Posted by on January 26, 2012 in Blog

By Dalal Hillou

2012 Spring Intern

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) held a briefing on January 25 titled “Mission Not Accomplished: The Plight of Persecuted Iraqis Left Behind.” Several speakers brought to light the often overlooked troubles of Iraqi refugees, internally displaced persons, and Iraqi interpreters and translators who assisted U.S. forces in Iraq. Each panelist had a different background and perspective, but there was one thread of common belief that sewed together what each speaker had to say: we must take responsibility and fulfill our obligation to protect the Iraqi people, especially those who aided the U.S.  at their own risk and cost.

The refugee issue has not been completely ignored. Under the Defense Authorization Act for the Fiscal Year of 2008, up to 5,000 Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) can be authorized each year specifically for Iraqis. The measure was designed for “Iraqi employees and contractors who have been employed by or on behalf of the U.S. Government in Iraq on or after March 20, 2003, for a period of one year or more, and who have experienced or are experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment.” However, only 2,844 SIVs have been issued since 2008 (5,719 including family). Marcia Maack, the Assistant Director of Pro Bono Activities for Mayer Brown LLP explained the low application rate as a consequence of the difficulty in accessing and understanding the required documentation, in addition to a complex multi-stage process with several security clearances. Clearances can also be revoked or rejected without any reason or further information provided.

There are currently 29,000 Iraqi refugees waiting to leave Iraq, and only 600 are travel-ready according to Anastasia Brown, the Director of Resettlement at U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Most simply cycle through the processing system, since not all of the steps are ready at the same time, which means that certain documents expire by the time other documents are finally approved. The fact that all official forms of identification – Iraq requires a large number of identity documents–must be submitted is also a problem for many Iraqis. As Anastasia Brown explained, the current system is a “black hole” and just doesn’t make any sense. The process doesn’t just impact Iraqis; it affects individuals of many other nationalities as well.

Walt Cooper, the Board Chair of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project and a U.S. Army Major and Assistant Professor at West Point, stated during the briefing that this issue is closely tied to the U.S. legacy in Iraq. He argued that we have to aid those who aided us because we have a moral obligation to them. He gave several examples, such as “Ali” the Iraqi with whom Cooper worked and fought, but failed to protect. Another example is “Hajji,” a Yazidi interpreter who is now in hiding after his daughter was kidnapped because of his cooperation with the American forces. “Hajji” has been waiting for his Special Immigrant Visa since 2011. There is also “Noura,” an interpreter for the army who fled to Syria with her family, and although she has received her visa, her son has not and she refuses to leave him behind. These cases are only some of many that highlight the lack of organization and inefficiency in the visa process and illuminate the immediate danger that these Iraqis face.  

What was perhaps most fascinating was the plight of religious minorities in Iraq; at 3% of the Iraqi population, their numbers are dwindling. Tina Ramirez, Director of Government Relations of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, brought attention to the religious persecution and sectarian unrest that the Yezidis, Mandaeans, Baha’is, Shabaks, and other minorities face. Their populations have decreased by the thousands due to attacks and threats that have either killed them or convinced them to seek refuge in surrounding nations. Some suggested a special American envoy specifically designted for Iraqi religious minorities, or a separate state within Iraq in which minorities could reside while still being financially supported by the Iraqi government. Regardless of what is chosen, what is most pressing is that the American government must address the fact that it cannot avoid talking about these problems any longer.

Although U.S. troops have been pulled out of Iraq, our responsibility there is not over. There are people still relying on us, people who need our help to ensure their safety and to secure a steady, stable future. We must aid the ancient minorities, at the risk of losing thousands of years of history within their communities, and we must help those Iraqis who have helped us. As Marcia Maack pointed out, in Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday he stated that we must “leave no one behind”. Why, then, are we leaving our allies behind?

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