It’s been a long time since Laith Hammoudi felt safe in his Baghdad neighborhood. He risked his life for over a decade as an Arabic interpreter employed by American and British media companies, including six years with McClatchy, aiding coverage of the Iraq War. Helping western nations is considered treasonous in a kleptocracy governed by corrupt politicians and ruthless militias that wage sectarian violence.
Yet Hammoudi’s sacrifices for our democracy remain unacknowledged over nine years since he first applied for a U.S. visa through a resettlement program. His sponsor, Sacramento Bee Capitol Bureau Chief Adam Ashton, worked with Hammoudi in Iraq. Twice over the last five years he was told to prepare for Hammoudi’s arrival. But Hammoudi remains one of 1.1 million asylum-seekers caught in a backlog choked by bureaucracy, partisan refugee restrictions and deep pandemic cutbacks.
“Unfortunately, in such a society (Iraq) where morals are absent, working for western media is a crime — a crime you can pay a price for at any moment in your life,” Hammoudi said in an interview, holding back tears. “Why did things not go smoothly with me, like others (interpreters)? Do I ask for more than a simple, easy, safe life?”
Hammoudi’s commitment to democracy, freedom and truth remains unacknowledged by the U.S. government. But he was instrumental in war reporting that reached millions of McClatchy readers.
Now, his family is in danger. Two years ago, Hammoudi was threatened after speaking candidly to a friend about the turmoil in Iraq, he said. Since then, he has avoided mixing with others or forming deep relationships. He asked The Bee not to publish his photo.
The political shift after the 2020 election “gave me real hope,” Hammoudi said. Asylum-seekers around the world also viewed it that way, spurring a massive spike in arrivals at the U.S-Mexico border. In March, more than 170,000 migrants were detained, the most in 15 years.
In 2016, the U.S. admitted almost 85,000 refugees. By last year, the Trump administration had gutted admissions to a historic low of 15,000. President Joe Biden reversed Trump’s so-called Muslim ban during his first weekend on the job and vowed to raise the ceiling to 62,500.
He’s been reluctant to follow through. On Friday, the administration tried to reverse course before allies decried the move, forcing Biden to honor his word. Fintech Zoom reported this week that Biden was worried about the political optics given the growing crisis at the southern border.
“After three or four months, nothing really happened,” Hammoudi said of the new administration. “I wouldn’t say this hope is dying, but it’s getting sick.”
The Bee’s Editorial Board has written about Hammoudi before.
Earlier this month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein told The Bee that she has worked on several immigration cases for interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan. She said she couldn’t comment on the Hammoudi case because of privacy rules, but said in a statement that her office has reengaged the State Department and Defense Department.
“These individuals risked their lives in war zones as translators and journalists and deserve the opportunity to come here,” Feinstein said.
McClatchy CEO and Chairman Tony Hunter also reiterated his commitment to get Hammoudi to the U.S.
“Mr. Hammoudi has endured unspeakable fear for his family’s safety, all because he chose to help American journalists — McClatchy journalists — report from Iraq so that readers at home in California and across this country could know what was happening in the warzone,” Hunter said. “We urge the Biden administration to grant his visa and bring this decent, hardworking man to America.”
The renewed attention on Hammoudi’s case is encouraging — and so is the president’s decision to keep his original promise. Refugees like Hammoudi are counting on him to keep his word.