The United States will soon begin admitting a bigger trickle of the more than 2 million refugees who have fled Iraq, acknowledging for the first time that Iraq may never be safe for some who have helped the U.S. there.
After months of delays, the Bush administration has finalized new guidelines to screen Iraqi refugees, including those seeking asylum because helping Americans has put them at huge risk.
More than 2 million people have left Iraq, but Washington has balked at allowing them into the United States for security reasons. Since the war began in 2003, fewer than 800 Iraqi refugees have been admitted into the United States.
Now, under enhanced screening measures aimed at weeding out potential terrorists—announced this week by the Department of Homeland Security—the administration plans to allow nearly 7,000 Iraqis to resettle in the United States by the end of September.
As with incoming refugees from other countries, Iraqis accepted for resettlement in the U.S. will be given assistance from both government and private aid agencies, including language and job training in the communities that will be their new homes, officials said.
“America’s tradition of welcoming international refugees and responding to humanitarian emergencies is unrivaled,” Mr. Chertoff said. “Yet we also must be mindful of the security risks associated with admitting refugees from war-torn countries—especially countries infiltrated by large numbers of terrorists.”
The 59 Iraqis who will arrive soon are among a group of more than 700 considered to be the most vulnerable and for whom resettlement interviews already have been conducted, the department said.
They include “persons whose lives may be in jeopardy because they worked for coalition forces,” it said, without giving specific numbers of former U.S. employees.
The Senate and House earlier this month passed legislation allowing a tenfold increase in special immigrant visas for Iraqis and Afghans who worked as translators and interpreters for U.S. forces.
As of May 18, the United Nations had identified 4,692 Iraqi refugees at camps in Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt for possible resettlement in the United States.
Officials said they expect that number to rise to about 7,000 by Sept. 30 and the U.S. hopes to admit as many as possible.
Immigration aid workers here expect that as many as half of the nearly 7,000 Iraqi refugees who will be brought into the United States by the end of September will settle in the area.
Lutheran Social Services of Michigan has received government data on numerous refugees recommended for resettlement, said Belmin Pinjic, the service’s director of refugee services.
“That’s the first sign that someone is in the process and should be coming,” he said. “How long that process should take, we don’t know.”
The agency has already started to contact the prospective refugees’ family members who live in the Detroit area, Pinjic said.
Southeastern Michigan has about 300,000 people who trace their roots to the Middle East. They are heavily concentrated in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, widely considered the capital of Arab America because of its national Arab-American museum, many mosques and scores of Arabic-signed businesses.
Pinjic and others expect that as many as half of the new refugees will come to the area either initially or after first resettling elsewhere.
Iraqi community leaders in Los Angeles and Orange County, Calif., which also have large Iraqi populations, said they hadn’t yet heard of any refugees being settled in the area. They also complained about the small number of refugees being allowed to enter the U.S. compared with the 2 million who have fled Iraq.
Tennessee also is bracing for refugees. Nashville is home to the nation’s largest community of expatriate Kurds, estimated at 8,000. They were a persecuted minority under Saddam Hussein’s rule.
“Frankly, we’ve got so many Iraqis . . . (they’ll) be easy,” said Holly Johnson, director of refugee and immigration services for Nashville-based Catholic Charities of Tennessee. “They’re the least of our worries.”
Nashville immigration groups also are preparing for refugee groups from Burma and Burundi, she said.