After Three Years of Extreme Vetting, I Nearly Gave Up on My American Dream

After Three Years of Extreme Vetting, I Nearly Gave Up on My American Dream

© Rodi Said / Reuters

I am an Iraqi Muslim who is about to become an American citizen. In July 2011, I boarded a flight to New York City, seated next to an old Iraqi couple. When we landed at JFK, the scene was quite different from what it is today.

As soon I got off the plane, an Asian-American employee at the International Organization for Migration asked me to wait with the same Iraqi couple I traveled with from Amman, Jordan. Several minutes passed, and then she took me inside the terminal avoiding the long entry lines where hundreds of Americans and foreigners were waiting to be processed by customs.    

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“Refugee!” she screamed at anyone who tried to stop us. Finally, after passing through several side doors without question, I was handled by one official for a few minutes and then admitted to the United States without even being searched or having my bag searched.

The whole thing took 20 minutes or maybe a bit more. Nevertheless, these 20 minutes ended a lengthy and thorough three-year vetting process during which I nearly lost hope in the American dream.

I applied for resettlement in the U.S. as part of the so-called Kennedy bill. In 2007, after many Iraqi and Afghan nationals who worked with the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan as interpreters were killed, the late Senator Edward Kennedy stepped in to help. He sponsored a bill that assigned a section in the defense budget to resettle in the U.S. those of us who worked for U.S. entities in Iraq and Afghanistan for a year or more, along with our families, to protect us from retaliation and to show gratitude.

By the end of December 2016, the Mideast interpreters who were resettled in the U.S. numbered 155,000 Iraqis and 38,000 Afghans. Every one of us passed through multiple screening processes that included at least two personal interviews, a medical check, and a thorough security background check. The process takes no less than a year and could stretch to several years.

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I applied for resettlement after working as a journalist for The New York Times in Iraq. My focus as a journalist was corruption, and for that, I was sued, threatened and harassed by the Iraqi government and its insurgent affiliates. I also lost my father when he was killed by al-Qaeda in Iraq (now ISIS) in western Baghdad as part of the terror group’s effort to wipe out members of the Shiite majority in Iraq. My family and I were also displaced from our home.

Nevertheless, my vetting process took three years, and it only ended after my former colleague, the late journalist Anthony Shadid, who twice won the Pulitzer Prize for covering Iraq, and the late senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, personally intervened on my behalf. Also, several press protection non-profits like the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters without Borders and the International Press Institute vouched for me. My family members had waited another four years before they were admitted in late 2015.   

Once in the U.S., I worked like many other refugees in several subsistence jobs in New York. Once, I worked at Dish Network answering phones as a customer service agent. It was a horrible job where I was constantly yelled at. But I made some friends, and I paid my bills. The friends I made there eased the loneliness that I felt in the America. After more than a year in that job, I quit and started writing again. Then, I eventually found my way to journalism again. I married an American woman, and we had a son. I lived in New York and in Kansas, and I was able to know both the lifestyles of the East coast and of the Midwest and the political preferences associated with each.

The very liberal environment in New York, where minorities -- including devout Muslims -- are welcomed and encouraged to participate in all forms of social life is in contrast to Kansas where minorities are just a small portion of the white Christian-dominated population. I was shocked to see how popular Halal food is in New York City. I had to explain many times to Americans that Halal food is not a cuisine, but a religious imprimatur like kosher. I was also surprised to see those religious South Asian Muslims who dress like Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban walking freely in New York’s streets after attending services in local mosques.

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Later on, I knew that while most of these Muslims were never harassed by law enforcement authorities or the FBI, the New York police department spied on some of them and the FBI engaged in “sting operations” luring them to join al-Qaeda or ISIS in response to recruitment calls by agents posing as terrorists.

What I experienced when I entered the land of the free has changed now with the election of President Donald Trump. Even before the new administration took office, the flood of millions of refugees from the Middle East to Europe, followed by a series of ISIS orchestrated attacks in Paris, and other European cities have somehow branded all refugees as potential terrorists in the eyes of some Americans. Then came the attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando, which were inspired by ISIS. The stage was set for a new era of Islamophobia, similar to the one following 9/11. Trump seized the moment.

Many Americans conflated the European migration crisis and the terror attacks which took place afterward in Europe with refugees admitted to the U.S. The refugees who went to Europe were mainly people without papers who illegally landed on Europe’s shores by boats. There was no vetting process in Europe. That is not the case with the refugees admitted to the U.S. who have already passed the most extreme vetting process.

What happened in Europe also revealed incompetence within the ranks of the French and Belgium security and intelligence services that allowed ISIS operatives to travel back and forth, conspire and conduct the attacks without detection. This is not the case in the U.S. where the FBI is much more alert to terror plots. Lastly, there is a demographic factor involved. In Europe, Muslims are the second largest religion in several countries. In France for instance, Muslims make up to 10 percent of the population.

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While it is the right and indeed the duty of every government to defend its people, the temporary travel ban imposed by Trump on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries will most likely be ineffective and counterproductive. Take Iraq, for example. Few Iraqis who were admitted to the U.S. have been involved in acts of terrorism because all had to go through the same intensive security background check that I went through.

In fact, all refugees admitted to the U.S. go through these procedures. The other important point is that almost all the Iraqi refugees are actually people who risked their lives while helping the United States in Iraq. Many of them lost relatives in acts of revenge against them by anti-American insurgent groups. Arresting them in the airports after their tragic and lengthy journey to the safety of the U.S. is a blow to American patriotism and will send the wrong message to the world that the U.S. punishes its friends instead of helping them.

Perhaps more important, at least 80 percent of Iraqis are actually natural enemies of ISIS and al-Qaeda because they are either Shiites who are considered heretics by ISIS, Kurds who admire and appreciate the U.S. policy in the Middle East, or minorities like Christians and Yazidis.

Among those Iraqis who can’t enter the U.S. now are a group of Iraqi Air Force pilots who should be trained on flying the F-16, the U.S. trained chief of the counter-terrorism service in Iraq whose soldiers defeated ISIS in every battle since 2014, and my good friend Lukman Faily, the former Iraqi ambassador to the U.S.

While the U.S. has an obligation to admit the Iraqis and Afghans who helped the country during two conflicts, the Syrian case is different. Nevertheless, the U.S. has a moral responsibility to aid the Syrian refugees because of the horror and suffering they have experienced. America also has a legal responsibility because the U.S. is a signatory of the 1951 convention that states, “A refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.”

These so-called extreme vetting delays may not last long because of the legal battles they have generated. Nevertheless, they may have damaged America’s national security for years to come. After I received advice from some American friends asking me not to use any airport or airplane until further notice, I suddenly started to identify with what Jews felt in the early days of Nazi Germany.  

Note: Riyadh Mohammed is in Wichita, Kansas today for his final American citizenship interview. All of us at The Fiscal Times wish him the best of luck.