US Wrestles With Iraq Refugee Issue

William Fisher, t r u t h o u t, April 16, 2007

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Today, the refugee crises are largely in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan. Thus far, more than two million Iraqi refugees have fled from persecution and sectarian violence. They have mostly traveled to Jordan and Syria. In addition, at least 1.8 million are displaced within Iraq.

According to Human Rights First, tens of thousands of these refugees have been targeted because of their work for the US government, non-governmental organizations or the media. Iraqis who have served as translators for the US forces, for example, have frequently been attacked and threatened.

Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch and author of an extensive report on the situation, says, “As it turns out, many of the people who are fleeing are fleeing because of their associations with the United States.”

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In February 2007, under considerable pressure from Congress and the media, the State Department announced that the US would admit 7,000 Iraqi refugees through its resettlement program; create special programs to assist Iraqis who are at risk because of their employment or close association with the United States government, and contribute $18 million to the work of the UN High Commission for Refugees. But at the same time, the Bush administration admitted that it probably would not be able to move more than two or three thousand Iraqis by the end of September, a period of eight months.

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As a consequence of 9/11, the DHS established rigorous criteria for granting asylum to those from all other countriesand these criteria apply to people who have become refugees because of the American invasion of their country. The DHS, however, lacked and still lacks the resources to carry out its mandated security checks on would-be asylum-seekers. Each Iraqi must be interviewed individually, including translators, truck drivers and others who have worked for the US military, which presumably carried out its own security checks before they were hired.

Because of security concerns, they cannot be interviewed at the American Embassy in Baghdad. If they have fled to Jordan, Syria, or other countries in the region, they must be interviewed there. This means dispatching DHS or State Department screeners overseas, where few wish to go. And before interviews can take place, applicants must be referred to American authorities by the UN. That process calls for resources the UN doesn’t have, and predictably involves a mountain of bureaucratic paperwork.

For example, last year Congress passed legislation to offer special immigrant status to persons serving as translators with the US Armed Forces. Under this statute, a limited number of translators and their immediate family may immigrate to the United States in each fiscal year.

But applicants are required to jump through multiple bureaucratic hoops to qualify. They must be able to prove they have worked directly with the US Armed Forces as a translator for at least twelve months; obtain a favorable written recommendation from a general or flag officer in the chain of command of the US Armed Forces unit that was supported by the translator; cleared a background check and screening as determined by a general or flag officer; is otherwise eligible to receive an immigrant visa, and is otherwise admissible to the US for permanent residence.

Spouses and children of the translator may be able to follow or join after the translator has been issued an immigrant visa.

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There are clearly problems with this legislation. For one thing, people who have fled their country in fear of their lives frequently have no access to the extensive documentation required by this law. Nor, if they have already left Iraq for another country, do they have access to the generals or flag officers of the units they worked for.

But the most consequential provision of the legislation is its limited scope. The total number of Iraqi and Afghani translators who may be provided special immigrant translator status during each fiscal year cannot exceed 50. The Department of Homeland Security’s Nebraska Service Center is mandated to track this numerical cap. As of January, this cap was exceeded by more than 6,000 applicants.

This situation has produced major heartburn for Ellen R. Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, who has been grilled by both House and Senate oversight committees. Many members of these bodies strongly opposed her nomination to her current post, based on lack of experience.

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