WASHINGTON – Thousands of Iraqis whose support for the U.S. war effort in Iraq has put them and their families in grave danger at home are being excluded from a new fast-track system aimed at speeding up refugee resettlement in the United States for American allies, officials said Thursday.
The Bush administration within the next month will begin accepting refugee applications directly from the about 100 Iraqi employees of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and their relatives, letting them bypass an often-lengthy U.N. referral process in third countries where they must travel at great expense, they said.
But possibly tens of thousands more at-risk Iraqis -- those who worked for private contractors, aid agencies or media outlets and their relatives -- won't be eligible due to objections from the Homeland Security Department, which fears that terrorists might use it to slip into the country, the officials said.
Homeland Security is effectively blocking contract employees, like drivers, translators, technicians, from benefiting from the initiative by insisting they provide official U.S. references and sponsors before applying for resettlement, a more stringent standard than for direct hires and even those in the U.N. system, according to the officials.
Meeting that higher bar will be almost impossible for many whose work for private U.S. employers in Iraq ended months or years ago, the officials said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations between Homeland Security, which must vet all would-be Iraqi refugees, and the State Department, which wants to widen resettlement opportunities for Iraqi refugees.
The two agencies have been unable to reach a compromise and the issue has been referred to the National Security Council, although the matter may be resolved before that happens through legislation pending in Congress.
That legislation would include Iraqi contract employees in the so-called P2 refugee category. Those in that category are considered to be members of groups of "special humanitarian concern" to the United States and have the right to apply for resettlement in the United States directly instead of having to seek help from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
The State Department's position is that security safeguards are already built into Homeland Security's own vetting process and that expanding the P2 category does not guarantee any applicant entry to the United States as a refugee, only the chance to apply directly.
Lori Scialabba, a top immigration lawyer at Homeland Security, acknowledged the disagreements but expressed hope that they could be resolved.
"I'm sure State would say that they're just as concerned with security as we are, and we're just as concerned with assisting this group of people as State is," she said. "We're working things out."