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Story highlights

Steve Israel: Muslim translators who helped US troops are among the most hurt by the ban

They risked their lives to serve the US military and intelligence forces, he writes

Editor’s Note: Former Rep. Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York, is chairman of the Long Island University Global Institute and a CNN contributor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN) —  

President Trump’s executive order banning refugees and others from entering the United States damages many; but none worse than a small group of Muslims who were willing to sacrifice their lives aiding our troops: language translators in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These people took a grave risk by serving the US military and intelligence forces in their home countries. Rather than plotting against us, they stood next to us, helping us understand local languages and dialects; gathering and interpreting lifesaving intelligence.

Assisting our troops often branded these brave Iraqis and their families unfairly as traitors or American spies, making them prime targets for the same extremist groups we were fighting against.

Facing grave danger in their home nation, they sought a new life in America, seeking only safety and the opportunity to work toward the American dream. In fact, in 2007, our immigration system faced an influx of visa applications from Iraqis who served as translators for the US military in the Iraq War.

That year, I met a brave man named Norwas: one of many Iraqis who assisted our troops in Iraq and arrived in the United States on a special immigrant visa. Through his story, I learned that a translator’s arrival in the United States was only the next chapter in a story of struggle, not the happy ending imagined.

Without any help from our government, many would fall through the cracks, go homeless and jobless and be forced to live in poverty. Even returning to the nation they had escaped as refugees seemed like a better alternative to some.

After learning Norwas’s story and hearing how the issue affected thousands of others who risked their lives for our troops, I sponsored the Relocation Empowerment and Placement Assistance for Iraqi Refugees Act (REPAIR), which would have helped find jobs and housing for translators who served our country, once they arrived in the United States.

Norwas became a powerful advocate for other former translators and I brought him to meet with many of my colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans. And after hearing his story, the discussion wasn’t whether or not Norwas had a right to be here, it was about how best we could help him and others have a chance at living a life of worth within our nation, as they deserved.

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It was a matter of humanity, not a matter of demagoguery. Ultimately, the proposal was unsuccessful, but my office worked with Norwas to help him get his green card and then his Social Security number.

To look at our nation in 2007 compared to 2017, it’s very clear that we have moved backwards. Norwas would not be welcomed here with open arms. He would be forced to remain in danger in Iraq solely based on his religion and ethnic background, his service to our nation utterly disregarded.

(Another translator for the United States during the Iraq war was detained at Kennedy Airport in New York this weekend and then released, hours before a judge’s emergency stay halted the implementation of Trump’s order for the citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations who have already arrived in the United States or who are in transit.)

Ironically, and strangely, while banning the translators who aided our nation in the global war on terror, President Trump’s ban on refugees from seven nations leaves the door open to the very countries that produced terrorist threats to our nation (Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri is from Egypt, 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, and neither country is on President Trump’s “banned” list).

This ban – so broad and discriminatory in scope – weakens us both morally and militarily. It sends a message to those we have relied on to keep our troops safe even at grave risk to their own families that the reward for their help is a door slammed in their faces. Not exactly a helpful recruiting tool in the future.