Laith Hammoudi and good people like him are getting shunted aside and their potential contributions to this country passed over, hostage to the harsh rhetoric and irrational fears that mar the U.S. immigration debate.
Hammoudi is 47, and lives and works in Baghdad for a U.S.-based nonprofit agency that seeks to promote democracy. He and his wife, a teacher, provide for their three kids, try to keep them safe, and hope one day to come to America.
We have written about Hammoudi before. In a very real sense, he is a heroic figure who risked his life to help Americans better understand his homeland and our role there, and the importance of holding government accountable, a mission we honor this month during Sunshine Week.
He grasps the importance of the First Amendment better than most Americans, having worked as a reporter and interpreter assisting McClatchy reporters trying to cover the war in Iraq, from 2006-2012.
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He long since has filled out the necessary immigration paperwork, passed the medical exam, and has a U.S. sponsor, The Sacramento Bee’s Adam Ashton, who worked with Hammoudi while on assignment in Iraq. Ashton and Mike Tharp, the former editor of the Merced Sun-Star, who also spent time in Iraq, attest to Hammoudi’s work ethic, bravery, and integrity.
Hammoudi’s story is emblematic of the cavalier way in which Trump has handled immigration and refugees, and of his contempt for the people who risk their lives to deliver news and make governments accountable. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Laith deserves to come here,” Tharp wrote last year. “He’s a good man. He’d be the kind of guy you’d want as a neighbor. He’d be an employee you could count on. He’d make a fine kids’ coach.”
We learned recently that something in Hammoudi’s application triggered a security flag and his case has sat at the Department of Homeland Security for an extended review. No one told Hammoudi this in the 14 months since Ashton received a call from a refugee settlement agency telling him to prepare for Hammoudi’s arrival in Sacramento.
We don’t know what set off the alarm. It could have been a clerical error or something in his cellphone records. Hammoudi lives in a bad neighborhood that was marked by bloody sectarian violence a decade ago. It’s still dominated by a militia.
“I am shocked,” he said this week when he learned about the additional security check.
He said he had nothing to do with the militia. Working as a journalist with American and British reporters was dangerous enough for him.
The extra scrutiny is surprising in no small part because he traveled to Washington, D.C., as a guest of the State Department in 2010, when the American embassy celebrated his stories on a group young Iraqis who formed their country’s first national baseball team.
Sadly, in the Trump administration, there is simply no urgency to address cases like Hammoudi’s.
At The Bee editorial board’s request, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has agreed to look into Hammoudi’s situation. For that, we and Hammoudi are thankful.
“I love my country of Iraq, but I no longer think it will ever be a safe place for my children,” Hammoudi wrote in a note to Feinstein.
Hammoudi described a bit of his work for an arm of the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit that seeks to spread democracy to parts of the world that lack it. In his country, that makes him a target.
“The insurgents groups in Iraq consider those who work for any U.S. establishment a traitor. So you can imagine the kinds of fears I have lived with since 2006,” he said in the note to Feinstein.
In 2016, the U.S. admitted 84,894 refugees, up from an average of slightly fewer than 70,000 in the preceding three years. The number fell to 53,716 in Trump’s first year in office.
It’s falling even further this year, perhaps to as few as 20,000 refugees, this at a time when the world’s refugee crisis rivals the displacement that occurred in the days after World War II.
In September, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Feinstein, the Democrat with the most seniority on the Judiciary Committee, issued a joint statement describing their frustration with the administration’s failure to properly consult with Congress about refugee admissions, as required law.
“It is simply unacceptable to read in the press that the administration had reached its decision on the refugee cap before the mandated meeting with Congress had even been scheduled,” the senators said in their statement, little good that it did.
The episode is emblematic of the cavalier way in which Trump has handled immigration and refugees, and of his contempt for the people who risk their lives to bring truth to the public. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In August, McClatchy unfurled a banner that hangs outside The Sacramento Bee building describing Austin Tice, the journalist who went missing covering the civil war in Syria for the McClatchy family of newspapers and others. Tice is a hostage to the insanity that grips much of the world. We renew the call to #FreeAustinTice, though his fate seems out of our hands.
Laith Hammoudi is a hostage to different forces, but ones that leaders of this nation can control. We thank Feinstein for her effort, and urge the Trump administration to get past the rhetoric and welcome truly deserving refugees including Hammoudi. We will be a better nation for it.