Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Senators yesterday urged a State Department official to expedite the flow of Iraqi refugees into the U.S., a process that has been slowed to a trickle by security measures designed to stop terrorists from entering the country.

“One of the reasons you are seeing so few Iraqis come into the United States since 2003 is because of an enhanced security review,” said Ellen R. Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration policy.

During Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s rule, about 37,000 Iraqis were granted asylum in the U.S., she told the Senate Judiciary Committee. Since Congress passed a 2003 law mandating stricter screening of immigrants, however, only 466 Iraqis have made their way to America, she said.

Meanwhile, a humanitarian crisis has been brewing in the war-torn country, Mrs. Sauerbrey said. One million to 2 million of Iraq’s roughly 27 million people have been displaced by an increasingly vicious sectarian conflict between Shi’ites and Sunnis.

“We bear a heavy responsibility for their plight,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and committee member. “America must respond.”

Mrs. Sauerbrey said the refugee crisis began to develop in February, when the bombing of a prominent Shi’ite mosque in the city of Samarra heightened sectarian fighting.

“I came into my position just about exactly a year ago, and at that time, we were touting the fact that repatriation was so successful because most of the resources that we were sending at that time were to return people. And a very large number of Iraqis were returning to Iraq,” Mrs. Sauerbrey said.

Mr. Kennedy and Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, pressed Mrs. Sauerbrey to do more for the refugees.

“Our nation is spending $8 billion a month to wage the war in Iraq. Yet to meet the urgent humanitarian needs of the refugees who have fled the war, the State Department plans to spend only $20 million in the current fiscal year,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Mrs. Sauerbrey said the U.S. government is most focused on aiding Iraqi refugees who have fled to neighboring countries but is looking at ways to allow more Iraqis into the United States.

“We are looking at special visas, we are looking at special benefit parole, we are looking at some way to do special in-country processing [in Iraq],” she said, adding that unrest makes it hard to run a stable processing operation.

Two Iraqi men who worked with American military forces, and then fled their country after being hunted by insurgents, testified before the panel.

One Iraqi man, using the name Sammy and testifying behind a large wooden panel to protect his identity, was a 27-year old Sunni who translated for U.S. troops in Mosul. He was targeted for execution by insurgents and fled to the U.S. from Iraq under a special immigrant translator visa.

“My hope is that all brave Iraqis who work and brave so much will have the same chance I have to live in freedom,” Sammy said.

Mr. Specter, the ranking Republican on the panel, said more should be done to educate Iraqis about this visa, because few know about it.

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