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Thousands of Iraqis Who Helped Americans in War Caught in Visa Holdup

December 29, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In 2008, Congress passed a law allowing up to 5,000 Iraqis who had helped Americans during the war to come to the U.S. with their families as refugees each year, but the visa process has been slowed. Jeffrey Brown discusses the holdups with the University of Minnesota's Eric Schwartz and The Philadelphia Inquirer's Trudy Rubin.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight, helping Iraqis who helped Americans during the war.

In 2008, Congress passed a law allowing up to 5,000 Iraqis who’d worked with Americans to come to the U.S. with their families as refugees each year. But the process of issuing visas has been slow. In no year has the number exceeded 1,500. And, since 2009, it’s been falling.

In all, nearly 3,700 Iraqis have been given refugee status under this special program, along with a similar number of family members. Another 62,000 Iraqis have come here under other refugee programs.

We look at the situation now with Eric Schwartz, who, until October, was a top State Department official dealing with the issue. He’s now dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. And Trudy Rubin is foreign affairs columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Trudy, I’ll start with you. You have been writing on this a lot.

First, help people understand, what kind of people in what kind of situations are we talking about?

TRUDY RUBIN, The Philadelphia Inquirer: These are very special people. These are the Iraqis who worked for our military going out with them on raids or helping them on base. They couldn’t have functioned without them.

They worked for our State Department, for our contractors, for journalists like myself, for aid agencies, both government and private. They were promised 5,000 visas a year, 25,000 in total. Only 3,800 have been issued so far. That’s 18 percent.

And they have been threatened with death. Radical Shiite militias of Muqtada al-Sadr have said publicly that they will target these people and assassinate them. And yet they are being let in at a snail’s pace. And the number is going down, 98 in October, 60 in November.

And another program that also lets in people who work for us is similarly blocked.

RAY SUAREZ: Eric Schwartz, first, do you agree that this is a big problem? And, if so, what accounts for what Trudy Rubin calls the snail’s pace?

ERIC SCHWARTZ, former State Department official: First of all, I think it’s fair to say that most people in government who work on this issue have as much passion about it as does Trudy.

And I think we need to take a step back and also realize that, since 2007, some 70,000 Iraqis have come into the United States through a variety of programs, as the citizens of Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles and many other cities around the country can attest. We have so many Iraqis who are here.

And I think it’s important that we begin the discussion with that fact, that there is a deep commitment to bring Iraqis here. The program to which Trudy referred, the Special Immigrant Visa program, does have a ceiling of 5,000 a year. But that’s not the program through which most Iraqis have come in. As I said, the Refugee Resettlement Program has resettled the vast majority of the 70,000.

JEFFREY BROWN: But a lot of the people who do want to come under that program, as she is saying, have found it very convoluted, complicated, impossible.

ERIC SCHWARTZ: Well, part of the problem is the program itself has been undersubscribed because Iraqis who are in Iraq who want to come to the United States often choose the refugee resettlement program, the program through which some 62,000 have come in, because in many respects it’s easier to access. And, also, there are advantages to that refugee program that don’t exist for the SIV program.

For example, more family members can often come in through this other program. This is not to say that Trudy’s concerns don’t have merit. More has to be done to move these cases more quickly and more expeditiously. But we have dual imperatives here.

TRUDY RUBIN: Can I respond?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, go ahead.

JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead.

TRUDY RUBIN: First of all, I was told by senior White House sources there are 1,500 Iraqis who have totally gone through all the paperwork, the interviews for the SIV process — that’s the special visa process — they are pending. They are being held up for new security checks, even though many of them worked for the military and have already been vetted many times over.

I have also seen official figures that there are nearly 15,000 in the pipeline. These are Iraqis who worked for us who never left the country. Many of the refugees who were admitted under the programs that Eric spoke of are people who fled to Syria, to Jordan. These Iraqis stayed in Iraq. They were working for us. They were helping us.

And as a tribute to them, many military officers are desperately still trying to get their interpreters and their families out. I get slews of email for them. So this is a very real problem.

And there is a second program for Iraqis who worked for us in Baghdad. And there are 39,000 people, including family members, in that pipeline. So there are a lot of people who worked for us to whom we promised visas, and they are not getting them because of new security checks that are due to an incident in May when two Iraqis in Kentucky who did not work for Americans, never worked for them, were found to have terrorist connections.

But the new security checks are blocking everyone. And that is why things are frozen.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me get… Let me let — all right, let me let Eric Schwartz respond to that on the security issue.

ERIC SCHWARTZ: Sure. And let me make two quick points.

First, of the 70,000 or so who have come in over the past three or four years, about 10,000 to 15,000 of those have come directly from Iraq. Trudy’s correct. The rest have come from neighboring countries. That’s point one.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

ERIC SCHWARTZ: On the security, there are dual imperatives here. On the one hand, we have a profound commitment to resettle people who have been associated with the United States. I think government officials take that commitment very seriously.

On the other hand, we have the imperative of protecting Americans. And the fact is — the unfortunate fact is, there have been refugees and SIV applicants who’ve come into the United States where there have been serious security concerns identified.

That’s why, over the past year, there’ve been additional security screening procedures, which — Trudy is correct — have slowed the process. The only answer to this is perseverance by government officials. We need to throw more resources at the effort to investigate these cases, so they can be cleared and moved.

There is no simple solution to addressing these dual imperatives.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me — Trudy Rubin, in our time left, do you have a solution? What would you like to see happen?

TRUDY RUBIN: There was a solution, which the British, the Poles, the Danes, and the Australians used. They airlifted their people out.

We did it to Iraqi opposition people in 1996. We airlifted 6,000 out to Guam and did the security checks there. Short of that, the only answer is a political decision from the top, because the security checks cannot be moved without a real push from the White House.

Back in 2007, candidate Obama said one tragic outcome of this war is that the Iraqis who stood with America are being targeted for assassination. And, yet, they cannot get in here. And he said, that is not how we treat our friends, that is not how we are as Americans.

And my question is — and I went through this personally with my driver/fixer — my question is, when is the administration going to act on candidate Obama’s words and move this logjam?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

All right, Eric Schwartz, first, the air — airlift, is that feasible?

ERIC SCHWARTZ: Well, having been at the White House and having been in charge of managing that airlift in 1996, I share Trudy’s, you know, deep commitment to moving these people, moving people who are at risk.

But that was 6,000 people. It was a discreet number. There are some 40,000 people in the pipeline in Iraq right now. And so the answer is, you know, more diligent, more aggressive efforts to move these cases that are stuck on security holds.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think it has to come from the top, as she said?

ERIC SCHWARTZ: Of course it has to come from the top. These kinds of decisions have to come from the top.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will leave it there.

Eric Schwartz, Trudy Rubin, thank you both very much.