for me to leave my kids alone in the house.

Nancy Updike

So you would be living on the base with the Americans for 27 days and then get four days at home? You couldn't commute back and forth and see them at night, even?

Sarah

No, no, no. So I really worried about this item in the contract. But yes, I start to work with them and I found myself in a room smaller than this one, alone. And I spend only one night and then I want to quit the next morning. Yeah. I wanted to take my bag and run away to my house because each time I hear the American soldiers in the back laughing and talking, I said, what am I doing here? This is not my place. My place is with my boys in the house. How can I just bear 27 days without seeing my kids?

And then one of the Iraqi interpreters, he saw me so confused, and I told him this is the first day for me. I want to quit. I want to leave. So he says, this is normal thing. We all felt the same way you feel now. So just relax and give yourself time.

Nancy Updike

Picture a woman in her late 30s with a wide face. 5 foot 3, but solid, not fragile. Huge smile. Now wearing fatigues, bulletproof vest, medic bag, wraparound shrapnel-resistant glasses, and a helmet. 40-plus pounds of gear. Sarah is her nickname. All Iraqi interpreters pick nicknames. The fewer people who know their real names, the better. She picked Sarah. It's easy to pronounce in English and in Arabic.

Sarah was an interpreter for Alpha Company 177. But she did more than just interpret. She gathered key information that became intel for the unit. This was back during the surge. Baghdad was on the edge of all-out civil war and the surge plan was to send US military outfits like Alpha Company out into the middle of dangerous areas with constant IED and sniper attacks to try and stabilize them.

Alpha Company landed in southwest Rashid in Baghdad. At the time, it was a confusing churn of different militias, including the powerful Mahdi Army, the Jaish al-Mahdi, who were trying to control the area. Kidnapping and killing were common. And the only way for the Americans to fight was to get tips from informants, ordinary local people who were frightened all the time of the militias, of the Americans.

Sarah's job was to try to convince these frightened people to talk. Her new boss, Captain Bill Higgins-- he's actually now a lieutenant colonel-- gave her an assignment. Call up this guy. He doesn't want to talk, but just try.

Sarah

Try to talk with him. Try to ask him about the neighborhood. And I called him and I talked with him. I'm Sarah. I'm working with Americans, these things. And I asked him about the neighborhood, his neighborhood, and he started to give me his real name, his job, all the information about the bad guys in his neighborhood. So when I told the captain after I finished my call, he was really surprised. And he said, Sarah, we tried with him since six months. Tried to get even his name, and he refused to give it to us. This is something unbelievable.

It was the first time for me to recognize and realized that there is other things I can do in addition to be a housewife-- a good housewife. I start to feel all this energy inside me, all these good things inside me. So yes, there is something else. I can do it within the right way.

Nancy Updike

Lieutenant Colonel Higgins told me it really was unbelievable how good Sarah was at getting people to open up to her. They trusted her. They liked talking to her. Lieutenant Colonel Higgins felt that way. Sarah was approachable, sympathetic, funny, and unexpected, like running into your favorite sister or aunt in a war zone. Even though she was dressed in fatigues, as soon as she started talking, it was clear to people that she knew their world and she knew them. She used to be them.

Sarah

Nancy, I spent 17 years in the kitchen, making food for the family and guests all the time. So this is like a big step for me to get out from all this thing to a new world.

Nancy Updike

Sarah's world flipped. Everything that had seemed overwhelming in the beginning became normal-- militias, informants, raids, IEDs, gunfire, dead bodies, and working around the clock. 27 days in a row of this. And then a mini vacation. Four days off-- and not even fully off. She gave trusted informants or sources her personal cell phone number. She found herself struggling to get back into the quiet rhythm that used to be her whole life-- making meals, cleaning the house, being a mom. You know, vacation.

Sarah

The problem for me was, even when I was in my vacation, people keep calling me. And this didn't let me switch off all these things and be a mom instead of being interpreter. One of the times when I was in a vacation, Baqir asked me to do his favorite food-- chicken in the oven with rice, of course-- and at the same time, I got a call from a source. She start to tell me something so important about weapon caches in the area and I'm just holding the phone in one hand and try to put the tray in the oven.

Nancy Updike

Maybe you can see where this ends. She burns herself. She's still got the scar. But listen to her voice. She's thrilled. She wasn't just good at her job. She loved her job. On that phone call, the information she got while getting burned was so important, she left her vacation early.

