In a demonstration of the slowdown facing about 30,000 Iraqis, refugee advocates said just 50 were granted entry to the United States through the programs in April, compared with thousands in previous months. Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad contacted this week did not dispute the figures and did not provide more recent numbers.
American officials said there are no plans to end either program, but refugee advocates complain that the U.S. government is reneging on promises made to those who risked their lives during the war. Advocates have also said that reprisal attacks on Iraqis who worked for the U.S. military or contractors will probably increase as U.S. troops draw down across the country.
The programs “are, by almost every metric, a failure,” said Kirk Johnson, founder of the List Project, which tracks the status of Iraqis who worked for U.S.-based entities. “There are a lot of open, unused slots every year that are just sitting there because of complications.”
Although several State Department officials acknowledged that sustained interest in the programs and a small number of personnel and secure facilities to conduct interviews are contributing to the backlog, they blamed most of the delay on visa vetting procedures enacted in recent months by the Department of Homeland Security.
Screeners now conduct more thorough background and biometric checks of applicants, in addition to checks against several databases, according to DHS officials familiar with the program. Also, officials said, new “pre-departure” checks conducted shortly before a refugee is scheduled to leave for the United States, are catching potentially disqualifying information that might arise after an initial screening.
The results of some “pre-departure” checks have forced officials to physically remove Iraqis from flights shortly before they head to the United States, according to refugee advocates and embassy officials.
“There are a number of issues that need to be resolved before a person can be admitted,” Eric P. Schwartz, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, said in an interview. “Because of the additional issues that arise, it by definition causes additional time requirements.”
Schwartz urged critics to remain patient. “Advocates for refugee protection also have to be advocates for responsible security procedures,” he said.