UPDATE: On Jan. 27, President Donald Trump signed an executive order suspending the entry of immigrants from seven countries he said were "of particular concern" for terrorism, including Iraq. It is unclear how the immigrant ban — which is mandated to last 90 days pending a review of the visa issuing process — will affect Iraqis who have applied or been awarded Special Immigrant Visas for their service with U.S. troops during OIF. But No One Left Behind's CEO Matt Zeller tells WATM: "This action imposes a lifetime moral injury on our Afghan and Iraq war veterans. ... President Trump's order permanently harms our national security."
It was April 2008 during a patrol in Waghez, Afghanistan, and Army intelligence officer Matt Zeller was in big trouble.
Pinned down in an ambush outside the small village, he found himself outflanked by a group of Taliban fighters about to overrun his position. Rushing to his side, Zeller's Afghan ally and interpreter Janis Shinwari raised his weapon and fired.
"I wouldn't be alive today without my Afghan translator," Zeller said during an interview with WATM. "My life was saved by a fellow veteran."
An Afghan man talks with Cpl. William Gill and his interpreter in a village in southern Uruzgan. (DoD Photo by CPL (E-5) Chris Moore Australian Defence Force /Released)
Five years later, Zeller decided he'd apply his warrior ethos to "leave no one behind" and established a non-profit to help relocate Afghan and Iraqi allies who worked alongside U.S. forces to the safety of America. So far Zeller and his partners have helped more than 3,200 allies obtain so-called "Special Immigrant Visas" to resettle in the United States and avoid being target by jihadists who are targeting them for helping American troops.
Since the SIV program began, more than 43,000 allies from Iraq and Afghanistan — along with their families — have been resettled in the U.S.
But advocates claim there are still about 30,000 Afghan and Iraqi citizens whose lives are at risk for helping U.S. forces, but Congress has so far refused to help in their return. Zeller and his colleagues, like Chase Millsap of the Ronin Refugee Project, are pushing lawmakers to authorize 6,000 more visas for Afghan allies left behind and to commit to keeping the visa program for them open "for as long as the United States commits military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq."
"We made these people a fundamental promise that we would protect them," Zeller said. "If we don't do this now, it will haunt us in the future."
But renewing the program is facing strong opposition for influential lawmakers who Zeller claims are running with an anti-immigrant political tide.
Some lawmakers claim the Obama administration's refugee policy, and the SIV program specifically, puts Americans at risk for terrorism.
In an Aug. 10 statement, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee, Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, claimed since 2001, 40 people admitted to the United States as refugees have been implicated in terrorism. Sessions claims 20 of those, including one SIV program recipient from Iraq, have been indicted or implicated for terrorist acts in the last three years.
"Instead of taking a sober assessment of the dangers that we face, and analyzing the immigration histories of recent terrorists so that we can more effectively safeguard our immigration system from being infiltrated, the Obama Administration leads the United States down a dangerous path - admitting as many refugees as possible from areas of the world where terrorists roam freely," Sessions said. "There is no doubt that this continuous, dramatic increase in refugees from areas of the world where terrorists roam freely will endanger this nation."
Sources say Sessions and his staff have been instrumental in hollowing out the SIV program through parliamentary procedure in the Senate, and that House lawmakers have been powerless to stop it. Opponents point to the dangers of ISIS — which has claimed responsibility for several high-profile terrorist attacks by immigrants in European countries — and the Syrian refugee crisis, which they claim allows potential jihadis into the U.S. without a thorough background check.
Zeller says the Syrian refugee policy and the SIV program are two distinct programs, arguing Afghan and Iraqi partners who qualify for an SIV go through years of investigations and vetting before they're admitted to the U.S. And that's on top of the vetting they were subject to simply to work with U.S. forces overseas.
"It's not like they just walked up to the gate and got a job," Zeller says. "This is one of the most arduous security reviews of anyone."
And the SIV program allows allies who directly aided U.S. forces in combat to get the "veteran" status through the immigration system advocates say they deserve.
"Granting more visas during this year specifically means the Afghan allies that we know are threatened will have a chance to be saved," The Ronin project's Millsap says. "Unless Congress increases this quota, these trusted Afghans will at best be at the mercy of a broken international refugee system, and at worst, they will be killed."
The future of the SIV program is unclear as the National Defense Authorization Act languishes in committee and the clock is running out on the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. If Congress doesn't act in the next few weeks to re-instate the SIV program, thousands of Afghans — and their families — will be at risk, Zeller says.
"I'm not optimistic, but I'm going to keep fighting until my last dying breath," Zeller says. "I believe that no one should be left behind on the battlefield."