Sarah

It was really a big day for us. We captured about 18 leaders in the same night.

Nancy Updike

Sarah became indispensable. Out of the four or five interpreters the unit worked with regularly, she was the top. She was the one that Lieutenant Colonel Higgins and his operations officer wanted at their meetings with local sheikhs and other leaders. They sought her opinion as well as her interpreting skills. And her work with informants was crucial. Lieutenant Colonel Higgins says he's certain that some of the people who called, especially women, would never have talked to a male interpreter.

Sarah got letters of praise from military officers that were a effusive and consistent. They wrote, "her work has directly led to identifying many criminal actors and capturing them." "We've learned that Sarah is feared by local criminals." "Sarah unhesitatingly faced the same dangers as our soldiers." "She's earned the trust and confidence of everyone in the unit."

The letters also talked about how hard Sarah worked. Lieutenant Colonel Higgins sometimes let her kids come to the compound and stay with her for a few days when the long separations got too difficult. Her husband came a couple of times, too. Sarah later overheard him talking to the kids about it.

Sarah

He said, I really shocked when I saw your mother do all this work all the time, day and night. So God help her and protect her.

Nancy Updike

The word empowerment has a quaintness about it now in the US as though it's forever rendered in a '70s-era font. But there's no other word for what happened to Sarah. She became empowered. She used to be embarrassed to talk to strangers. Now she could talk to anyone. And when she did, everyone listened. Her world had become huge. For Sarah, it was a change that would come at a staggering personal cost. And she saw others pay a price for their courage, also.

Sarah called up a woman in the area one day at the captain's request.

Sarah

He said, Sarah, this woman really has good information about a very bad area in the sector. We need her. I told her, I'm a mom too, and I have two boys, and I accept to do this work and it was very dangerous because someone needs to be serious with this area, with this country. It has to be me or you or anyone to bring the secure and the safe to the area.

Nancy Updike

The woman agreed to talk in spite of being frightened. She lived in a neighborhood where militia members often hid. From the back of her house, she could see what was happening on the main street-- people planting IEDs to catch US military vehicles. And from the front, she could see who and what was coming into the area. She was a great source, calling Sarah at home to tell her about weapons and militias. They became friends. And she told Sarah that the militias had a nickname for Sarah-- the Lion.

One day, the woman's husband called Sarah and said, they came and took her. Militia leaders took her.

Sarah

I know the militias. They are savage. And they torture everyone. They don't care about a woman or a kid or anything. And I feel guilt. I thought maybe I am the reason for what she will suffer from. I just wanted to take her back to her kids and-- so I was like a crazy, talking, crying, and talking with the captain, begging him to find any way to go and try to find her. I called one of the double agents who work with the Americans and work with me.

Nancy Updike

Someone in the Jaish al-Mahdi who was working with you, working with the Americans?

Sarah

Yes. And I begged him, just tell me where they will take her. Tell me about the places where you keep the kidnapped people. So we move from house to house, and all the houses were empty. We spent maybe two days searching for her. And then her husband called me and said, hey, Sarah, they called us and they said, we killed her. Really, it was-- every time I remembered her, I really said, she was the Lion, not me. I'm not. I wasn't the Lion. She was the Lion. Yeah.

Nancy Updike

In the beginning of 2008, after Lieutenant Colonel Higgins and his group had rotated out and a new group had come in, Sarah's husband joined the Sons of Iraq. These were groups of Iraqis the Americans paid to fight alongside them, especially against al Qaeda. Her husband was killed after less than a month.

Sarah

He was driving his car in one of the streets where they put their checkpoints, and two cars drive beside his car with three men inside it, and they start to shoot on him and kill him in his car. I shocked, really. I start to cry. My boys jumped in my mind and I called Mustafa immediately and I asked him about Baqir and he told me, he is in the house with me. And I said, don't go anywhere because I will come to you. And I was crying and he was confused and asked me, what's going on? Mom, tell me what's going on.

Nancy Updike

Sarah was horrified to learn from one of her informants that her husband was killed at least in part because of her work. The informant told her he saw militia members the day her husband died.

Sarah

He saw them celebrate after his killing and distribute candies and laughing and call each other and congratulate each other. Hey, we killed Sarah's husband.

