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Abandoned in Baghdad—A Commentary by Saurabh Sanghvi ’11

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on August 31, 2010.

Abandoned in Baghdad
By Saurabh Sanghvi ’11

AS the United States ends combat operations in Iraq today, it is leaving behind the thousands of Iraqis who worked on behalf of the American government — and who fear their lives and families are threatened by insurgents as a result.

In 2008 Congress significantly expanded a program that provided these Iraqis with visas to immigrate to the United States. But in the intervening years, the program has proven to be a bureaucratic failure. Unless we improve the resettlement process for our Iraqi allies, their lives will continue to be in danger long after the last American soldier has returned home.

The basic problem with the program, called the special immigrant visa, is that it treats applicants — many of whom are on the run and often facing death threats — as if they were being audited by the Internal Revenue Service.

First, to apply for a visa Iraqis have to get a letter of clearance from the American Embassy, a step that can involve bizarre requirements: for example, the embassy has at times asked applicants who were low-level employees of major contractors to list all contracts between their former employers and the American government, information they almost certainly don’t have.

The process also throws up unexpected hurdles. Minor issues — like whether the applicant provides two letters of recommendation or one letter that is co-signed, or whether the letter comes on the appropriate letterhead — have delayed applications for months.

Embassy approval is just the first step. The applicant must then send the paperwork through the unreliable Iraqi postal service to Nebraska — a challenge in its own right — and then go through two more similarly bureaucratic approval rounds, each with different government entities.

A single stage can take months to complete, and applicants receive little word in the meantime about where they stand. One senior State Department official said at a recent hearing that the program is more difficult for applicants to navigate than the refugee process it was supposed to bypass.

Indeed, while applicants who are rejected for refugee status can at least ask for a limited review of their cases, Iraqis who go through the special immigrant visa process have little recourse if they are rejected.

One Iraqi I know who submitted his paperwork in January 2009 was rejected five months later, before any interview and despite passing a background check. Even his former supervisors could not uncover the reason for his rejection. The embassy said he could reapply, but it gave no guidance about what he could do differently. In the meantime, he has been shot at and nearly killed by militants. He remains in hiding in Iraq.

Given such obstacles, it’s no surprise that relatively few people have successfully used the program: an Aug. 12 letter to the administration by 22 members of Congress noted that only 2,145 visas have been issued, even though the program has 15,000 available slots.

Fortunately, there are some obvious ways to simplify the process. For starters, the agencies involved should gather information on Iraqi employees from contractors and internal databases so that they can verify the applicants’ employment records themselves — a step required by the original Congressional legislation. That way applicants wouldn’t need to hunt down former employers while avoiding insurgents.

The agencies should also allow Iraqis to submit their applications by e-mail, and then bring their original documents to a subsequent interview. And they should provide rejected applicants with sufficient information about why they were denied visas and a fair, transparent process for challenging the decisions.

Some might worry that making it easier to apply would also increase the risk of fraud. But these common-sense changes would streamline the process and lead to better information sharing, which if anything would help prevent abuse of the program.

True, the American Embassy in Baghdad has a lot of work on its plate right now. But given the risks that our Iraqi allies have taken, fulfilling our promise to help them immigrate to the United States is the least we owe them.

Saurabh Sanghvi, a third-year law student at Yale, is a student director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.