WASHINGTON – The U.S. government has failed repeatedly to protect and shelter Iraqi allies from violence and threats,a commission reported Wednesday.
The Commission on Security & Cooperation in Europe,also called the Helsinki commission,led by Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla.,met for a briefing called “The Forgotten: Iraqi Allies Failed by the U.S.”
The briefing focused on Iraqi allies whose service to the U.S. government puts their lives in danger at home.
One such Iraqi testified at the briefing as a witness to this growing problem. The refugee's identity was disguised to protect members of his family still living in Iraq,and the commission referred to him as “Ibrahim.”
Ibrahim began working for the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2003,and as the American war in Iraq grew worse,his Iraqi peers began to consider him a traitor. Street vendors threatened him,his 67-year-old mother was attacked and beaten and an Iraqi policeman assaulted him.
“Sadly,like so many other Iraqis who worked for the Americans,my life became a horror movie,” Ibrahim said. “The only thing the Americans did for me was to offer an empty promise of help.”
Kirk Johnson,another witness at the briefing,worked in Iraq in 2005 as a reconstruction coordinator for USAID. When one of Johnson's Iraqi colleagues received similar threats for working for the U.S. government,Johnson stepped in to help,creating a non-profit organization called The List: Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies.
The group has teamed up with several law firms,working for free,to resettle Iraqis who have been threatened for their work with the U.S. government.
“We have all been compelled by a sense of moral obligation to help these allies whose decision to aid us in Iraq has cost them their country,” Johnson said.
Johnson's list has nearly 1,000 names,including Iraqi State Department employees,military interpreters and employees of USAID. Of these,Johnson said,only 31 have been admitted to the United States as refugees.
Ibrahim is one of them. Johnson helped resettle him in the United States after Ibrahim fled to India and then Egypt,where he was tortured in an Egyptian prison for three weeks. He is now living in New York and has a job.
Ibrahim said Johnson was the only friend he had during his darkest hours and that he felt his life was worthless to the Americans he had worked for.
Although Congress has demonstrated its commitment to the Iraqi immigration issue by passing the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act,Johnson said the president has still shown little leadership on the issue.
“To date,he has not uttered a syllable as to what he thinks our country owes Iraqis who are being hunted for assassination as a consequence of helping us,” Johnson said.
Johnson also noted that the traditional process for screening refugees,established by the departments of State and Homeland Security,is inadequate to deal with emergency situations like those facing many Iraqi allies.
Laura Keehner,spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security,said the department is committed to resettling all legitimate Iraqi refugees.
“We are working extremely hard to welcome as many Iraqi refugees as possible who are in need of resettlement,while at the same time ensuring that those individuals who come over are not exploiting the system,” she said.
Keehner said the department has decreased the amount of time the screening process takes for Iraqi refugees to half the time it would take for any other refugee.
“We agreed to work with UNHCR to accept 7,000 applications last year,” Keehner said,referring to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. “We ended up accepting more than 14,000 applications. So we doubled what we anticipated we could handle. So right there,that shows you our sincere commitment.”
Johnson emphasized that a mass airlift of refugees to a military base in Guam or Kuwait would be a fast,effective way to keep Iraqi allies safe during their immigration screening interviews. Ibrahim agreed.
“Why can't America send a plane,not with bombs this time,but to evacuate those most at risk in Iraq?” Ibrahim asked.
Johnson noted that effective precedents for a mass resettlement movement have already been set by Great Britain and Denmark,and even by the U.S.
In 1975,for example,more than 110,000 Vietnamese allies to the United States were airlifted to Guam,where they were processed for resettlement to the United States in a matter of months.
And in 1996,President Bill Clinton ordered Operation Pacific Haven,which flew nearly 7,000 Iraqis from the north to a military base in Guam for immigration processing.
After alluding to issues of prejudice,Hastings noted that Clinton's program occurred before Sept. 11.
“Folks don't like to talk about intolerance,” Hastings said. “Folks don't like to talk about discrimination.”
Hastings said he is working with several other representatives on legislation about the issue and wants to investigate the airlift model used in 1996 further. He also said he wants to request information from the Department of Homeland Security about its Iraqi refugee policy and ask the president that his administration become more involved with the department on the issue.
“It's a humanitarian disaster in the making,” Hastings said.