Nancy Updike

Sarah started trying to get herself and her sons out of Iraq, to emigrate to the US for safety. With the help of Lieutenant Colonel Higgins and others from his unit, as well as people from the new group, she applied for a special visa-- one of the visas created by Congress specifically for people like Sarah who were working with the United States.

But in the fall of 2008, as she was waiting to do her first interview to get the visa, something totally unexpected happened. She was taken into custody, put in an American jail at the Baghdad airport. No idea why. She was questioned for days before she could figure out what was going on.

Sarah had been accused, anonymously, by another Iraqi of betraying the Americans she was working with. The accusation was that she had taken money from militias, had snuck militia members into the Sons of Iraq to spy on the Americans, and had interpreted inaccurately on purpose to help militia members get released.

To Sarah, these accusations seemed absurd. These militias she had supposedly helped were the same militias that had killed her husband and bombed her home. But it didn't matter if the accusations made sense. She sat in prison for two months before she got to defend herself in front of a judge.

The Iraqi judge threw the case out for insufficient evidence, but it took another month for the paperwork to go through. And incredibly, in that month, her situation got worse. She was transferred from the American jail into Iraqi custody.

Sarah

And really it was a terrible experience for me there in the Iraqi jail. I don't want to remember anything. That jail makes my hair grey, really.

Nancy Updike

Those three months undid her. Not only the jails. Sarah had been keeping all her savings in a bag in her room at the camp where she'd worked with the Americans. Banks hadn't felt safe. Iraq was still unstable. And she hadn't wanted to leave it at her house. When her son Mustafa went to go pick up her things from the camp while Sarah was sitting in jail, the money was gone.

Sarah

I said, no way. There was all my saving money in the bag. He says, no, Mom. The bag was empty.

Nancy Updike

About $20,000 disappeared, she says. The family had lived frugally the entire time Sarah was working so she could save most of her paycheck. It was money she'd planned to use for them to emigrate, if necessary. Now they didn't even have it to live on.

There was a final blow. Even though the case against her had been dismissed and Sarah had an exemplary work record, she had been blacklisted. The anonymous accusations that a judge had thrown out for lack of evidence and that she herself has never seen to this day became part of her US Defense Department file. The technical term is derogatory information, and apparently the anonymous derogatory information in Sarah's file outweighed all the letters of praise and support signed by US military people who had worked and lived with Sarah for months. So even though her case was thrown out of court for lack of evidence, she was no longer allowed to work for the US, and her visa to America was denied.

Derogatory information isn't uncommon in these cases. And it could be anything-- a genuine threat, a misunderstanding, a grudge. I talked to Richard Welch, a US Army colonel who's now retired. He was in Iraq for almost seven years during the war, and he spent a lot of time assessing the validity of accusations against Iraqis who worked for the US. He also had detailed knowledge of Sarah's case. He saw her security file and the derogatory information in it. He called her case quote, "a shameful situation and a gross miscarriage of justice." He does not think she's a threat.

Richard Welch

I remember every unit she worked with vouched for her credibility and her trustworthiness and her ability. I just think it's outrageous. I mean, honestly, it's just not American to frankly do that to these folks.

Nancy Updike

I first met Sarah in 2010, about a year before the US declared the war officially over. Another reporter, Larry Kaplow, and I were working together and Sarah was our interpreter. There was a moment in the This American Life episode that Larry and I put together when Sarah was on the air as herself, not just interpreting for someone else. It was less than a minute long, but she was the person everyone remembered at the end of the show.

The moment happened when Sarah was interpreting for us during an interview with a former Sons of Iraq fighter. He pulled a tissue from a box next to him to make a point.

Sarah

[CRYING] I'm sorry. He says the American forces use us like a tissue. I feel the same thing. I'm sorry.

Nancy Updike

When Sarah worked for the United States, she didn't cover her face with a mask the way some interpreters did because she knew that people talked more if they could see her face, if they could see who they were talking to. And we, the United States, needed people to talk. So Sarah's face is known to the militia leaders she helped the US question and put in prison. Some of those militia leaders were released from prison after the US left.

Five years ago, Sarah re-applied to come to the United States for herself and her sons. And in that time, her interview with US immigration officials has been scheduled and then canceled three times. And a whole group of people-- military personnel who worked with Sarah, lawyers who took on her case, reporters she worked with, and Sarah herself-- all tried to figure out what the hell was going on. We asked USCIS, the United States Citizen and Immigration Services, to explain why Sarah's case has dragged on so long, so extraordinarily long. More typical is two years. All the spokesman would say is that USCIS can't discuss the details of individual immigration cases.

