From the rooftops of Saigon to the deserts of Iraq
The Vietnam War ended not with a bang but a whimper. On 29th April 1975, from the rooftop of 22 Ly Tu Trong Street in District 1 of Saigon, a ladder was erected. A group of South Vietnamese people desperately tried to reach a US helicopter; they were US allies and the next day the enemy communist forces would take over the city. Just fifteen were evacuated. Millions were left. Many of those who remained were consigned to Stalinist “re-education camps” in which they suffered slow and painful deaths. The rest of the 17 million South Vietnamese people lived diasporic existences; between 1975 and 1990, 3 million became “boat people” and 25% of these died in the process.
One target will inevitably be the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Iraqis, which has resettled 7,500 of the 36,000 Iraqis who have assisted America in war
Trump’s presidential pistol shoots at every quarter – on the day of writing, the sections on LGBTQ, Civil Rights and Climate Change Action have been removed from the White House website – and he vows to end “American Carnage” as he creates it. One target will inevitably be the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Iraqis, which has resettled 7,500 of the 36,000 Iraqis who have assisted America in war (as translators, engineers, and advisors) and put their own and their family’s lives at risk in the process. Too few have been helped and far too many will be left behind.
The program was begun in 2007 by Kirk Johnson, a former USAID worker who was a regional coordinator on reconstruction in Iraq. After being contacted by an Iraqi colleague who was lamenting the delay in his visa handling (and who all the while was receiving threatening calls and missives against him and his family for the help which he had given the USA), Johnson wrote an article in the LA Times which led to hundreds of letters from other Iraqi assistants beset with similar delays. Off the back of this, he created The List Project, a list of all the Iraqi assistants who were seeking resettlement visas; this eventually became legislated by the Special Visa programme spearheaded by Teddy Kennedy. Those who requested their addition to the list were unanimous in fear. Iraqis who have assisted American and Coalition forces have been, and continue to be, systematically bloodletted, tortured, abducted, raped, murdered and exiled for their service to the USA. Sakhidad Afghan worked as a translator for the US Marines and Air Force. In 2012 he applied for a Special Visa. He was still on the waiting list when the Taliban kidnapped him from a bazaar in spring 2016, tortured him, and executed him in the back of a truck. He had written to his friend months earlier, “Every rock strikes the feet of disabled goat. The poor gets poor, and the rich gets rich. But I can see my future is bright.” The list has evolved into a record of those who have not yet died.
The incipience of the SIV programme created 25,000 Iraqi visa slots. In the first year of the project, the Bush administration opposed and obfuscated the scheme – only 172 Iraqis were granted visas. More was done during the Obama administration, but not enough. As of this year, fewer than 7,500 of the 25,000 visa slots have been given out, whilst thousands of applications remain in purgatory. The Afghan programme for its part has just 2,300 slots available, for which more than 13,000 Afghans have applied. It is not difficult to guess the direction in which the Othering Trump administration will head. As Johnson recognised in 2007 – and how much more is it true today? – “there’s no dancing around the fact that nobody in the State Department of Homeland Security wants their signatures to be on the next 9/11’s hijacker’s visa. That’s the gorilla in the room; that we see these people as potential terrorists.” He footnotes this with indignation; “The people I’m trying to help are actually running from terrorists”.
Trump’s proposal to stop immigration “from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism” is unrelentingly indiscriminate.
Herein lies the crux of the issue: Trump’s proposal to stop immigration “from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism” is unrelentingly indiscriminate. Such is the arrogance and cowardice of Trump and all those who have stymied the SIV programme in the past. Like those left on the rooftop of Saigon, like the millions disseminated and abandoned across the fifty-eight provinces of Vietnam to waste away on land and sea, thousands more will die in the Middle East having fought, and risked their lives, for a country that refuses to fight back for them. Such is the arrogance and cowardice of America.