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Under Donald Trump, Iraqis Who Helped US in War are Stalled in Refugee System

An estimated 110,000 Iraqis are waiting to be approved as refugees based on their wartime assistance, but the Donald Trump administration has capped the number eligible this year at 4,000.

New York Times

Updated:November 3, 2019, 8:46 AM IST
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Under Donald Trump, Iraqis Who Helped US in War are Stalled in Refugee System
People fleeing territory held by the Islamic State group near Mosul, Iraq on March 7, 2017. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

Washington: The Trump administration is refusing to take in thousands of Iraqis who risked their lives helping US forces during the Iraq War, cutting the number of high-priority refugees allowed into the United States this year and drastically slowing background checks they must undergo.

Only 153 Iraqi refugees whose applications were given high priority were admitted in the fiscal year that ended in September — down from a high of 9,829 in the 2014 fiscal year, according to government data obtained by The New York Times.

An estimated 110,000 Iraqis are waiting to be approved as refugees based on their wartime assistance. But on Friday, the Trump administration capped the number eligible this year at 4,000.

After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that forced Saddam Hussein from power, thousands of Iraqis worked with US troops, diplomats and contractors, serving as translators and cultural advisers. Those Iraqis and their families were threatened, and in many cases attacked, by Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias who accused them of siding with Americans during the eight-year war.

Suhad Munshid left Iraq and resettled in Missoula, Montana, in April — nearly seven years after she applied for a priority refugee visa. The “semi-impossible” application process will probably keep her sister in Iraq from receiving priority status, she said in an interview Friday.

“I have my only sister living in Baghdad,” she said. “It’s really concerning with what is going on, and I have to call her every day to make sure she is OK.”

Munshid’s brother-in-law worked as a cook for US troops in Iraq in 2006, and her family’s home was used as a safe house for soldiers who needed to rest during patrols in Sadr City, a poor neighbourhood in Baghdad. But only after the United States declared in 2011 that the war was over and withdrew most of its troops did Munshid come to believe that she and her family needed to move to the US to escape rampant bombings and increasing instability.

“Every time that I went out, I was not certain that I would make it back home,” said Munshid, 36, speaking through an interpreter. She now works at a TJ Maxx in Missoula, stocking shelves; her husband is a chef at a local Indian restaurant.

In an official notice issued late Friday, President Donald Trump capped the number of worldwide refugees the United States will admit in the 2020 fiscal year at 18,000, a record low. The move, which had been expected for weeks, was meant to protect what Trump described as refugees of “special humanitarian concern.”

Last year, 30,000 refugees were allowed into the United States. During President Barack Obama’s last year in office, 110,000 were admitted.

Overall, about 300,000 people worldwide are actively seeking refugee status to enter the United States. The new cap means that 6% of them have a chance of being admitted over the next year, amid what the United Nations has declared a worldwide crisis involving nearly 26 million refugees, half of whom are children.

It is also the first year that the United States has set limits for groups of refugees based on the threats they face at home, as opposed to what part of the world they are from.

Of the 18,000 refugees who will be admitted this year, 5,000 slots are reserved for people persecuted for their religion, 4,000 for high-priority Iraqis and 1,500 for Central Americans. The remaining 7,500 slots will be open to those applying from elsewhere in the world.

But two government officials said that far fewer high-priority Iraqi refugees were expected to be admitted in 2020.

Interviews for applicants — a necessary step in the refugee process — have been slowed and significantly limited since the US Embassy in Baghdad and Consulate in Irbil, Iraq, ordered all nonessential employees out of Iraq for security reasons in May, officials said.

As a result, very few of the estimated 110,000 Iraqis who appear to be eligible for the refugee program have been interviewed by immigration officers or undergone other screening processes necessary before they can move to the United States, officials said. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to more frankly discuss an internal and politically delicate issue.

A spokesman for US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which conducts the interviews, said teams of refugee officers continue to travel to the Middle East, including to Iraq, to interview applicants on what are known as “circuit rides.” The spokesman would not say when the last circuit ride in Iraq had been conducted, citing security concerns.

A State Department spokeswoman said fewer high-priority Iraqi refugees had been admitted to the United States in part because of tougher background checks ordered by Trump last year. “The security checks take time, but they are critical,” she said.

Since the 2008 fiscal year, the United States has accepted 47,331 Iraqi refugees under the Direct Access Program, giving priority in the resettlement process to those who were affiliated with the U.S. government during the Iraq War. Of those, 3,249 were accepted during the first three years of the Trump administration, the government data show.

Initially, the Pentagon had requested that 6,000 slots be given to high-priority Iraqi refugees for the 2020 fiscal year. But others in the Trump administration, wary of a continued threat from the Islamic State, fought to lower the number of Iraqis, viewing them as a security risk.

Over the summer, the Department of Homeland Security deported Jimmy Aldaoud, who was born in Greece to Iraqi parents and had lived in the United States since he was an infant. He had accumulated at least 20 criminal convictions over 20 years and was sent to Iraq, where he had never lived and did not speak the language.

His death in Baghdad — alone, sick and begging to return to his family in Detroit — outraged lawmakers and human rights activists.

A new spate of unrest across Iraq — weeks of violent demonstrations by protesters who demand public services and are challenging government corruption — has made refugee applicants all the more anxious.

Munshid, who was resettled by the International Rescue Committee in Missoula, said she never considered leaving Iraq during the war. It was only after the U.S. military withdrew and the tenuous security began to unravel that she listened to the urgings of her brother-in-law, who moved to Seattle in 2010.

“He started telling us how safe it is here in America and how people could leave prosperous lives,” she said in Arabic.

Then, for the only time in a 23-minute interview, she switched to halting English.

“I like America,” she said.

Lara Jakes c.2019 The New York Times Company

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