Two years ago, Sarah and her kids moved to another country, Jordan, because it was safer for them and because immigration officials told Sarah the visa process might go faster if she was outside Iraq. She moved, even though Jordan is expensive, and she couldn't work there legally, and she had no family nearby.

Finally, in November, 2016, two months ago-- eight years since her husband was killed and she very first started applying to come to the United States-- Sarah got a phone call from a US immigration official who, she says, told her her interview would happen in one hour. It wasn't enough time for Sarah to bring the lawyer she's entitled to, but she managed to get there in time with her kids, and they did the interview.

I called Sarah up in Jordan the day after the interview.

Nancy Updike

How are you doing?

Sarah

[CHUCKLING]

Look, Nancy, I really told the boys, you have to expect the worst. Maybe they will deny us.

Nancy Updike

Yeah.

Sarah

Because I lost hope. To be honest, Nancy, I lost all the hope. I just felt that I am stuck in Jordan. But really I am not complaining from the way of my life. All of my complaining is for my boys and their future, growing up without any degree or any good education. I can say they are lost.

Nancy Updike

A month later, she got her answer. A few days before Christmas, I got an email from Sarah saying her application had been denied. The form letter from USCIS said her case was quote, "denied as a matter of discretion for security-related reasons." No specifics on the security-related reasons. She has 90 days to appeal, but the appeal has virtually no chance.

I'm not going to pretend I don't have an opinion here. Based on all the conversations I've had with US military personnel who worked with Sarah and know her, based on the time I spent working with her and the years I've known her, I think we failed Sarah. We, I mean the United States.

I think we failed her by letting this process drag on for so many years, some of them with Sarah and her kids living in limbo in Jordan. And I think after letting her case languish, we made the wrong call. My understanding is, in cases like Sarah's, anything that looks the slightest bit off outweighs everything else, even if it's from an anonymous tipster, even if American soldiers who worked with her never believed the accusations and, in fact, spent years trying to help her get to the United States.

Americans want to be safe. I want to be safe. But in my opinion, we aren't safer for keeping Sarah out, and we are abandoning a friend and an ally.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike is one of the producers of our show. Coming up in the second half of the program, Nancy returns with the saga of how this special visa program for interpreters came to exist in the first place and why it's never worked that great. That's in a minute. It's from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, Didn't We Solve This Problem?

A new administration is arriving in Washington DC. What is going to happen to all the interpreters and other people we worked with in Iraq and Afghanistan, people whose lives are threatened-- some of them because they helped us.

Act Two. He’s Making a List

Ira Glass

We have arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, He's Making a List.

In this half of our show, we return to somebody else who we've put on the program before, a guy named Kirk Johnson. Kirk Johnson was in his mid-20s when he got involved in trying to help these people who worked with the United States in these recent wars get to safety in our country. He'd worked for USAID in Iraq, the Agency for International Development. He spoke and read Arabic. And he inadvertently-- like, without intending it-- became the point person and catalyst for eventually what became US policy on this subject. And then he watched his efforts succeed and fail kind of at the same time. Nancy Updike tells what happened.

Nancy Updike

On Kirk's first vacation out of Iraq, after a year of working in Fallujah and Baghdad, he had a fluke accident. He fell out of a window. That's actually not part of this story, except to say that Kirk was so badly injured that he couldn't go back to Iraq. He wanted to. He thought about it all the time. And he had a lot of time to think about it, since he was spending months and months recovering from a series of painful surgeries, fighting with his health insurance company, and draining his bank account.

Kirk had to start his adult life completely over. He began applying to law schools.

Kirk Johnson

I really did feel, at that point, that I was moving on, that I was thinking about Iraq less. I stopped reading the news from Iraq. But one day, one of my good Iraqi friends sent an email. I mean, he was one of the highest-ranked Iraqis that worked for USAID. I think it was a $130 million program that he was working on. And he opened up his front door and found the severed head of a dog and a death threat note that said that we're going to cut off your heads. I mean, a very clear death threat sort of lobbed into their front yard.

Nancy Updike

When Kirk got this email, it was the fall of 2006 and he was practically broke and living in his aunt's basement on a futon. So with the email, he felt like, that's terrible, but there's nothing I can do.

