Iraqi military allies may get travel waivers, but White House officials won't guarantee it

White House officials said they are open to allowing Iraqi translators who aided U.S. troops into this country, but they aren’t guaranteeing passage.

On Friday, President Donald Trump signed a controversial executive order including a 90-day ban on travel into the United States by citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, and a 120-day suspension of the U.S. refugee program.

Several veterans groups reacted angrily to that move because it did not specifically carve out exceptions for individuals who aided U.S. troops during the Iraq war, saying it leaves key allies in grave danger.

“America must fulfill her promise to Iraqi and Afghan nationals who served alongside U.S. troops that we promised safe harbor to, not only because it is a moral necessity, but because it sends a message that America keeps its promises to its allies,” John Rowan, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America, said in a statement.

Pentagon officials said Monday they are compiling a list of translators and other allies to potentially receive waivers, at the invitation of the White House. The initial list, which could include thousands of names, only includes Iraqi citizens, not other countries on the banned list.

“There are a number of people in Iraq who worked for us in a partnership role, fighting alongside us or working as translators, often doing so at great peril,” said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

“We are ensuring that those who have demonstrated their commitment, tangibly, to fight alongside us and support us, that those names are known in whatever process there is going forward.”

But White House Spokesman Sean Spicer later in the day said that those individuals will still be carefully vetted.

“We recognize that people who served this country, we should help them out,” he said. “But that doesn’t just give them a pass.”

“Coming into this country is a privilege, not a right. It is the president’s goal to make sure the people coming in enjoy this country and come in peacefully.”

Spicer said he expects most of the Iraqi military allies to eventually be allowed into America, but said the president still has serious concerns that current vetting processes aren’t thorough enough.

Advocates have argued the process is already too strict, taking years to navigate, while those individuals are targeted by local militants for their connections to American troops.

More than 100 foreign nationals were detained at airports across the nation over the weekend, prompting a flurry of legal challenges and sudden protests. That group included several translators traveling from Iraq under visas that took years to secure.

Officials from Human Rights First said they know of more than 1,000 “Iraqi wartime allies” endangered by the new executive order, adding that the move could also hurt foreign allies’ willingness to work with U.S. troops.

But Trump, in a weekend statement, said the order will “keep (America) free and keep it safe,” adding “this is not about religion, this is about terror and keeping our country safe.”

Spicer pushed back on criticism of the rollout of the travel ban, saying that giving advance warning would have encouraged bad actors to rush the system in advance of new restrictions. Federal agencies have refined and clarified the policy since the announcement last week, with new rules for individuals with green cards and various immigration visas.

Democratic lawmakers have been fiercely critical of the travel ban, but Republicans on Capitol Hill have also begun to express some concerns about how it was implemented. 

On Monday, a group of Republicans led by veterans Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., sent a letter to Trump urging him to  allow Iraqi translators faster passage into the United States, calling it a matter of life and death. 

“We respectfully ask that you take this action to ensure these individuals are not put in any further danger,” the letter said. “Doing so would send a strong signal to those who show such immense courage to advance U.S. security interests at a risk to their own safety, as well as the many veterans and warfighters who’ve relied on the service of these individuals for their own protection and to accomplish their objectives.”

Pentagon Bureau Chief Andrew deGranpre contributed to this story. 

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at .

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