January 2, 2012
U.S. inaction betrays Iraqi refugees—A Commentary by Matias A. Sueldo '12 and Natalie J. Bowlus
The following commentary was published in the Boston Herald on January 2, 2012.
U.S. inaction betrays Iraqi refugees
By Matias A. Sueldo '12 and Natalie J. Bowlus
Two weeks ago, America’s last remaining troops streamed down Iraq’s dusty southern highway toward Kuwait. As the final convoy crossed the border, America’s military engagement in Iraq was finally over. But the war is far from over for the thousands of innocent Iraqis who served the U.S. mission and are now being left behind to face persecution.
Unless Washington acts to clear the backlog on their visa applications, many may die at the hands of al-Qaeda in Iraq or anti-American militias. Many more will languish as refugees. It does not need to be this way.
The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007 created a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) category for Iraqis employed by or on behalf of the U.S. military who have experienced “an ongoing serious threat.” The act allows the issuance of 25,000 visas over five years, with more available for family members of primary applicants. Had we acted efficiently and swiftly to implement this program, most eligible Iraqis would already be safely resettled in the United States. We did neither.
Implementation of the program has been rocky from the start. Living in a war zone or displaced to neighboring countries, Iraqi applicants at first had difficulty assembling the onerous amount of documentation required, paying for mailings to the U.S., and traversing dangerous territory for face-to-face interviews with American officials.
Now the main problem lies in the implementation of new security screening procedures for all refugees and immigrants. Implemented in February, the new procedures stalled the program for months, during which the U.S. admitted almost no refugees. The new system is finally online, but has a backlog of more than 100,000 refugee and visa applicants.
Our Iraqi allies are trapped within this backlog, told only that their applications are on hold for “administrative processing” and they should check back in “six to eight months.” As they wait in bureaucratic limbo, thousands of our Iraqi allies face mortal danger. Every day waiting could be their last.
There are steps the Obama administration could take now. First, Homeland Security needs more resources to clear the security check backlog. Second, a formal expedite procedure should be developed for applicants facing immediate danger. Third, there should be a clear process to appeal an incorrect or arbitrary decision. An SIV applicant who is now rejected is told only that there is some “derogatory information” in their file and is barred from appealing or addressing this “information,” even in the case of applicants with nine U.S. military officers recommending them.
If it is not possible to immediately clear the backlog or expedite the cases of our allies still trapped in Iraq, a more drastic solution is necessary: an airlift to Guam.
In early 1975 some 50,000 refugees from South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were first evacuated to Guam, where they were screened before continuing onward to America. Again in the fall of 1996, Operation Pacific Haven brought more than 6,000 pro-American Kurds from northern Iraq to Guam. Almost all of the evacuees ended up on the mainland within seven months.
Our Iraqi allies simply cannot wait for months or years while we work out the kinks in our procedures. Guamian politicians have already expressed support for the idea.
Failing to act now would be a betrayal of those Iraqis who risked their lives for us. President Obama himself has described protecting these Iraqis as a “moral responsibility.” But this is not about morality alone — it is also essential to our national security. If we fail to protect our Iraqi allies, we will lose cooperation in Afghanistan and any future battlefield where we need local suppliers, interpreters and fixers. In other words, every future battlefield.
So let’s do right by all of our Iraq war veterans.