Processing of Iraqi Refugees Improves, Officials Say

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007

Bush administration officials said yesterday that they are stepping up the processing of Iraqis who wish to come to the United States, but officials cautioned that the complexities of the two immigration programs involved will limit the number of entrants in the next few months.

Of the almost 2.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan, 14,000 of those who have registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have been referred to the United States for resettlement, State Department official James Foley told reporters yesterday.

Of that number, 2,350 have arrived in the United States this year under two programs. The larger program is for Iraqi refugees, and the other is a visa program created by legislation, for interpreters and translators who worked for the U.S. Embassy or coalition forces in Iraq or Afghanistan. The latter began with a limit of 50 per year; it has been raised to 500 a year.

Foley, named in September by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as senior coordinator for Iraqi refugees, said the United States was "not prepared" initially for the refugee surge that began last year, but "now we are running efficiently." He said the delay was partly caused by Syria's refusal until recently to allow the questioning of Iraqi refugees in that country.

With the goal for 2008 set at 12,000 immigrants, Foley said, "Now several hundred are coming in a month," and he expects that "to rise up to 1,000 a month."

The process, which involves the departments of State and Homeland Security interviews and multiple security and other checks, can take as long as six months per family. The State Department must first determine whether basic information given to UNHCR is correct and confirm that the Iraqis meet criteria of "past persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution" because of their religion, political opinions or profession. Thereafter, State prepares each case for Homeland Security interviewers, who have their own questions.

Five Homeland Security investigators, who have recently been allowed to enter Syria, will be able to complete interviews by the end of December of only 218 of 344 cases of Iraqi refugee families, representing 712 people seeking U.S. asylum, according to Lori Scialabba, special assistant for Iraqi refugees to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

"We will have another [Homeland Security] group go back in January and complete the remaining cases," Scialabba said, adding, "and that doesn't mean there won't be more referrals by that time."

After the Homeland Security reviews are finished, the State Department may have questions about health and other issues before a family is cleared to go. Additional delays are caused in finding groups that can help settle the families in the United States.

So far, the process has led to the denial of 1,500 cases. "Not all of those applying are legitimate refugees," said an official involved in the process who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We are mindful and take seriously that we have to welcome Iraqis, but we also take seriously our security procedures, and we don't want to admit someone who has bad intentions or potential ties to terrorism."

Foley said that 12,000 Iraqis coming to the United States "is not a cap but a goal." He pointed out that many of the refugees have not registered with UNHCR to start the process. In Jordan, for example, he said that of about 500,000 refugees, only about 50,000 had registered, and, of those, only 7,000 were referred to the United States.

The special visa program has other complications. It is open to translators or interpreters who worked for U.S. armed forces or the embassy for at least 12 months, have a favorable written recommendation from the ambassador or flag officer of the unit served, and a clean background check.

Not included in the faster special visa program are thousands of Iraqis employed by private contractors working for U.S. agency and coalition forces. Their situation is complicated, because some contractors no longer are in Iraq, making it difficult to confirm employment.

State and Homeland Security are trying to work out problems associated with these Iraqis, according to the Associated Press, which first reported on the issue.

While those under the refugee program have their travel to the United States paid for by the U.S. government, visa beneficiaries must pay their own way. Recipients get a green card upon arrival, while those in the refugee category have to wait a year before they can apply. Both groups must wait five years before they can apply for citizenship.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company