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.