Thousands of Iraqis, including many who served as interpreters and contractors for the U.S., are caught in bureaucratic delays as they await visas or refugee status to come to the U.S., according to regional experts, who say the lives of some are in danger.
About 30,000 Iraqis who have been approved conditionally for refugee status cannot come to the United States because of a cumbersome security-clearance process, a panel of experts hosted by the Truman National Security Project said Monday.
Conditional approval for refugee status means that the U.S. has verified that the applicants would be persecuted in their home country.
Kirk Johnson, executive director of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, said the Iraqis’ lives are in danger because of their association with U.S. troops and added that an Iraqi he knows of recently escaped an assassination attempt.
“The United States has not made it a priority to stand by those who helped us,” Mr. Johnson said Monday, the ninth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War.
He said it should not be too complicated to distinguish between Iraqis who have risked their lives to help the U.S. and those who wish to migrate to the U.S. to do it harm.
“Iraqi allies were the key to the success of the surge and our counterinsurgency strategy,” said Mike Breen, vice president of the Truman National Security Project and founding director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Program.
“We must stand by those Iraqis who stood with us, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also for the sake of our national security and stability in the Middle East,” Mr. Breen said.
He said other nations are watching to see how the U.S. treats its friends.
Melanie Nezer, chairwoman of the Refugee Council USA Advocacy Committee, said the numbers of Iraqi refugees allowed into the U.S. have dropped significantly over the years.
In 2009 and 2010, about 18,000 Iraqis were coming to the U.S. annually. In 2011, the number dropped by almost half, to 9,388.
So far this year, about 1,800 Iraqis have immigrated to the U.S.
New security screening procedures conducted by multiple agencies have contributed greatly to slowed pace, the experts said.
Iraqi refugees have to go through at least four clearance processes run by the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies.
State Department official Rebecca Dodds said: “It is true, there have been reports about a slowdown that happened because some new security requirements went into effect with the goal of protecting Americans. … Due to that the numbers dropped.”
But Ms. Dodds added that officials have “seen indications that the flow is going to start to increase.”
Anastasia Brown, director of resettlement services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said some Iraqis die while waiting. “I do know of one case, where their children were kidnapped and murdered while they were waiting for this process,” she said. “They’re living in very precarious situations.”
Said Mr. Johnson: “There is a security vacuum that has been opened up after our withdrawal.”