Security hurdle keeps U.S.-bound Iraqi refugees in limbo
Musadaq Alsamawi and his wife hold photos of their daughter, who hasn't been able to join them at their new home in Arizona.
December 23rd, 2011
05:10 PM ET

Security hurdle keeps U.S.-bound Iraqi refugees in limbo

Editor's note: Listen to the CNN Radio broadcast about the security hurdles faced by Iraqi refugees trying to enter the U.S.:

While the U.S. military has pulled out of Iraq, thousands of Iraqis who worked for the men and women in uniform are hoping to follow in their boot tracks.  But a special immigration program meant to facilitate the process has slowed to a crawl, leaving many Iraqis fearing for their lives as they wait to be accepted into the United States as refugees.

The hang-up seems to have been caused by an additional security screening implemented at the start of 2011. Iraqis requesting resettlement go through a series of security background checks and medical exams before they’re cleared to travel to the United States.  The process used to take approximately six months.

“When the newest layer went into place …  it brought the whole system more or less to a halt,” said Bob Carey, vice president of Refugee Resettlement and Migration Policy at the International Rescue Committee. The non-profit agency works on refugee issues around the world.

“Certain security checks expire. Medical exams, which have to take place before refugees enter the U.S., expire,” said Carey. By the time all of the security checks are completed, he said, the initial screenings have expired and the applicants have to become recertified. “So it becomes kind of a circle that refugees are caught in and can’t get out of.”

The U.S. State Department acknowledges the problem. “In fiscal year ’11 … we admitted a little over 9,300,” said Kelly Gauger, deputy director for Refugee Admissions. That’s about half the number of Iraqi refugees who were admitted to the United States in the previous year. But the rate of new applications has not gone down.

“We’re aware of the frustration, and the frustration is warranted. It has taken a significant amount of time to get through some of these cases,” Gauger said.

The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security are reviewing the security screening process to see whether it can be shortened. Meanwhile, Gauger says, they are trying to fast-track urgent cases that are brought to their attention. “We are doing whatever we can. We have ways that we can expedite these checks.”

Musadaq Alsamawi hopes his daughter’s case will make it across the deputy director’s desk. She was approved for travel to the United States in July, but she and her family have been stuck in limbo ever since.

“I’m praying for God to help my daughter. No one help them,” said Alsamawi. Several American flags hang in his modest house in Tucson, Arizona. They’ve been there since the summer when he was expecting to welcome his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren to their new home.

Alsamawi’s daughter and son-in-law live with constant threats of reprisal for the work Alsamawi did as an interpreter for the U.S. Army. “She’s suffering from a bad situation. All the time the neighborhood call her a spy because her family is leaving for America and her family working with the American Army.”

He claims his son-in-law has been shot at and his grandchildren had to be withdrawn from school because of the threats.  The family sold all of their belongings over the summer when they were first told to be ready to leave Iraq. Since then, Alsamawi says they’ve run out of money and are living in a cramped apartment in Baghdad with a relative who was able to take them in.

Alsamawi, a former chicken farmer and veterinarian, knows all too well the dangers his daughter faces. His farm was destroyed and his house was burned down.  His son, who was also working as an interpreter, was kidnapped.

“They said, 'We are from al Qaeda,' and actually they are looking for me, 'Where is your dad',” Alsamawi said. “They take him in the back of the car. After that they contact his mom and threaten, 'We will slaughter your daughter, your son, we will kill him'.”

He was able to negotiate his son’s release for ransom. Soon after, they and their families were cleared to enter the United States as refugees through the Special Immigration Visa Program. It was set up in 2008 under the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act.

Deputy Director Gauger points out that while the program has slowed, the United States accepts more Iraq refugees than any other nation. “We’ve resettled more than 62,000 Iraqi refugees since we started this program.”

At the IRC, Carey worries that the security screening process will slow even more now that the U.S. military has left Iraq.

“Security is critically important in insuring that the people who are admitted to the U.S. are who they say they are. It is critically important. No one would deny that.” But he said the system isn’t doing what needs to be done in order to save lives.

“You have people who sided with the U.S. who have risked their lives and who are being killed and are at risk of dying now,” said Carey. If their cases aren’t being expedited, Carey said he wants to see provisions made for the security and protection of Iraqis while they wait for the process to be completed.

In the meantime, Alsamawi tells his story to anyone and everyone who he thinks can help his daughter and her family get out of Iraq. He writes letters and e-mails on an almost daily basis. If he could speak to someone at the State Department he would deliver a simple message: “Please, help me to save my daughter. Help me to save my family to be in peace here.”

If something bad happens to her before she’s allowed to travel to America, Alsamawi knows it will be because he took a chance and worked for the U.S. Army.

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Filed under: Iraq • Military • Politics • U.S. • U.S. Army • World
soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. Jeff Frank (R-Ohio) "Right Wing Insanity"

    I thought I seen one out in front of Walmart, bearing a cardboard sign that read "will work for oil".

    December 23, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Report abuse |
  2. bobcat (in a hat)

    I can't believe we just left those people hanging like that. They helped us out in the war effort, knowing full well that their lives were on the line. Now we pull out and they are stuck to face the retribution of the mobs who didn't want us there. Way to go.

    December 23, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
  3. chrissy

    Yea bobcat, this sucks! May as well have put a bullseye on their backs sheesh! Sends a definite message for any future help we may need,& certainly makes the US look less than honerable!! With our rapidly declining reputation youd something would be done!

    December 23, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
  4. bobcat (in a hat)

    I know chrissy, I never I thought I would see the day our country would do this stuff. Makes me hang my head at times.

    December 23, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Report abuse |
  5. chrissy

    I was just thinking how ashamed my father would feel if he were still here! Its a dis-service to our country and ALL veterans! They fought and protected with honor so for government to NOT protect ppl that jeopordized them selves to help is DISGRACEFUL!!!

    December 23, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Report abuse |
  6. chrissy

    And its not like the war was abruptly ended, it had been planned for some time! Something should have been put in place for a smooth transition for these people before our final day!! SHAME ON THEM!

    December 23, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  7. bobcat (in a hat)

    Exactly. They should have had this in motion long before the beginning of the withdrawal. Did we really think the Iraqi government was going to honor our commitments once we were gone ?

    December 23, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  8. chrissy

    I dont think they put much thought proccess into this at all!!!

    December 23, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
  9. bobcat (in a hat)

    They couldn't have. Otherwise it would have been handled completely different. But to be honest, I don't think there was a whole lot of thought put into this war before they started it. I think Bush & Co. thought the Iraqis were just going to roll over on their backs when we showed up. Shock and Awe my butt.

    December 23, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Report abuse |
  10. bobcat (in a hat)

    Oh and BTW, we both got hijacked on the chestnut blog.

    December 23, 2011 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |
  11. chrissy

    lol to be expected, let me guess el philipo?

    December 23, 2011 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jeff Frank (R-Ohio) "Right Wing Insanity"

    Iraqis roasting on an open fire....for terrorists from one to ninety-two.

    December 23, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Report abuse |
  13. chrissy

    Whoa jeff, wrong/right, good/evil!

    December 23, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
  14. cindy

    Unfortunately this happens after all wars are over.

    December 23, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
  15. THE ONE AND ONLY DRAKOREX1

    YES PLEASE LETS INVITE ALL THE IRAQI S OVER ,THATS THE BEST IDEA IVE HEARD SINCE KAMAKAZI S. THERE WONT BE ANY TERRORIST IN THAT GROUP!

    December 24, 2011 at 1:47 am | Report abuse |
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