By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 22, 2007
The American ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan C. Crocker, has asked the Bush administration to take the unusual step of granting immigrant visas to all Iraqis employed by the U.S. government in Iraq because of growing concern that they will quit and flee the country if they cannot be assured eventual safe passage to the United States.
Crocker's request comes as the administration is struggling to respond to the flood of Iraqis who have sought refuge in neighboring countries since sectarian fighting escalated early last year. The United States has admitted 133 Iraqi refugees since October, despite predicting that it would process 7,000 by the end of September.
"Our [Iraqi staff members] work under extremely difficult conditions, and are targets for violence including murder and kidnapping," Crocker wrote Undersecretary of State Henrietta H. Fore. "Unless they know that there is some hope of an [immigrant visa] in the future, many will continue to seek asylum, leaving our Mission lacking in one of our most valuable assets."
Crocker's two-page cable dramatizes how Iraq's instability and a rapidly increasing refugee population are stoking new pressures to help those who are threatened or displaced. As public sentiment grows for a partial or full American withdrawal, U.S. Embassy officials are facing demands from their own employees to secure a reliable exit route, and the administration as a whole is facing pressure from aid groups, lawmakers and diplomats to do more for those upended by the war.
With Iraqi immigration to the United States stuck at a trickle, however, it appears that humanitarian concerns have been trumped so far by fears that terrorists may infiltrate through refugee channels. Bureaucratic delays at the departments of State and Homeland Security have also bogged down the processing of immigration requests by Iraqis fleeing violence.
Skeptics contend another reason the administration has been slow to resettle Iraqis in large numbers is that doing so could be seen as admitting that its efforts to secure Iraq have failed. The intense pressure for visas "reflects the fact that the situation is pretty dire," said Roberta Cohen, principal adviser to the U.N. secretary general's representative on internally displaced persons.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says that about 2 million Iraqis have been displaced inside the country so far, and that an estimated 2.2 million others have fled to Syria, Jordan and other neighbors, where they threaten to overwhelm schools and housing, destabilize host governments and provide a recruiting ground for radical unrest. Each month, an additional 60,000 Iraqis flee their homes, the U.N. agency said.
Overall estimates of the number of Iraqis who may be targeted as collaborators because of their work for U.S., coalition or foreign reconstruction groups are as high as 110,000. The U.N. refugee agency has estimated that 20,000 Iraqi refugees need permanent resettlement.
In the cable he sent July 9, Crocker highlighted the plight of Iraqis who have assumed great risk by helping the United States. Since June 2004, at least nine U.S. Embassy employees have been killed -- including a married couple last month. But Iraqi employees other than interpreters and translators generally cannot obtain U.S. immigrant visas, and until a recent expansion that took the annual quota to 500 from 50, interpreter-translator applicants faced a nine-year backlog.
As a result, Crocker said, the embassy is referring two workers per week to a U.S. asylum program. Outside analysts and former officials say the number of Iraqi staffers at the embassy has fallen by about half from 200 last year, while rough estimates place the number of Iraqi employees of the U.S. government in the low thousands.
A 43-year-old former engineer for the U.S. Embassy who gave his name as Abu Ali said Iraqis working with Americans at any level must trust no one, use fake names, conceal their travel and telephone use, and withhold their employment even from family members. Despite such extreme precautions, he said they are viewed as traitors by some countrymen and are still mistrusted by the U.S. government.
"We have no good end or finish for us," said Ali, who quit the embassy in June and moved to Dubai with his four children.
Kirk W. Johnson, who served as regional reconstruction coordinator in Fallujah in 2005 for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the damage to the United States' standing in the Muslim world will be long-lasting if the country's immigration officials are unable to tell friend from foe in Iraq -- between terrorists and those who have sacrificed the most to work and fight alongside Americans.
"If we screw this group of people, we're never going to make another friend in the Middle East as long as I'm alive," said Johnson, who is advocating the resettlement of Iraqis who have worked for coalition forces. "The people in the Middle East are watching what happens to this group."
The State Department declined to comment on Friday about Crocker's proposals or his cable, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said last week that he would like Iraqis who worked for the United States or who have been vouched for by American authorities to be processed "as quickly as we can, because I think we have a responsibility there."
Kenneth H. Bacon, president of Refugees International, who has urged broader U.S. resettlement efforts, said that "the U.S. does have an obligation to be fair to the people who have served it, whether in Iraq or elsewhere. That's what Ryan Crocker wants to be able to promise." Bacon was among several refugee experts who said that Iraqi employees seeking immigrant visas have already shown their trustworthiness by exposing themselves to brutal attacks over their work in the Green Zone and elsewhere.
But such Iraqis are only a small part of a broader refugee problem that Washington confronts as a result of the war. In recent months, the U.N. refugee agency has referred 8,000 Iraqi refugee applications to the U.S. government. About 1,500 of them have been interviewed, and about 1,000 "conditionally approved" pending security checks and travel arrangements, a DHS official said. The State Department expects 4,000 more interviews to be completed by October.
But State and DHS are unlikely to admit more than 2,000 Iraqi refugees by October, U.S. officials said. Since 2003, the year of the U.S. invasion, the United States has admitted 825 Iraqi refugees, many of them backlogged applicants from the time when Saddam Hussein was in power. By comparison, the United States has accepted 3,498 Iranians in the past nine months.
Smaller countries have also done more. Sweden received 9,065 Iraqi asylum applications in 2006, approving them at a rate of 80 percent, although it recently announced tighter restrictions.
By past standards, the U.S. response also has been meager. Washington admitted nearly 140,000 Vietnamese refugees in eight months in 1975, although only after the U.S. defeat in South Vietnam became clear.
A DHS official blamed the State Department for paperwork delays. Assistant Secretary of State Ellen R. Sauerbrey said officials are speeding up processing and anticipate "a significantly larger number" of admissions. "The people who are in the pipeline will be admitted by next year or, hopefully, the end of the calendar year," she said.
But DHS has opposed boosting the U.S. intake of Iraqis. In a June 26 memo to Congress, the department opposed a legislative proposal to allow applications by Christians and other Iraqi religious minorities, saying it would "vastly increase" the number of refugees. "No vetting process is perfect, and even a strong vetting process can be strained by rapid growth or high volumes," the memo stated.
U.S. officials declined to discuss details about security checks for Iraqis, but said that, under special rules, applicants are subjected to interviews, fingerprinting and examination of their family histories. The information is checked against military, FBI, State and Homeland Security databases.
But DHS rules sometimes pose problems peculiar to the Iraqi conflict: Those who pay ransom to free relatives kidnapped by insurgents, for example, are sometimes viewed as providing material support to terrorists.
Homeland Security officials say they have worked hard to adjust their policies, but Chertoff said in the interview that Washington will not compromise on screening quality. "What we can't afford to do and what would be devastating for the program would be if we were to start to allow people in who actually were a threat," he said.
Years ago, Chertoff added, Europe had more relaxed asylum standards, and it "wound up admitting a bunch of people who are now the radical extremists who are fomenting homegrown terrorism."
Congress is nonetheless stepping up pressure on the administration to do more, with Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) introducing separate legislation to expand U.S. refugee and immigrant visa programs for Iraqis, including for those threatened because they helped coalition or reconstruction efforts.
"The Administration has ignored this crisis for far too long, and its response is inadequate," Kennedy said in a written statement. "We can't solve this problem alone, but America has an obligation to provide leadership and resettle greater numbers of Iraqis who are targeted by the assassin's bullet because they assisted us in the war."