It took him a few weeks to realize that maybe there was something he could do. He started writing an op-ed saying, I think our government should help my friend and people like him.

Kirk Johnson

I felt that of course there's some office to give out visas to these people. Of course the government has some program. It's just that my friends haven't heard about it yet, and so--

Nancy Updike

And neither have I, but I'll do this op-ed and then I'm going to connect with the people.

Kirk Johnson

Yeah, somebody will step forward and just fix it.

Nancy Updike

Kirk's op-ed ran in the Los Angeles Times in mid-December, 2006.

Kirk Johnson

And I remember thinking, OK, good job, buddy. What a good thing you've done by raising awareness of this situation. And I was getting back to work on the law school stuff. Except that I started getting all of these emails from other former colleagues at USAID-- former Iraqi colleagues. I mean, it was within an hour or so that it was put online. And then by the afternoon, I was getting hundreds of emails from Iraqis that had read the article but who had worked at the State Department or as interpreters for the military.

Nancy Updike

So in other words, people you had not worked with directly, but they knew people who knew you or who had read it and it just got forwarded around.

Kirk Johnson

Exactly. And they were all telling me their stories and sending me pictures of family members who had been killed, pictures of their bodies where they had been tortured or shot, pictures of the stumps of limbs that had been blown off while they were interpreting for the Marines. And all of a sudden, I was staring into sort of the guts of the refugee crisis. They were grown men and women and heads of families that were telling me that I was their only hope and that they were putting all of their faith in me to help them with their cases. And I was just kind of this unemployed, scar-faced scrub at that point. Like, I was not like, all right--

Nancy Updike

You've come to the right place!

Kirk Johnson

"Everybody rally behind me" kind of thing. Like, there was none of that. It was just like, holy cow. I've just bumbled into something way bigger than I know what to do with. I need to find the real people who I'll just give this stuff to, and they'll just solve it.

Nancy Updike

Kirk didn't know it yet, but there wasn't some special process at the time for dealing with most of these Iraqis. All there was was one small program to let in 50 Iraqi or Afghan interpreters a year. That was it, even though there were tens of thousands of Iraqis doing all sorts of jobs for the United States, jobs that were increasingly risky to be seen doing-- office jobs, operating machinery, working as cooks, drivers, and interpreters.

Kirk started putting together a list of names and his plan was to meet with representatives from the Refugee Bureau in the State Department and give them the list. Just go to the top and solve the problem directly. But he wanted to keep his requests simple. He knew from working in a government bureaucracy himself-- USAID-- that simple works best.

So his first list was just Iraqis he knew from working at USAID. He would just be the USAID guy with the list of USAID names. He spent weeks tracking them all down, not just the ones who had already written to him, and putting information about each one-- who they were, where they were, what job they'd done, what had happened to them-- into an Excel spreadsheet.

Next, Kirk gave the list to the State Department Refugee Bureau. But the meeting was short and inconclusive. He wasn't sure, when he left, what to expect from them in terms of help for the Iraqis on the list. And then, from that meeting, he headed to a second meeting in Washington. And that's where he got a much clearer sense of how at least some people in the government saw what he was doing. He went to the USAID office.

Kirk Johnson

I decided to pay a visit to USAID kind of as a courtesy call to just explain what I thought I was doing with the list and also to just have a talk, because one of my former bosses had called me up after the op-ed-- he was a Bush appointee-- and sort of angrily he had said to me that I was dragging the nation back onto the rooftop of Saigon with that op-ed.

Nancy Updike

Meaning Kirk's op-ed, which hadn't mentioned Vietnam, had reminded his former boss-- and maybe others-- that the United States had left Vietnamese allies behind at the end of the Vietnam War. No one in the Bush administration wanted the Iraq War to remind anyone of Vietnam, especially at this point in early 2007, when the war was going so badly.

Kirk Johnson

And I walk into this room and the Bush appointee that I had last seen in Baghdad-- the Saigon rooftop dude-- he's got a binder in front of him. It's a green binder and I noticed my name is written on the binding of it. And he says, Kirk, you know, I don't know if you're aware about this, but you're not actually allowed to be writing about anything as a former-- you can't write about what you saw in Iraq. You can't write about it as a former US government official. You have a gag order in your contract.

