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.