As Troops Come Home From Iraq, Iraqi Refugee Applicants Are Caught In Red Tape

Today, “combat operations” operations in Iraq came to an official and momentous end which will be marked by a speech from the Oval Office tonight. However, for the millions of displaced Iraqis abroad, the hell is far from over. In an op-ed published in today’s New York Times, student director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project Saurabh Sanghvi explains that we are also “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.” There are currently 15,000 available “special immigration visas” (SIV) made available to the many Iraqis who have “provided faithful and valuable service to the U.S. Government,” however, almost 13,000 have gone unused.

Sanghvi notes that the surprising low participation rates are not for lack of will or interest, but rather, red tape and bureaucratic hoops. SVI applicants must first obtain a letter of clearance from the U.S. Embassy. A mistake as minor as using the wrong letterhead can delay an application for months. Then the applicant must send the paperwork through the unreliable Iraqi postal service to Nebraska before going through two more similar approval rounds that can each takes months to complete.

The SIV program was specifically implemented to bypass the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, or “the regular refugee program,” which many displaced Iraqis other than those who worked for the U.S. qualify for. However, at this point, even senior State Department officials admit that “the refugee program administratively is just easier to navigate.”

Sanghvi offers a few recommendations that the agencies involved in determining the fate of Iraqi SVI applicants should implement:

  • Gather information on Iraqi employees from contractors and internal databases so that they can verify the applicants’ employment records themselves.
  • Allow Iraqis to submit their applications by e-mail, and then bring their original documents to a subsequent interview.
  • Provide rejected applicants with sufficient information about why they were denied visas and a fair, transparent process for challenging the decisions.

Retired U.S. Air Force Major Dorian de Wind wrote last week, “As a nation that bears a special responsibility for the Iraq war and for the resulting humanitarian crisis, we can still reflect the ‘character of our nation’ by, as we leave Iraq behind, not leaving behind the helpless Iraqi refugees.” Meanwhile, President Obama has already warned troops in Fort Bliss, TX that “our task in Iraq is not over yet.” And it shouldn’t be considered over until the responsibility we have to those Iraqi men and women who risked their lives to work for the U.S. is fulfilled.