12 Years After Invading, the US Still Has Its Back Turned on Iraqi Refugees

Zahra Naaim and Balqes Youssif stand next to a destroyed vehicle in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, April 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

Dr. Bravo, as he’s dubbed in a recent legal document, is an Iraqi doctor living in Baghdad. In 2009 he began working with a US government contractor to provide medical care to American soldiers and other staff at Camp Dublin, a military base near the Iraqi capital. Later that year, he found a note on his door. Its anonymous author called him a “traitor” and threatened to kill his wife.

The menacing notes and phone calls stacked up over the years, eventually pushing the doctor to apply for a Special Immigrant Visa through a program that Congress created in 2008 to help Iraqis employed by the US escape retaliation. In June 2011 the embassy in Baghdad approved his application, ruling that he indeed faced a “serious threat” as a consequence of his work with the Americans. Today, Dr. Bravo is still stuck in Baghdad, his application pending in bureaucratic purgatory.

On the twelfth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, there are more than a thousand Iraqis waiting for a decision on their SIV applications. Upwards of 6,000 have been resettled in the United States since Congress enacted the program, but that is far less than the program was intended to cover. Estimates for the number of Iraqis whose work for the US government or coalition partners may have put them in danger run as high as 110,000, while the US invasion displaced millions of other Iraqis. During the first several years after the enactment of the SIV program, thousands of visas expired, unused, while the backlog of applicants grew. The pace picked up in 2013 when Congress gave the government a nine-month window to approve or reject applicants. Lawmakers extended the program that year and again the following summer. Nevertheless, there are many people like Dr. Bravo whose applications remain frozen, for no discernable reason besides ineptitude or negligence.

Dr. Bravo is one of nine plaintiffs in a suit filed earlier this month by the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and a nonprofit law firm against the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. The plaintiffs, identified only by pseudonyms out of concern for their safety, include interpreters, an engineer and a community liaison. On average they’ve been waiting to hear about their visa applications for four years and three months. One has been waiting for more than five years.

The suit alleges that this delay puts the plaintiffs and their families at risk of “serious and continuing danger,” and “casts profound doubt upon the credibility of the promises made by the United State to individuals in Iraq…who have been, or may in the future be, willing to put their lives and families in danger to assist the United States in times of conflict.” The suit calls for “prompt administrative action” in light of the serious threats against them. As recently as October, for example, the plaintiff Mr. Foxtrot was attacked on a Baghdad highway by gunmen who shattered his windshield and lodged several bullets in his car door. A month later he received a text that read, “Don’t think we forget you, dog.”

Katie Reisner, the national policy director of IRAP, blamed a “bureaucratic morass” for the delay. She suspects the hold-up is due to the background check process, which she described as “unnecessarily cumbersome” and “a black box” involving intelligence from multiple agencies. She hopes the lawsuit will prompt the government to streamline the process and make clearing the backlog a priority.

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The situation for Iraqis with ties to the United States (and for those without) has only grown more dire in the past year as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham swept through Iraqi cities and cut off refugee routes to Kurdistan and neighboring countries, as George Packer has described. “Evidence of any US affiliation is so dangerous that destroying it in the event of an Islamic State occupation is key to survival,” the lawsuit contends. It goes on to note that ISIS is not the only threat to Iraqi allies, citing increased activity by anti-American militias.

“These folks have been effectively robbed of years of their lives,” Reisner said. “This is their best shot for a safe and new life, and they haven’t gotten an answer yet.”

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