No One Left Behind: Advocating for refugees who served the US military

Jason Gorey, chief operating officer of No One Left Behind — an advocacy group for Iraqi and Afghan refugees who worked with the U.S. military — is attempting to secure waivers for some of the translators being turned away due to President Donald Trump’s executive order Friday instituting a temporary travel ban on people coming from seven Muslim-majority countries. 

But Gorey says it’s not about politics. Instead, he says, it’s about keeping a promise to people who have proven “their level of support for American forces and for America in general.” Unfortunately, Trump’s travel ban has had some effect on whether or not those people are issued the Special Immigrant Visas they were promised by the U.S. State Department for their service. 

Gorey and his organization try to help translators who risk their lives both during their time serving the U.S. military and after, when they’re targeted for assassination as traitors. Army Capt. Matt Zeller, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, started No One Left Behind in 2013 after his own interpreter reached out to him for help. 

After helping his friend and translator successfully immigrate to the U.S. from Afghanistan, Zeller launched the 501 (c)(3) organization with the following mission: 

The mission of No One Left Behind is to help America’s Wartime Allies with Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) resettle safely in the United States. We bridge the gap that exists between current State Department and NGO refugee relief programs, and provide assistance with housing, employment and cultural adaptation. We treat our clients as the heroic veterans they are. 

The group’s clients include interpreters and their families who find themselves enemies of the terror groups the U.S. fights, singled out for aiding the enemy. They are often, says Gorey, targeted for assassination as apostates of Islam, tried in absentia, found guilty and sentenced to death. They have the option, if they work alongside the military for a period of time, to apply for an SIV through the State Department if they can prove they face significant threat in their home country. 

Many of those who have successfully applied — 35 principals and their families by Gorey’s count — have been turned away from entering the U.S. while Trump’s travel ban is in effect. The ban includes a 90-day halt on any travel into the U.S. by people coming from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. 

It further contains a 120-day suspension of the U.S. refugee program. Of particular interest for Gorey and his group is that the executive order freezes the issuance of new SIVs to interpreters and translators who were promised them for risking their lives to work with the U.S. military in Iraq in Afghanistan. 

The executive order originally banned all Iraqi nationals from entering the country, but the Department of Homeland Security relaxed those standards Tuesday to include translators and interpreters who’ve worked with U.S. forces in the past. Those individuals will be considered for exemption via waiver and those currently holding SIVs will be allowed to enter the United States. 

However, according to Gorey, those relaxed standards do not help translators who were promised SIVs but have not yet received them. Unless those individuals are granted a waiver, DHS is not issuing new SIVs, Gorey says. That, according to Gorey, is what No One Left Behind is currently focusing on. 

He says the three-dozen families he’s aware of that have been halted at the border or removed from flights to meet the new requirements may have been victims of agents not fully understanding the order or the subsequent changes to the order. “My own personal opinion is the reason we’ve been fighting so hard to get the SIV program exempted [from Trump’s executive order] is that it already includes extreme vetting,” Gorey says. 

“The SIV applicants must have at least 24 months of recommendation letters from Americans with whom they served, and some are even polygraphed, which I don’t think is part of the vetting process for any other refugees. We believe the SIV program already meets the stringent requirements the president has called for. It may even serve as a model for how successful vetting should be done.” 

Gorey understands why the Trump administration instituted the order and agrees that shoring up the vetting process is a good idea. But, he says, the SIV program has not, to date, been a security issue. “If there are security issues with the principles and their families who have been let in through the SIV program, we haven’t heard them,” Gorey says. 

“We’re not aware of any security issues related to any of them — and I think we would know and the public would know if there were problems.” For Gorey, the issue of helping the men and women who worked with U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan is possibly more than political — it’s personal. 

Gorey is a veteran himself who was deployed in both Iraq and Afghanistan and has served in defense intelligence and held an appointment as senior foreign affairs officer at the State Department. He is also openly a Trump supporter who volunteered with the Republican National Convention, lent his expertise to the Trump Transition Team, and volunteered with the Trump Inaugural Committee. 

He doesn’t see his advocacy efforts to make sure the executive order exempts those who have proven their allegiance to the U.S. as a challenge to his political leanings. And, he says, it’s not political for the SIV candidates either. 

“Iraqi and Afghan interpreters have seen first hand the horrors of terrorism, and I think they’re in a position to really understand why the Trump administration would want to have extreme vetting,” he says, noting that the candidates aren’t just seen as traitors but as apostates of Islam. 

“The entire reason they are eligible for the SIV program is because they can prove they’re facing substantial threats, and the last thing they would want is for members of these organizations that are trying to kill them to sneak in to America.” 

by Sarah Lee
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