The issues surrounding refugee resettlement and Special Immigrant Visas require a delicate consideration of both the moral conundrum of admitting those seeking asylum and the security issues of admitting potential terrorists, said Jacob Shapiro, professor of politics and international affairs.
Shapiro moderated the discussion panel, titled “Refugee Resettlement: Special Immigration Visas and National Security,” which included Michael Kelvington, a major in the U.S. Army, Kate Horner, a consultant for Veterans for American Ideals, Julie Whittaker, a second-year MPA student, as well as two Syrian refugees.
The refugees were granted anonymous names, Muhammadand Loulou, for confidentiality and security reasons.
SIVs are visas given to translators and interpreters from their country who served for the U.S. Army, aiding in operations and patrols, Shapiro said.
As opposed to a refugee status, which only acts as a temporary visa, SIVs allow immigrants direct access to a permanent resident status and avoids the background security check requirement, Kelvington added. The backlog in giving those who served for the United States SIVs to come to this country is setting a bad example for those who are currently working on the field and may have future implications.
Horner explained the importance of having veterans involved in the conversation and policy-making for refugees. Veterans are the nonpartisan bridge on human rights issues, she said.
“Veterans have the potential to be the most powerful and moving voice on the most pressing human rights issues as these issues are constantly intersecting with national security issues.”
She said that the works of Veterans for American Ideals include supporting rights of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, advocating the Special Immigrant Visas, and combating Islamophobia.
The inability to grant visas to the translators and interpreters who risk their lives helping American soldiers puts the United States at a great security risk, she added.
“There is a sense of betrayal and moral failing,” she said.
Kelvingtonhas been deployed seven times —six times in Afghanistan and once in Iraq —and offered a personal narrative to the concerns of not fully giving out SIVs.
“Those caught will be put in an orange suit and put in front of a camera and forced to say, ‘I am going to die because of the lairs and they have basically given me a death sentence because they left me instead of guaranteeing me safety,’” Kelvingtonsaid. “If we fail in this mission, this is a huge informational operation tool that the enemy can use against us.”
He noted that the failures of the Department of State have left the translators and interpreters in danger. Kelvingtonexplained that the potential security risks of admitting translators have caused administrators within the Department to hesitate the administration of SIVs.
“The issue was on the Department of State’s side. There was lack of support to approve these SIVs because of the risk of finger pointing and security risks,” said Kelvington.
He described his personal translator, Dave, who served with him during Kelvington'spost in the southern part of Afghanistan. He explained that his brigade lost 71 soldiers, but through all the operations and field work, Dave had been next to him. In 2012, Kelvingtonwrote the State Department a letter of endorsement for Dave. His packet was uploaded on January 2013, and his visa was approved in August 2016. Dave’s wife and two kids remain in Afghanistan to this day.
“His visa got approved last month. This is after me, personally, contacting 53 congressional districts across 17 different states and making official congressional inquiries into why Dave’s packet wasn’t processed,” he said.
Kelvingtonnoted that more than 10,000 SIVs are backlogged and currently waiting to be processed. He added that once Congress resumes in December, more of the SIVs will be delayed because of gridlock.
Whittaker explained that the immigration of refugees in surrounding countries like Jordan, while an act of generosity, is becoming a security crisis, as more than 10% of their population have become refugees from Syria and Iraq.
She added that the rhetoric of policy making has unfavorably shaped people’s attitudes towards these refugees.
“We need to avoid describing these refugees as burdens,” she said. “It carries implications that not only do refugees pour security threats but it also implies that they are a burden on the society, that we have to care about them, and people begin asking ‘What can they offer us?’”
She described her three years of work with Syrian refugees in Jordan and explained that the people she has seen have been the “most inspiring and resilient people” she has met.
Muhammadand his daughter, Loulou, described their journey of fleeing Syria and arriving in New Jersey.
“I spent 40 years raised to be a good boy. I was told, ‘you should keep silence because if you want to say anything, you will be killed,’” he said. “They took the whole family so that no one could contaminate others with their ideas.”
Muhammadsaid that he became a criminal because he started helping people who were injured during the street protests in Syria. He and his daughter fled to Jordan while having to leave his wife and second daughter in Syria.
He explained that he came into the United States with a business visa, as he had been working for an American company at that time, but had to switch over to asylum status when he arrived to America.
“The people in Philadelphia’s airport took me and my daughter to jail for six months, where I filed a case. We are in asylum status now, and half my family should have been here a year ago, but they can’t,” he said.“I went from civil war to Jordan to a detention center in America, and now I am in New Jersey. The amazing thing is that, in a month now, Loulou is applying to Princeton.”
The panel was held in Dodds Auditorium, Robertson Hall at 4:30 p.m and was co-sponsored by the Student Veterans Organization of Princeton University and Veterans for American Ideals.