Wherever you are, Akmal, Scott Cooper remembers you.
Akmal, an Iraqi and Scott’s friend, wanted to visit America some day and connect with his friends from the U.S. Marine Corps on their home territory, said Cooper, a former lieutenant colonel. But, now, President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily barring U.S. entry to travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq, Akmal’s dream seems impossible.
“He wasn’t an interpreter, he was the guy who cleaned the toilets. But he is just as brave and just as important to the war effort, and wanted to come here,” said Cooper, founder of the Veterans for American Ideals advocacy group.
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Cooper joined some 20 veterans who rallied at the U.S. Capitol Thursday to demand that Trump provide exemptions from the travel ban to local fixers, friends and other U.S. allies who helped veterans survive America’s longest war in Afghanistan as well as Iraq.
Activists said that a caveat carved out of Trump’s executive order that offers interpreters from Iraq a Special Immigrant visa is not enough. They demand more: local drivers, soldiers and friends who risked their lives to help the United States abroad deserve some certainty that they will be cared for once the U.S. troops are gone.
Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the organization that organized the rally, said that the executive order also disregards the fact that Iraq is an ally in fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in the region.
“The White House needs to listen to our veterans, and stand up for American values, and stand up for the troops,” Rieckhoff said. “You say you support the troops, well listen to them now. They’re telling you how to do the right thing.”
Trump last week signed an executive order banning citizens from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Sudan from entering the United States for the next 90 days and suspending the admission of all refugees for 120 days.
A federal judge granted an emergency stay on Jan. 28 that allows travelers with valid visas from affected countries to stay in the United States after arrival.
“Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW,” Trump tweeted a day after the judge’s emergency stay. The Department of Homeland Security pledged to continue carrying out his order.
“I’d say ‘extreme vetting’ already exists,” said Cooper. “You have a better chance of dying by a cow, dying by a toaster in your bathtub, you have a 5,000 times greater chance of dying through gun violence in the U.S. than being a victim of a terrorist attack.”
A typical refugee – those who helped U.S. soldiers in foreign wars are classified as refugees – must wait 18 to 24 months before receiving permanent U.S. entry.
Allison Jaslow, chief of staff at the veterans group and a former U.S. Army captain, said she recalls one case in which an Iraqi interpreter lost his legs during a mission with U.S. troops in 2004. At that time, the man would have been able to relocate to the United States to seek medical treatment and start a new life. Today, she said. she’s not sure what kind of support the man would get.
“It does no good to have great people at the Pentagon like [Defense Secretary] General [James] Mattis if we’re not going to listen to him,” she said. “I feel good about the leadership our troops have, but I think from a policy perspective a lot remains to be seen.”