And I knew my contract very well. There was no gag order or anything. And so I got annoyed because I felt like it was kind of an obnoxious way to start out the meeting. But the tone was very--

Nancy Updike

Don't make us hurt you.

Kirk Johnson

Yeah. I mean, he said, are you going to write anything else about Iraq? And I said, yes. And he goes, about what? And I said, well, I haven't made up my mind yet. And he goes, well, here's what we would prefer is that you submit all future publications to us for clearance first because we'd hate to see your objectives tanked or torpedoed-- one of those phrases, like bad things might happen.

And I just remember telling him that if you guys want to come after me on this, go for it, but just imagine what that's going to look like-- that USAID is going after a former USAID employee for trying to help former USAID employees.

Nancy Updike

That's about where the meeting ended. But the strangest part was what happened afterward.

Kirk Johnson

I just told them, all right, well, we don't really have anything else to talk about. And so I got up and walked out of the Bureau. And I could sort of sense that he was behind me, but when I was standing at the elevator bank to go back down, he thrust his business card into my hand. And I didn't really understand because obviously, I had this guy's contact info. There's no point in giving me a business card. And I look down and he's written the name of an Iraqi woman on his business card. And then he says to me in a hushed tone, he goes, look. If she gets in touch with you, make sure that you add her to your list.

It was literally 90 seconds earlier that he had been trying to scare me out of doing something and now he's asking me to help some Iraqi that he knew. And I looked at him and his eyes glimmered and he goes, don't worry. It's not like I slept with her or anything. Just see if you can get her help or whatever.

Nancy Updike

That conversation and the sit-down with the State Department's Refugee Bureau happened in the winter of 2007. Kirk's conclusion was, well, that didn't work. His next move was more media pressure, some of which was happening on its own.

George Packer wrote in The New Yorker about Kirk's list and the Iraqis on it. And Kirk saw that any Iraqis mentioned in Packer's story started moving more quickly through the bureaucracy. So Kirk spent the next few months trying to get every journalist who asked for an interview to write about a different Iraqi on the list.

He also talked with more government officials and a lot of the conversations ended up being variations on the Saigon-rooftop-man meeting-- people in government who understood how bad the situation was but said to Kirk, basically, no, I can't help you. But could you maybe help me?

Kirk reached out to the congressman from his home district in Illinois, Peter Roskam, a friend of Kirk's dad from his time in state Republican politics. Kirk asked Roskam to co-sponsor a piece of legislation that would have helped Iraqi interpreters as well as Iraqi Christians and gay Iraqis, all of whom were being targeted.

Kirk Johnson

And my congressman wouldn't sign onto it because he didn't believe, out of principle, that gay people should receive any preferential treatment. And I think it was like a month afterwards his chief of staff started referring names to my list. I have some of the emails here if you want, but--

Nancy Updike

Yeah!

Kirk Johnson

I'll skip the guy's name. "Kirk, so-and-so worked with me in Iraq and is now in danger from Iraqi militia organizations. Please add her to your list of Iraqis who worked with US forces. Thanks." Period.

Nancy Updike

Just out of the blue without any reference to not sponsoring the legislation?

Kirk Johnson

Yeah. There's another one, this almost two minutes later. "Kirk, so-and-so and his wife, so-and-so, worked with me in Iraq in '03, '04, '05, and '06. They are now in danger in Iraq for the association with the Americans. Please add them to your list." Period. "Thanks." Period.

Nancy Updike

Kirk realized that in Washington people had all sorts of reasons not to help him with his list. The list was bad news for the Bush administration, a clear indication that the war in Iraq was going terribly. And there was a bigger problem.

Kirk Johnson

There's no point dancing around the fact that nobody in the State Department or Homeland Security wants their signatures to be on the next 9/11 hijacker's visa, and they've said this to me. I've gotten phone calls from people high up in state that have said like, not everybody agrees with you that it's a good idea to be bringing over a lot of Muslims into the United States now. That's the gorilla in the room here is that we see these people as potential terrorists.

Nancy Updike

Even though you were talking about Iraqis who, because they worked for the US in Iraq, had been vetted there. I mean, security procedures in order to allow them to work for USAID, or--

Kirk Johnson

You can't ride in a Humvee with Marines without getting screened. I mean, the Iraqis that worked with me, they were all getting polygraph examinations. I don't try to pull out this card, but I feel like I'm not so naive that-- I mean, as someone who spent a fair amount of time in Fallujah, I'm aware that there are bad people in the world, but the people I'm trying to help, they're actually running from terrorists.

