WORLD -- December 21, 2011 at 1:24 PM EDT
Iraqis Face Backlog of U.S. Visas Due to New Security Checks
An interpreter speaks with Kurdish villagers in Al-Hamdaniya district, Iraq. Photo by Warrick Page/Getty Images.
Several thousand Iraqis, including many who helped the United States during the Iraq war, are caught in a grim race between death threats in their own country and the cumbersome process of obtaining a visa.
The process became even lengthier after two Iraqi refugees, who had settled in Kentucky, were arrested in May for allegedly helping al-Qaida and trying to ship weapons to Iraq.
Although the two were allowed into the United States on regular visas, new security measures were implemented for all Iraqi visas, including those aimed at helping Iraqis who assisted Americans during the war as interpreters and in other jobs. They now often face threats from militias seeking to punish them for their work with the United States.
Becca Heller, director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, said 5,000 visas have been set aside each year since 2008 to expedite those Iraqis' entry into the United States. As of Sept. 30, the U.S. government should have given out 20,000 of these special visas, she said, but only 3,317 have been issued.
"What you have is a slowdown to a crawl for these visas," said Trudy Rubin, columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer who has closely followed the Iraqi visa issue. "People have been waiting for a year or more, and have not been given a timeframe for when they will be cleared."
Some of the Iraqis had been living on U.S. bases, but now those bases have closed as U.S. troops are re-deployed, so now they are hiding in their homes, she said.
Rubin said she spoke this week to one such Iraqi, who worked for a special division of the U.S. military checking the veracity of contracting procedures. In that capacity, he helped reveal corruption among contractors and therefore has had death threats leveled against him, she said.
Even with positive recommendations from the military commanders he worked under, he's been waiting a year for a visa, said Rubin. "He's just hanging. He can't even go out of his house" because he's so frightened, she said.
There are many such tragic stories, and each one needs to be addressed, said Jonathan Morgenstein, two-time Marine Corps Iraq war veteran. Morgenstein was one of the lead people in the Office of the Secretary of Defense working on the visa issue during his fellowship from 2010-2011.
But the reviewers also need to take into account the safety of people in the United States, he said. "You want to give these Iraqi men and women all the safety and security that they merit and deserve, and we also need to make sure that the American people remain safe, so we have to do our due diligence and ensure that none of these people are dangerous and threats to Americans."
New security procedures implemented since the summer arrest of the two Iraqis on terrorism charges have caused a backlog in the application process, he said. "Background checks take a long time when you're dealing with people in a war zone."
In addition, Morgenstein said when he was working in Iraq, sometimes people would give wrong information about an individual if they had a personal beef with him. "So we need to double-verify any bad information."
Although it would seem like Iraqis who worked with the U.S. military already have undergone layers of scrutiny, it's still not to the level of the vetting they receive in order to enter the United States, he said.
Another cause for delay is the requirement of Iraqis to get a letter of recommendation from a supervisor, sometimes with whom they have lost contact. To address that problem, a Web feature was added to the State Department website in October, called a supervisor locator, said Morgenstein. Using this tool, Iraqis can submit an online application, which is forwarded to the Defense Department, to track down their former military supervisor and request the letter.
For those who feel they are in immediate danger, Morgenstein suggested they move to neighboring Jordan if they have the money to wait out the process -- a move many Iraqis have made despite the added hardship. They also can contact nongovernmental organizations, such as the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which can connect with the U.S. government and find out the status of their application, he said.
"It's extremely important to us that we let in all the people who deserve to be let in, and simultaneously prevent all the people who can't be let in from being let in, and it's a very difficult line to walk," he added.
And others are watching, said Rubin. "Why would Afghans cooperate with us when they see what happened to Iraqis when they cooperated with us?"