Becca Heller is the co-founder and director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project.
“[Terrorists] controlled Mosul [and are] now heading to Salahuddin. We are in great danger now. They are looking those who have worked from the U.S. . . . I and my family will be the first to be killed.”
I lead a group of lawyers representing more than 500 Iraqi refugees whose lives depend on resettlement to the United States. Among them are Iraqis whose work as military interpreters, journalists or human rights activists allied with the United States have made them targets for militants. Since the fall of Mosul last week to the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, we have received numerous e-mails like the one above from clients who can do nothing but watch in horror as swaths of Iraq fall under jihadi control. They are praying that the United States will finally act on their refugee applications.
Six years after Congress passed the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act to provide safe passage and protection to U.S.-affiliated Iraqis, tens of thousands of people remain stuck in the bureaucracy or have been rejected for reasons that are often either unspecified or nonsensical. Now, in response to the current crisis, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has suspended refugee processing as part of its evacuation of nonessential personnel. While this has made a perilous situation even worse, it is not the source of the problem. For the vast majority, the bottleneck is located within the United States, where cases are stuck in redundant background-check processes that no agency is prioritizing. Many of our clients have waited more than three years for a decision. There is no way to formally request that a case be expedited, either because of a life-threatening medical emergency or whole cities falling to radical jihadists likely to kill anyone they find with a U.S. affiliation.
Refugees are kept in the dark about the status of their applications. They are simply told that their cases are “in processing.” Meanwhile, they hide in Iraq or scatter to neighboring countries.
Consider the plight of one client, a woman who worked for many years as a human rights organizer in Iraq and whose organization received funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Forced into hiding by militants, she applied to come to the United States, where her parents are citizens. For three years, she waited for an answer from the Department of Homeland Security, only to be denied.
The reason? She was convicted under the regime of Saddam Hussein for the crime of being raped. A man she rejected kidnapped her, drugged her, forced her to sign a marriage certificate and beat and raped her for weeks. After she escaped, he sued her for alimony, and she was found guilty and sentenced to prison. Thankfully, her conviction was soon vacated. But 16 years later, DHS officials interviewing her for refugee status determined that she was a criminal and denied her application.
I flew to the Middle East in September 2012 and tried to attend her interview with the DHS. I was not allowed in the door. My colleagues and I will attempt to appeal her case using whatever means we can. But under current policy, the DHS needs not reconsider whether being raped is a crime, examine new evidence showing that our client’s conviction was invalidated years ago or even re-interview her.
Refugee admissions are a critical component of U.S. foreign policy. We have a special obligation to those who risked their lives by working with us to help bring basic human rights to Iraq. But beyond humanitarian concerns, our failures in the area have national security implications, as well. If the world watches the United States abandon its friends, we will hemorrhage credibility in regions where we need it most and struggle to find people to help us in the future.
To fulfill its humanitarian obligations to refugees and adjudicate cases in a just and timely fashion, the United States must recognize the basic rights of refugees seeking life-saving resettlement — just as we do for asylum applicants already on our own soil. Most important, we must immediately add the personnel necessary to expedite background checks in emergency cases, the number of which are rising by the hour.
The lives of many who stood with us when we needed them are on the line. As Sunni militants push toward Baghdad, tens of thousands continue to wait, praying for the e-mail telling them that they can finally get on a plane to the life of basic human dignities we promised to them years ago.