Nancy Updike

Late spring, 2007. Kirk realized there weren't enough journalists to write about everyone on the list. And he still hadn't gotten anyone out of Iraq and to safety, not even the ones who had been written about. They were just moving faster through a process that was opaque, no way to know for sure if they were two weeks away from an answer or two years.

Kirk Johnson

In some sort of overwrought cases, people were referring to me as like the Schindler of the Iraqis and all this stuff just because I had a list. But I still had done nothing. In some ways, I saw the list as like a drainpipe that everything's just sort of tumbled down into it and people just chuck stuff into it and added names and this kind of thing. And I think in some way, it made a lot of people feel like, oh god, here's this huge crisis. Here's this huge sort of stain on the honor of our country-- the abandonment of these people-- but thank god there's this kid with the list.

I remember at one point, I was getting an email every 80 or 90 seconds from a family.

Nancy Updike

Kirk was still in his aunt's basement, still basically broke. And the stress of what to do about the ever-increasing list was so relentless that he was getting headaches he couldn't shake for days in a row, grinding his teeth down. His whole existence was the list. He had no personal life.

Kirk Johnson

Every night, the laptop would be next to me in bed and I'd wake up in the morning with more names to put in and type them into an Excel sheet.

Nancy Updike

And then suddenly there was movement. In the summer of 2007, Kirk and some lawyers officially formed an organization, the List Project, recruiting lawyers around the country to work with Iraqis on the list pro bono, helping them navigate the visa process.

Kirk's friend, the Iraqi USAID colleague whose email had started everything, arrived in the US at the end of the summer with his wife. Kirk's parents in Illinois volunteered to take them in. And over the next year, Kirk worked with some senators, especially Senator Ted Kennedy, to get a law passed that would create a fast track for these Iraqis to get to the US.

Kirk Johnson

Senator Kennedy was like a bulldozer when he got behind an issue. And he led this effort to create what was called the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act. And what that did was create something called the Special Immigrant Visa for Iraqis, but also for Afghans who worked for us. And I'll never forget when it passed because a few of us who had been involved with his office and were in the trenches on this, we were patched in and we got to talk to Senator Kennedy on the floor of the Senate like in the moments after the act passed. And it had all of this bipartisan support-- Senator Brownback and Lugar. And Senator Obama and Hillary Clinton were on it. And amazingly it created 25,000 visa slots for Iraqis who worked for the Americans.

Nancy Updike

Over the course of five years. 5,000 a year, right?

Kirk Johnson

Exactly. But at that time when it passed, I had maybe, I don't know, 1200 names on my list. And I just remembered, after I hung up with Kennedy, collapsing on the couch and truly feeling like it was over. Even if every one of my Iraqis took one of those visas-- the Iraqis on my list, I mean-- there would still be tons left over for the others. And suddenly it worked. We agitated and now there's a new law.

Nancy Updike

But members of the Bush administration had opposed the bill. And a year after it was enacted, only 172 Iraqis who'd worked with the US got in through the new, supposedly speedy, Special Immigrant Visa program. 172 out of a possible 5,000.

Kirk Johnson

That legislation was basically killed by Bush administration lawyers who found any kind of vague language in it to produce a very narrow, consular interpretation so that not many Iraqis who worked for us would be construed as eligible.

Nancy Updike

And for Iraqis who were eligible, there were still unexplained delays and chokepoints. No way to tell what was holding things up or how long an answer would take. The pace picked up under the Obama administration, but processing times were still slow.

Today, out of a possible 27,500 SIVs the US could have issued to Iraqis who worked for the US, fewer than 7,500 have been given out. A State Department official said that many Iraqis have applied to the US through programs other than SIV. The official also said the Obama administration is committed to supporting people who helped us. The official said the administration has worked hard to streamline the SIV process while keeping national security as its highest priority.

Among the lucky Iraqis who've made it to the US are almost all the 1,200 people who were on Kirk's list when the Iraqi SIV law passed. About 100 cases are still pending, Kirk says, with lawyers working on them.

The Iraqi SIV program is winding down. It's not taking new applications. The Afghan program still has about 2,300 slots available, but at the latest count, more than 13,000 Afghans had applied for those slots.

