Contributed by Ali Al Mshakheel
Many Iraqis in Maine are yearning to be reunited with family members who were left behind in Iraq with the hope that they would be able to join them in the U.S. after a short time. Years later, they are still waiting. Currently, Iraq is politically unstable and opposing factional militias battle frequently on the streets. Targeted killings, sectarian assassinations, and extortions are still common in the country. And Iraqis live in constant fear for their lives. Daily news of political turmoil and violent events back home in Iraq are steady reminders of past difficulties many Iraqis in Maine lived through before their arrival in the U.S.
Many Iraqis feel helpless to bring their families to the U.S. since the suspension more than a year ago of the Iraqi resettlement program, known as the Direct Access Program for U.S.-Affiliated Iraqis, which was established in 2007 to help resettle Iraqi individuals who worked with the U.S. military and civilian contractors in Iraq.
During the announcement of the freeze on the immigration program in January 2021, then-acting Secretary of State Daniel Smith acknowledged the importance of the work of those Iraqis who put their lives at great risk to provide critical support to the U.S. in Iraq. But the State Department made the decision to suspend the program in order to review security protocols, following a revelation that some individuals might have illegally accessed application records.
The pause was supposed to last only for 90 days. However, more than a year later, there is still no announced date for it to restart. The suspension came on the heels of a four-year, anti-immigration stance adopted by the previous administration. That anti-immigrant stance severely affected Iraqi refugee visa applications to the U.S., as it did for immigrants from other regions also.
Throughout his campaign, President Joe Biden was very critical of the anti-immigration stance of the Donald Trump administration, and publicly promised to reverse it if elected. But that promised change has not yet come to pass. Like many others with family members in Iraq, I was encouraged by Biden’s message of hope. Other Iraqi Americans and I came out to vote for the Biden-Harris ticket in large numbers.
While the emergency evacuation of Afghans after the U.S. forces pulled out is a commendable effort, the administration is still far behind the stated target of resettling 125,000 refugees in the current fiscal year.
As a community leader, I get calls from Iraqis across the state inquiring about U.S. immigration policy, and asking for help in checking the status of their family members’ immigration applications.
Falah Waheeb of Waterville, who was severely wounded while working with the U.S. Army as a translator in Iraq, has been waiting 12 years for his daughter Maryam, her husband, and their four children to be admitted into the U.S.
Waheeb’s family and many more thousands with legitimate Iraqi immigration applications have been severely impacted by the freeze on immigration processing. “Our family is suffering because of the emotional and psychological strain caused by the long-distance separation, as well as the constant fear of physical harm to my daughter and her family, due to the ongoing political and security instability in Iraq,” he said.
Personally, my father and four of my siblings are still waiting in Iraq for approval of their applications, which were filed in November 2012. They have received no communication regarding their applications since 2016, and they are worried that they might never be able to join us.
As constituents, we call upon Senators Angus King and Susan Collins, and Representatives Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden to work with the federal government to end the freeze on the Direct Access Program for U.S.-Affiliated Iraqis.
We appeal to our representatives to use their influence, and to work with other interested members of the U.S. Congress for a fairer immigration policy for Iraqi American family members.
Ali Al Mshakheel is the chairman of the Iraqi Community Association of Maine and the co-founder of Maine Language Connect (MLC), an agency that provides language interpretation, translation, and cultural training in multiple languages. Before arriving in Maine in 2014, Al Mshakheel worked as public information officer for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq and as a producer in Iraq for ABC News. In 2009, he was nominated for two Emmy Awards for his reporting from Iraq for ABC News.