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Iraqi interpreter who risked life helping U.S. troops fights for citizenship

Photo by Army Staff Sgt. Jaime Lugo, Bravo Company of the 1-124th Infantry Battalion Florida Army National Guard Pfc. Haeder Alanbki participates in exercises last week at Camp Blanding near Starke.\uFEFF
Published Jul. 16, 2018

Haeder Alanbki, an Iraqi living in Orlando, applied to become a U.S. citizen in 2016.

Given his years as an interpreter for U.S. forces in Iraq, he thought it would be a simple formality. But in a lawsuit he filed last month against the government, Alanbki claims he is the victim of a secretive background screening policy that has been used to keep thousands of Muslims from obtaining U.S. citizenship since 2008.

According to troops he worked with,Alanbki, 36, risked his life serving with Americans, accompanying them on scores of dangerous missions. He said he was stabbed by insurgents. His brother was killed while on a mission with Americans.

Just to get to Orlando, Alanbki had to obtain a coveted Special Immigration Visa, given to Iraqis and Afghans who helped the U.S. They are issued only after a stringent background check that includes proving no involvement in illegal, unethical or terrorist activities. Once here, he obtained four state security officer licenses, each of which also requires vetting.

And as a private first class with the Florida Army National Guard now doing annual training, Alanbki passed additional background checks.

Despite all this, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service has yet to grant Alanbki his wish to become an American citizen. So last month, he decided to sue.

In the lawsuit, Alanbki claims the government's "Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program'' secretly blacklisted him as a national security concern when he is not.

The same program is at the heart of a class-action lawsuit challenging provisions of President Donald Trump's 2017 executive order preventing people from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from obtaining visas. All are majority Muslim countries.

The program is not new. It was created in 2008 by the George W. Bush administration and also used under President Barack Obama. Opponents say it is aimed at keeping people from Muslim-majority nations from gaining U.S. citizenship.

Between 2008 and 2012, more than 19,000 people from 21 Muslim-majority countries or regions were brought under this program, according to both lawsuits. It is unclear how many eventually were denied citizenship or how long their applications were delayed.

Alanbki's lawsuit states that he hasn't been given an opportunity to address immigration officials' concerns, or even told what those concerns are.

The bulk of the 19,000 cases came during the Obama administration. But Alanbki's attorney James Hacking says he is seeing an uptick under Trump of already-screened applicants having their citizenship requests delayed. His suit seeks to have the program ruled unconstitutional.

Immigration officials would not comment on the lawsuit or the policy, but say they judge each request individually and that factors other than national security concerns also are considered. Officials from the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, also named as defendants, declined to comment.

Meanwhile, with his Green Card set to expire in 18 months and still facing active death threats from insurgents for his work helping Americans, Alanbki waits and worries.

"If I have to go back to Iraq,'' he said, "I am dead, and so are my children."

• • •

Alanbki grew up southwest of Baghdad during the reign of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Though his father was a colonel in the Iraqi army, times were tough for his family, who were members of the Shia sect of Islam brutally oppressed during the rule of Hussein, a Sunni.

Alanbki said money was tight and opportunities were limited so he spent his childhood splitting time between school and supplementing the family's income through construction work and cutting hair.

Things got even harder in the late 1990s after his father was killed by Hussein's forces.

Meanwhile, Alanbki, spurred on in part by the 1986 Vietnam War movie Heartbreak Ridge, starring Clint Eastwood, had developed a fondness for America, seeing the far-off nation as a beacon of hope.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the invasion of Iraq that followed, Alanbki began working as a translator for U.S. forces.

Though strongly believing "it was the right thing to do because Iraq was so messed up," he said working with Americans exacted a heavy toll.

"I got stabbed four times by terrorists," he said. "I got shot by al-Qaida. I lost the toe on my left foot and had injuries in close combat in the fight in Fallujah."

• • •

U.S. soldiers who served with Alanbki say he faced the same dangers they did.

"When I say I trust Haeder with the lives of my team as well as mine or my grand-kids, it is because from December of 2005 to November of 2006, me and my folks lived, ate, slept and fought beside him that whole time, night and day," said John McFarlane, a retired Army first sergeant whose unit used Alanbki as an interpreter.

David Catani, a sergeant first class in the Army Reserve who served with Alanbki between 2004 and 2005, said the interpreter provided useful intelligence.

"In Iraq, there are three different factions but 228 different tribes," Catani said. "He had insight into things we were getting into that maybe we didn't want to get into. We had no doubts where his loyalties stood fighting terrorism."

Like other interpreters, Alanbki had a $25,000 price tag on his head, Catani said.

"I am on the death squad lists," Alanbki said.

So in 2011, he obtained the Special Immigration Visa and, with his wife and young son, left Iraq for the United States. The couple had another child before divorcing in 2014.

Alanbki is now a security guard at Orlando International Airport, holding three state security guard licenses, and attends classes to become a diesel mechanic. He enlisted in the Army in 2013 but said he was told he could not serve as a full-time soldier because he had custody of his two children after his divorce.

In 2016, Alanbki enlisted in the Florida Army National Guard and applied for citizenship. Last year, while at Fort Benning for boot camp and advanced infantry training, Alanbki had his naturalization interview. He thought everything was proceeding as planned until June 23, 2017, when he arrived for a naturalization ceremony at the sprawling Georgia Army base.

He said he was pulled out of line and told he wouldn't be receiving his citizenship that day even though soldiers from other countries, including Muslim countries, were allowed to proceed.

Alanbki has regularly checked with USCIS officials since then. Despite an inquiry from U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's office, his request remains on hold.

Army Capt. Adam Sudbury, Alanbki's commander, described him as a good soldier and person and said his unit has offered to assist him with the citizenship process by meeting with immigration officials and vouching for him.

During its reviews, USCIS investigates applicants to ensure they aren't alcoholics, drug offenders, gamblers, convicts or someone who lied to obtain immigration benefits or who participated in genocide, torture or extrajudicial killings.

Court records show Alanbki did have problems during his marriage.

In March 2014, an Orange County judge granted a temporary restraining order against Alanbki, ruling that his wife was a victim of domestic violence or had reason to believe she was in danger of becoming a victim. That order expired in December 2014.

Alanbki's attorney, Jim Hacking, said the issue should have no impact on his client's citizenship application.

"There is zero indication that I am aware of that USCIS has factored this in to delay his case," he said.

Alanbki denies the allegations.

"I earned my way to come over here and … now I'm doing my best to raise my kids and build a future for them and me," he said. "My citizenship is to complete my dream. I fought for this land of freedom."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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