And we could just say, well, war is terrible, and bureaucracies are slow and cautious, and we can only accept so many people, and that's that. But there is a precedent in our history, a way we could have dealt, all at once, with all of the Iraqis and the Afghans who worked for the US and were in danger and wanted to come here. President Obama could have issued an executive order and put them on airplanes and flown them to a secure military base outside the continental US. Guam, for instance. At the base, they could be screened as thoroughly as they needed to be to keep the US safe, and at the same time, they would be safe. This is not a new idea.

Kirk Johnson

We flew 7,000 Iraqis out of northern Iraq in '96. In two weeks, we flew 7,000 out directly to Guam, and the average processing time there was 90 days. And those Iraqis are all Americans now. In '99, we flew 20,000 Kosovar Albanians directly to Fort Dix. When we did do the evacuation of the boat people from Vietnam, we used Guam and these other bases. Guam can hold something like 24,000 refugees at any point in time.

There were tools on the table that could have stopped all of this. Even when the Brits left, they did an airlift. They put their Iraqi employees directly on planes and flew them to Oxfordshire to an RAF base there. Australians airlifted out all of their Iraqis. Denmark airlifted out all of their Iraqis in a single night. Poland, the same.

Nancy Updike

What alarms Kirk is not just how we've handled these cases so far, but also what we could do in the future. He's alarmed by the various proposals for an immigration ban that President-elect Trump has floated over the last year. There's the one that would bar all Muslims from entering the country. That's still on Trump's website, although the President-elect has said more recently that the ban wouldn't focus on Muslims, but on people from any nation, quote, "compromised by terrorism." That most likely would apply to anyone who's helped us in our most recent wars as well as the ongoing fight against ISIS.

Kirk Johnson

If, for example, with these Iraqis-- if we turn our backs on them, if we just leave them to be devoured by ISIS, it's going to do damage to our national image, to our national credibility, and it's going to do damage to our military's ability to recruit new allies in the future.

Nancy Updike

Colonel Richard Welch told me a story. He's a retired senior officer who knew Sarah, my interpreter. He said he got an email last year from a former senior member of the Obama administration floating a request.

Richard Welch

When ISIS came back to Iraq, I was asked if I would go back to try to work with the tribes again-- Sunni tribes-- to get them to fight ISIS, similar to what we did with the surge. And I said, well, what are we going to ask them to fight for? Are they going to fight for us, who walked away from them the first time? That's what many in that Sons of Iraq group thought, that America had walked away from them. They've lost faith in our ability to stand with them, and that's what happens. We leave a legacy of not being trustworthy.

Nancy Updike

When I talked to Kirk a few years ago, he was living in Boston, and it was 2 and 1/2 weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing, which was carried out by Chechen-American Muslims, one of whom was a naturalized US citizen. And I asked Kirk if he thought the bombing would turn Americans against the people he was trying to help.

Kirk Johnson

Yeah. I mean, they weren't Iraqis, but it's like the same false choice that is always put in front of me. And I'm not stupid. I'm not making any excuses for terrorists or anything, but can we at least have one shade of nuance and understanding that not every Muslim is trying to kill us and that for years-- for a decade-- people risked their lives to try to help us? That's all I'm asking. It's just one grain. I'm not asking people to become experts in the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam. I'm not trying to have them learn Arabic or anything. Just give me that. Just recognize that not all of these people are bad, lethal people.

Nancy Updike

Kirk used to say to people on his list, please be patient. This will take a while, this process. And he would warn them, once you get here, you're going to have to work your ass off. Take jobs beneath your education level. No one's going to hold your hand. But it'll be worth it for you, for your kids. You won't live in fear.

What he says now to anyone who contacts him for advice-- and again, these are people who worked for the United States during our two longest wars and who may be in danger because of it-- he tells them, don't apply to the United States. Go someplace else.

Ira Glass

Nancy Updike.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Susan Burton and Nancy Updike. Our production staff includes Zoe Chace, Dana Chivas, Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Karen Duffin, Emmanuel Dzotsi, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, David Kestenbaum, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, and Matt Tierney. Research help today from Christopher Swetala. Music help from Damian Graef.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, at least once a week, he takes me aside and tells me how he thinks we should get Miley Cyrus on the show. I do not understand this. Maybe he's into Hannah Montana? It's always Miley Cyrus, Miley Cyrus, Miley Cyrus.

Kirk Johnson

Don't worry. It's not like I slept with her or anything.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.