2011 AFP

Saving Iraqis the US left behind

Thousands of Iraqis helped the US after the invasion. It’s time to return the favor

August 11, 2014 6:00AM ET

After the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Hakim, a 49-year-old Sunni Iraqi, helped the U.S. and NATO forces by serving as a guide in Mosul. He enjoyed this work, often traveling with American military units as they went door to door, aiming to win local support. This work financially sustained Hakim and his family, but it put them in danger. After waiting four years, during which time his house was set afire and his younger brother killed for working as an interpreter and guide, Hakim was finally granted a special immigrant visa and resettled in New York, but without his wife. She still awaits an answer to her application for asylum. Now with renewed calls for military action in Iraq, Hakim worries that his wife will never get out of the country.

Hakim is among the thousands of Iraqis who helped the U.S. during the decade-long war. They include military interpreters, media translators, guides, journalists and human rights activists, and thousands of them are still in the pipeline for special visas to immigrate to the United States. 

As Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants extend their control over more than 70 percent of Anbar province and threaten to take control of Erbil, where the U.S. has a consulate, President Barack Obama has authorized airstrikes and humanitarian air drops of supplies. American politicians continue to debate what our commitment to the Iraqis should be. But before we make more promises to help Iraq, we need to address our unmet obligations to those Iraqis who risked their lives during and after the U.S.-led invasion. Iraqis, like Hakim’s family members, who have connections to the United States were already at risk of persecution by extremists, but with the ISIL’s rise, their situation becomes more precarious each day. By not providing visas for these Iraqis, the U.S. is failing to meet its basic moral obligation and risks losing the political support of the Iraqi people.

Bloated bureaucracy

Seven years ago, Congress passed the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act to protect U.S.-affiliated Iraqis and provide them safe passage to the United States. But according to the State Department, from Oct. 1, 2006, to Nov. 30, 2012, only 11,000 special immigrant visas (SIVs) were issued to Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government in Iraq, out of an allotment of 25,000. From January through September 2013, when the act was set to expire, the State Department issued just 454 SIVs for Iraqis, according to The New York Times. Under the act, a maximum of 5,000 SIVs could be issued each year from 2008 to 2012 and 2,500 for 2013 and 2014.

The problem is bureaucracy. Becca Heller, a co-founder and the director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, a group of lawyers that represents more than 500 Iraqi refugees, wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed that “the bottleneck is located within the United States, where cases are stuck in redundant background-check processes that no agency is prioritizing.” She adds that there’s no way to request a case to be expedited for a life-threatening medical emergency or because of renewed threats from jihadists willing to kill anyone affiliated with the United States.

We have a chance to prevent the loss of more lives by pressuring the government to streamline the visa process for Iraqis.

From 2011 to 2013, I conducted a study of 27 Iraqi refugees resettled with SIVs and 24 returned American veterans of the Iraq War living in New York. In doing so, I learned that many more Iraqis have applied for SIVs than have received them. The refugees told me that there were thousands more like them stuck in Iraq. Some gave me lists with the names of 50 to 100 Iraqis who they claim worked with the U.S. government. One of the Iraqis in the U.S., Mohammad, said that most applicants still in Iraq have been denied visas even when they had documents of support from U.S. commanding officers.

Since the ISIL took control of Mosul on June 10, the situation has only gotten worse. Hakim emailed me on June 20 to say that friends and family in Iraq fear that they will be the target of violence because of his affiliation with the U.S. military several years ago. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has suspended refugee processing as part of its evacuation of nonessential personnel, and Hakim says he fears that applications that were being processed will be lost. According to a July New Yorker article, his fears are warranted: Only 53 Iraqis arrived in the U.S. on special visas in June, while 1,700 are stuck in processing.

Costs of war

According to researchers at Brown University’s Costs of War Project, hostilities in Iraq killed at least 190,000 people, including an estimated 134,000 civilians, 4,488 U.S. service members and more than 3,400 U.S. contractors. We have a chance to prevent the loss of more lives by pressuring the government to streamline the visa process for Iraqis, many of whom are fleeing the violence in Iraq by crossing into neighboring countries.

While the United States received 66,200 refugees in 2013, the highest number among the 21 countries that admitted refugees for resettlement, the U.S. refugee protection system has weakened in the last two decades. Heightened post-9/11 security excludes thousands of refugees from qualifying for resettlement. A lack of coordination between the government and nongovernmental organizations results in long delays and ineffective application processing. An emphasis on U.S. security and enforcement contributes to a federal immigration policy that is inconsistent, inefficient and sometimes inhumane. The case of the Iraqis awaiting SIVs is but one example. 

The Iraqis who helped the U.S. military deserve our support and protection both because of their dangerous work and because we promised them safer lives in exchange for their efforts. Before we recruit more Iraqis to work alongside Americans, we must bring these allies to their new home.

Jill Koyama, an anthropologist, is an assistant professor in educational policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona and is a Tucson op-ed fellow. One area of her research focuses on immigrant and refugee education and experiences. 


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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