WASHINGTON — Ten years after the United States’ invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and set off a sectarian war that continues to this day, thousands of Iraqis are eligible for resettlement to the U.S. because they risked their lives to help the war effort as interpreters, cultural advisers and other support staff.
But of the legislated allotment of about 25,000 “special immigrant visas” – which offer permanent residency as a reward to Iraqis who worked with the U.S. government – just 4,669 cases have been approved since 2008, and the program is scheduled to end in September.
Advocates for the Iraqi applicants say the resettlement process for such U.S. allies has been shamefully slow and complicated, and remains an ordeal despite recent tweaks that have increased the flow of immigrants.
And the glacial bureaucracy in Washington, Iraqi applicants and their advocates say, can have disastrous consequences in Iraq, where people who worked with Americans receive death threats from Sunni and Shiite Muslim militants who still view them as “enemy collaborators,” even though the U.S. military withdrew from the country 15 months ago.
“People don’t forget what you did. Ever,” said Khaldoun Kubba, who worked closely with the U.S. government after the invasion on projects in southern Iraq. He who arrived in the United States with his family in December after being granted a special immigrant visa.
Congress created the visa, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008, in a gesture of appreciation for Iraqis and Afghans who worked with the American military and other agencies and government contractors after the U.S.-led invasions of those countries.
At that time, militants were regularly tracking and executing Iraqis who served in supporting roles, and there was pressure from American military commanders for the government to get their allies to safety. Under the law, as many as 5,000 Iraqis a year may receive visas. Applicants may bring their spouses and children.
At first, however, the application procedure was prohibitively complex. Not only was it rife with duplication, but it also demanded that Iraqis provide documents that would’ve revealed what they did for a living, something many were trying desperately to keep secret. As U.S. bases closed when the American military began to pull up stakes, many Iraqis were forced into hiding for the year or two that it took for their resettlement cases to be processed.
The restrictions have been relaxed somewhat in the past year, but the process remains an exhaustive series of background checks, an in-person interview and reviews of letters of recommendation – with no guarantee of approval.
And rejection might come for a host of technical errors or mix-ups that might easily have been resolved if the Iraqis had more opportunity to plead their cases.
U.S. officials also are more sensitive to possible security issues after two resettled Iraqis were arrested in Bowling Green, Ky., and charged with trying to send weapons and cash to al Qaida. Both pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and lying about their backgrounds when they applied for refugee status.
Becca Heller, the director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, a New York-based nonprofit group that’s tracked rejections, said that even against that backdrop, the system rejected people who ought to be approved. She recalled the case of one Iraqi who was rejected after a background check turned up that he’d been held for two weeks at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison after the Americans had arrested him in error. He’d been released without charges, but his visa was rejected nonetheless.
In another case the project took, Heller said, an Iraqi forgot to pay for his candy bar before he walked out of a base commissary and was rejected because of “theft.”
Heller doesn’t dispute that U.S. intelligence agencies may turn up background information that would justify denying entry but she said that without a review process or an ombudsman-like figure for applicants, the U.S. government wasn’t giving a fair shake to Iraqis who’d served the U.S. at great personal peril.
For example, there’s still no formal appeals process for Iraqis who are rejected and want information as to why.
“While the overall numbers are a lot better, there’s a lot more rejections. A lot of them have struck us as insane, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Heller, who met with Obama administration officials to advocate for changes to the process.
“Is accidentally stealing a candy bar sufficient reason to reject you for resettlement, given that the reason everybody is trying to kill you is because you helped our military?” Heller asked.
An official from the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, which processes special immigrant visas, said no category of visa came with an appeals process and that Iraqis who were applying for special immigrant visas were free to dispute incorrect information during their interviews. But if information that leads to a denial emerges after the interview, there’s no recourse.
The official said the number of special immigrant visas issued had increased, thanks to a more streamlined process that now allows applicants to email their petitions directly to the Department of Homeland Security. She said the government also was doing more to facilitate recommendation requests for Iraqis who were trying to find their former U.S. commanders who’d since moved on to other posts.
“It’s our way to recognize the people who worked on behalf of the United States,” said the official, who asked not to be identified because she hadn’t been authorized to speak publicly about the issue. “We recognize the threats, and we want to provide them with the benefit Congress says they’re eligible for.”
Since 2008, according to State Department figures, the U.S. has resettled 4,669 Iraqis on special immigrant visas; the dependents that accompanied them make for another 5,330. The State Department didn’t divulge the number of rejections or pending applications, but it said the overall number of applications hasn’t exceeded the 25,000 threshold.
Another 834 Iraqis have been admitted in the same period as part of a separate program reserved for interpreters. Overall, the United States has admitted around 90,000 Iraqis as refugees, special immigrants and asylum seekers since 2003. For comparison, Jordan – a country about the size of Indiana with a population 50 times smaller than that of the U.S. – admitted 700,000 Iraqi refugees during the height of the country’s sectarian conflict.
The State Department’s charts do record an uptick in special immigrant visa issuances after the recent changes to the process: While just 317 Iraqis were approved in 2011, the following year 1,655 were admitted. So far, 163 have been approved this year.
Applications that haven’t been approved when the program ends in September won’t be processed, according to the State Department, though Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government will still be able to seek political asylum, a status that doesn’t automatically provide permanent U.S. residency.
For both special immigrant visa recipients and refugees, the hurdles don’t end upon arrival. Most resettled Iraqis are eligible for initial government assistance – a monthly cash allowance, English-language lessons and help locating housing and work – but they still struggle in their unfamiliar environments.
U.S. companies typically don’t recognize their diplomas and work experience from Iraq, and the recent recession here means long lines of native-born American candidates ahead of them, with the benefit of internships and flawless English.
The experience can be especially painful for recipients of special immigrant visas, who enjoyed many privileges and high salaries in Iraq as the valued local brain trust for the Americans who were trying to navigate a dangerous battlefield.
Recent arrivals, such as Kubba, expressed a sense of betrayal at how the Americans have dealt with people who were indispensible to their mission. Such Iraqis can no longer live safely in their own country and yet they don’t feel welcomed in the United States.
“They call and say, ‘Look, we’re impressed by the experience and the skills, but we have one question: Are you a citizen?’ ” Kubba said, describing his futile job search. “I say, ‘No, I’m not, does it make a difference?’ And they say, ‘Yes, it’s for clearance.’ And they exclude me even though I proved in the most difficult part of the world that I’m loyal and trustworthy.”