Editorial Board

Iraqis Who Helped U.S. War Effort Must Not Be Left Behind: View

“You stood up for America,” President Barack Obama on Wednesday at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to troops returning from Iraq. “Now America must stand up for you.”

It’s a promise that must be kept with all those who risked their lives in the U.S. cause -- be they American or Iraqi.

For many of the estimated 146,000 Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government, contractors, nongovernmental groups and news media organizations during the conflict, the final pullout of American troops could spell disaster. Viewed as traitors by many of their countrymen, these Iraqis and their families face ostracism, harassment and death. Programs to help them find sanctuary in the U.S. are bogged down in red tape.

The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2008, a bipartisan effort led by former Senators Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Gordon Smith of Oregon, was supposed to fix the problem. It created two new avenues for resettlement of Iraqis affiliated with the U.S.

First, the law mandated 25,000 new “special immigrant visa” slots over five years for those who had spent at least a year working for the U.S. or its contractors, and who experienced an “ongoing threat.” Second, it exempted Iraqis who had worked for the U.S. from the usual requirement that they receive a United Nations referral before applying for the standard refugee admissions program.

Living in Limbo

This generous vision hasn’t been realized. As of September, only 5,719 of the special visas had been approved, and about 62,000 other Iraqis have been resettled in the U.S. At least 39,000 more await processing inside Iraq, and 18,000 others are in the pipeline in Syria, according to the UN. Tens of thousands more are spread across the Middle East, living in limbo.

Applying for resettlement is a laborious process, involving consular officials; the chief of mission’s office in Baghdad; the departments of Homeland Security and Justice; the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. According to the pro-bono lawyers who represent the Iraqis, it takes nine to 17 months for an application to be approved, with the biggest holdup usually being the mandatory security clearance.

Much of this bureaucracy is necessary, but it can surely be streamlined without hampering national security. First, there is little coordination among the agencies and departments involved -- no single office monitors the overall program and looks out for the applicants’ interests. A natural home for such an office is the National Security Council, which specializes in navigating interagency dealings. Its approach could be modeled on that of the ombudsman’s office at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which upon request will help process applications within the Department of Homeland Security.

Second, applicants who are denied at the consular or mission level in Iraq generally receive little or no information as to why, making it virtually impossible to ask for a review if they think the decision was in error. The State Department should be required to explain denials and to establish a consistent appeal process.

A Rough Landing

In addition, there is the question of helping the Iraqis find their feet when they arrive in the U.S. Assistance measures are meager -- generally $1,800 per person over their first 30 days. Efforts to find jobs for some as translators and language instructors with the State Department and Pentagon foundered over regulations mandating American citizenship and security clearances for many positions -- rules that should be reconsidered where appropriate. The government’s refugee-resettlement agencies are generally geared toward helping destitute immigrants arriving from disaster zones; some thought should be given to new programs for educated, English-speaking, middle-class refugees, such as the U.S.-affiliated Iraqis.

“Welcome Home!” Obama repeated many times at Fort Bragg. Americans have a moral obligation to welcome to a new home the Iraqis who did so much to serve the U.S. effort.