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.