Thursday, April 12, 2007


By William Fisher

As the numbers of Iraqi refugees continue to grow exponentially, the American president who earned a reputation as a bumbler who couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time is increasingly being hailed as the hero who dealt effectively with a similar crisis forty years ago.

The president was Gerald R. Ford, and the similar crisis was in Vietnam. On the evening of April 10, 1975, President Ford appealed to a joint session of Congress to act to ensure the safety of “tens of thousands of South Vietnamese employees of the United States Government, of news agencies, of contractors and businesses for many years, whose lives, with their dependents, are in very grave peril. There are tens of thousands of other South Vietnamese intellectuals, professors, teachers, editors, and opinion leaders who have supported the South Vietnamese cause and the alliance with the United States to whom we have a profound moral obligation.”

Only a month later, Congress passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act. As a result, more than 131,000 Vietnamese refugees were rescued from the chaos of South Vietnam, and brought to the security of the US.

Today, the refugee crises are largely in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan. Thus far, more than two million Iraqi refugees have fled from persecution and sectarian violence. They have mostly traveled to Jordan and Syria. In addition, at least 1.8 million are displaced within Iraq.

According to Human Rights First, tens of thousands of these refugees have been targeted because of their work for the US government, non-governmental organizations or the media. Iraqis who have served as translators for the US forces, for example, have frequently been attacked and threatened.

Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch and author of an extensive report on the situation, says, "As it turns out, many of the people who are fleeing are fleeing because of their associations with the United States."

The chances are President Ford would not have been proud of the US response to the current refugee crisis. At a January 2007 oversight hearing on “The Plight of Iraqi Refugees,” Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) expressed concern that the US admitted only 202 Iraqi refugees to the country during fiscal 2006 and that a special immigrant visa program for Iraqi and Afghan translators already had a six-year wait list. Since April 2003, the Bush Administration has admitted exactly 692 Iraqi refugees, and the number of those in need is growing by an estimated 50,000 a month.

In February 2007, under considerable pressure from congress and the media, the State Department announced that the US would admit 7,000 Iraqi refugees in through its resettlement program; create special programs to assist Iraqis who are at risk because of their employment or close association with the United States government; and contribute $18 million to the work of the UN High Commission for Refugees. But at the same time, the Bush Administration admitted that it probably would not be able to move more than two or three thousand Iraqis by the end of September, a period of eight months.

What accounts for this admittedly constipated performance? In 1975, President Ford confronted a public weary of an unpopular, unsuccessful war, but got Congress to deliver anyway. Today, President Bush faces similar sentiments regarding the five-year-plus US intervention in Iraq.

The difference, according to national security, human rights and governmental sources, is 9/11. Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, Americans have lived in an environment of fear. At the top of their fear list are Middle Eastern immigrants, who are seen as potential terrorists.

As a consequence of 9/11, the DHS established rigorous criteria for granting asylum to those from all other countries – and these criteria apply to people who have become refugees because of the American invasion of their country. The DHS, however, lacked and still lacks the resources to carry out its mandated security checks on would-be asylum-seekers. Each Iraqi must be interviewed individually, including translators, truck drivers and others who have worked for the US military, which presumably carried out its own security checks before they were hired.

Because of security concerns, they cannot be interviewed at the American Embassy in Baghdad. If they have fled to Jordan, Syria, or other countries in the region, they must be interviewed there. This means dispatching DHS or State Department screeners overseas, where few wish to go. And before interviews can take place, applicants must be referred to American authorities by the UN. That process calls for resources the UN doesn’t have, and predictably involves a mountain of bureaucratic paperwork.

For example, last year Congress passed legislation to offer special immigrant status to persons serving as translators with the US Armed Forces. Under this statute, a limited number of translators and their immediate family may immigrate to the United States in each fiscal year.

But applicants are required to jump through multiple bureaucratic hoops to qualify. They must be able to prove they have worked directly with the US Armed Forces as a translator for a period of at least 12 months; obtain a favorable written recommendation from a General or Flag Officer in the chain of command of the US Armed Forces unit that was supported by the translator; cleared a background check and screening as determined by a General or Flag Officer; is otherwise eligible to receive an immigrant visa and is otherwise admissible to the US for permanent residence.

Spouses and children of the translator may be able to follow or join after the translator has adjusted status or been issued an immigrant visa.

The bill specifies that the US Armed Forces unit is the “advocate” on behalf the translator and his/her immediate family. The translator must file the petition and related documents directly with the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), which is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

There are clearly problems with this legislation. For one thing, for people who have fled their country in fear of their lives frequently have no access to the extensive documentation required by this law. Nor, if they have already left Iraq for another country, do they have access to the Generals or Flag Officers of the units they worked for.

But the most consequential provision of the legislation is its limited scope. The total number of Iraqi and Afghani translators who may be provided special immigrant translator status during each fiscal year cannot exceed 50. The Department of Homeland Security’s Nebraska Service Center is mandated to track this numerical cap. As of January, this cap was exceeded by more than 6,000 applicants.

This situation has produced major heartburn for Ellen R. Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, who has been grilled by both House and Senate oversight committees. Many of the members of these bodies strongly opposed her nomination to her current post based on lack of experience.

Ms. Sauerbrey was a recess appointment in January 2006. She is a two-time failed gubernatorial candidate in Maryland and previously served as US envoy on women's issues to the United Nations, where she opposed ratification of the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Sauerbrey has also worked as a Republican National Committeewoman, and is former Minority Leader of the Maryland House of Delegates. She was a Republican member of the House of Delegates from 1978 to 1994 and was candidate for governor in 1994 and 1998.

A former public school teacher, Sauerbrey has no prior experience dealing with refugee populations. She also has no experience dealing with human disasters.

Given that a large percentage of refugees tend to be women and children, Sauerbrey's stance on reproductive rights is relevant. According to Planned Parenthood, she is anti-abortion and believes that it is not a legitimate element of reproductive health assistance. She also approves withholding funding to the United Nations Population Fund and has denied that adolescents have any right to exercise autonomous control over their reproductive health.

With Democrats now in control of both the House and the Senate, Sauerbrey and the Bush Administration’s policies on Iraqi and Afghan refugees find themselves subjected to robust oversight for the first time. But even if Congress is able to bring about positive policy changes, and adopt regulations to streamline refugee processing, it remains unclear whether the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security have the resources and the professional know-how to implement the changes efficiently.