Iraqi Refugee Program Moving Slowly

Syria and Jordan are appealing for help in dealing with a refugee crisis from Iraq, where more than 2 million people have left the country.

The United States has pledged to bring in about 7,000 Iraqi refugees this year, but has yet to come even close to that number. Members of Congress are getting frustrated with the slow pace of admissions — particularly for Iraqis targeted because of their association with the Americans.

Soon after her husband — freelance journalist Steven Vincent — was killed in Basra nearly two years ago, Lisa Ramaci worked to get his Iraqi assistant out. Now, Nour al Khal is living with Ramaci in New York, though Ramaci says nothing about the refugee process has been easy.

"It took 18 months," she says. "I'd describe it in one word: arduous."

Ramaci testified on Capitol Hill, made phone calls to the State Department and got help from the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit that helps resettle refugees in the U.S. She says ultimately Khal was given what's known as priority one status, but even so it took four months to go through the final security clearance process.

"It was absurd, it truly was," Ramaci says. "And for the millions of Iraqi refugees that are over there that do not have an advocate in America, who haven't worked with either a military person or a media person, who have no one to fight the fight for them — I have no idea how they will get here."

There were about 63 other Iraqis on the flight that brought Nour al Khal to New York, mainly U.S. military interpreters and their families. Khal says now that she's here, she hopes to raise more awareness about the plight of Iraqi refugees. Her goal?

"Helping more Iraqis to get to the United States, or European countries," she says. "Just to give them the same chance I've been given to lead a normal life."

In June, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, sent a cable back to Washington urging the U.S. to offer immigrant visas to all Iraqi employees who worked for the U.S. government. He wrote that Iraqi staff members are the targets for violence — and unless they know there is some hope of a visa, they may continue to flee.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack says the U.S. is working with Congress to address this. He also said the U.S. has brought in 133 Iraqi refugees this year — and the State Department hopes to get 2,000 more through the refugee procedures by the end of September.

"I give you all these figures to show that the United States government has mobilized on behalf of those individuals who have served well and faithfully the United States government in Iraq," McCormack says.

But Sen. Chuck Hagel — a Nebraska Republican — says there is a disconnect between the administration's rhetoric and the reality. He raised the issue at a confirmation hearing for Undersecretary of State for Management Henrietta Fore, who is being promoted to run America's aid agency.

"Now, if this administration is putting this kind of urgency on this issue and we are saying all the things from the president on down that we owe this to these good faithful Iraqis — it seems we are not matching our words with our actions," Hagel says.

Various bills are working their way through Congress on the Iraqi refugee issue. Jana Mason of the International Rescue Committee says lawmakers and the administration need to think about the big picture — not just aiding Iraqis targeted for their association with Americans — but also helping those with little hope to come here.

"They need various forms of assistance in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, wherever they are," Mason says.

The U.S. has generally been a leader in resettling refugees around the world, Mason says, but in the case of Iraq, the U.S. is taking in a tiny fraction. And even processing the Iraqis who do come is taking too long, she says, because there are not enough U.S. immigration officials in the field to do the security background checks in a timely way.

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