And Yochi J. Dreazen
Thousands of Iraqis are fleeing the war in their country daily. In the past seven months, the U.S. has admitted just 69 of them, including only one last month.
That dichotomy has set off the latest round of battling between the Bush administration and Democrats in Congress over the war. With large and growing numbers of Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan and other countries, Democrats are pushing legislation to drastically increase the number of them given haven in the U.S., including thousands of interpreters, drivers and others whose service has put their lives in jeopardy.
But the administration has yet to decide on a method to screen potential Iraqi refugees for possible terrorism ties. The U.S. also lacks any facilities in Iraq or its environs to process immigration requests from Iraqis who worked for the U.S. embassy, military or contractors.
Even if the U.S. gets the procedures in place, the administration likely can accept only a few thousand Iraqis by the end of the fiscal year in September.
"The number of visas issued so far is less than paltry," says Rep. Gary Ackerman, D""N.Y. "We're talking about people who have risked their lives for us, who now have targets on their backs."
Nearly a tenth of Iraq's prewar population is estimated to have fled the country since 2003. Most have left over the past year as ethnic clashes and mass killings uprooted large areas of the country.
The sheer numbers, and rapid recent escalation, have spawned fears, particularly in Jordan, that the Iraqi expatriates could destabilize the region's governments and strain local economies.
The refugee wave is tricky for an administration eager to portray the recent troop "surge" as a boost to improving security and curbing the sectarian killings in Iraq. There's also genuine concern that encouraging large-scale flight from Iraq will compound the country's many challenges, by luring its most talented citizens to the U.S.
But critics say the administration has been slow to address the population exodus for fear it would amount to an admission of failure. Officials deny shirking the crisis and say they are responding as swiftly as possible to a complex situation that has crested only in recent months.
The U.S. plans to spend $150 million this year for Iraqi refugee work in the Middle East. Officials say the Department of Homeland Security plans to announce within days a new streamlined procedure for vetting Iraqis who want to come to the U.S., opening the way for a wave of approvals. The State Department plans to open offices soon in both Jordan and Syria to process claims from Iraqis who say they worked for the U.S.
"The administration has made a firm and very substantial commitment to help displaced Iraqis," says Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. "This is moving along well."
Still, Democrats like Earl Blumenauer of Oregon say they are infuriated by the small number of Iraqis allowed into the U.S. so far this year. Rep. Blumenauer notes that Sweden plans to accept 25,000 Iraqi refugees this year, far more than the U.S. "I find that unconscionable," Blumenauer says. Other Democrats championing the issue include Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. Howard Berman of California.
One refugee bill, which would expand number of Iraqi and Afghan military translators allowed to settle in the U.S. to 500 a year from 50, passed both chambers of Congress by a wide margin this week. Bush is expected to sign it.
But Rep. Blumenauer has introduced a far more ambitious bill that would allow 20,000 Iraqis into the U.S. this year, followed by 15,000 in each of the following four years. The bill also would create a "special coordinator for Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons" within the mammoth U.S. embassy in Baghdad. It has yet to be scheduled for a vote.
Rep. Ackerman plans to introduce his own bill today demanding the State Department put forward an additional $100 million for resettlement and provide its own numbers for how large the refugee crisis is. He predicts the U.S. may have to take in as many as 120,000 Iraqis.
Virtually no Republicans have joined the push to get larger numbers of Iraqis into the country, complicating the bill's chances of making it into law. Blumenauer's bill has only attracted a single Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut, a moderate Republican and frequent critic of the administration's handling of Iraq.
For its part, the Bush administration has erected a series of bureaucratic obstacles making it difficult for Iraqi refugees to make it to the U.S.
Under an agreement between the United Nations and the U.S. government, the U.N. refers refugee applications to the State Department, which is supposed to prescreen each applicant, then pass them to the Department of Homeland Security so they can be vetted for possible terrorist ties. The U.N. says it has referred more than 4,300 cases to the U.S. government. Virtually none have been let into the U.S. as refugees.
The DHS has dispatched interviewers to Jordan, Syria, and other countries to interview nearly all the refugees identified by the U.N. as wanting a haven in the U.S., says Chris Bentley, a department spokesman. "We're current in those interviews," he says.
Iraq refugees face roadblocks to U.S.
And Yochi J. Dreazen