The U.S. ambassador to Iraq warned that it may take the U.S. government as long as two years to process and admit nearly 10,000 Iraqi refugees referred by the United Nations for resettlement to the United States, because of bureaucratic bottlenecks.
In a bluntly worded State Department cable titled "Iraqi Refugee Processing: Can We Speed It Up?" Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker noted that the Department of Homeland Security had only a handful of officers in Jordan to vet the refugees.
Bush administration officials in Washington immediately disputed several of Crocker's claims.
Still, the "sensitive" but unclassified memo, sent Sept. 7, laid out a wrenching, ground-level view of the U.S. government's halting response to Iraq's refugee crisis. Human rights groups and independent analysts say thousands of desperate Iraqis who have worked alongside Americans now find themselves the targets of insurgents and sectarian militias, prompting many of them to seek residency in the United States or Europe.
Although the subject was little addressed during Crocker's and Gen. David H. Petraeus's public testimony to Congress last week on the state of the war, the envoy has raised the issue in two cables in the past two months. The subject is likely to be discussed when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets this week with congressional leaders to outline the administration's refugee admissions goals for 2008 and when the Senate resumes its Iraq war debate.
About 2 million Iraqis are displaced inside Iraq, and an estimated 2.2 million more have fled to Syria, Jordan and other neighboring countries, where they are straining local resources and threatening to destabilize host communities, the United Nations has reported. With 60,000 Iraqis fleeing their homes each month, Jordan largely closed its borders to Iraqis earlier this year, and Syria said yesterday that it will begin requiring visas for Iraqis at the conclusion of Ramadan next month, essentially closing off exit routes from the country.
In response, the U.S. government has provided more than $122 million in refugee aid to Iraq's neighbors this year, and U.S. allies are accepting tens of thousands of refugees. Washington also has expanded from 50 to 500 an annual quota on visas for Iraqis working as interpreters and translators for the U.S. Embassy and military, and in February it promised to process 7,000 refugees by Sept. 30, although U.S. officials later said they expected only 2,000 to be admitted to the United States by then.
In his missive, Crocker said the admission of Iraqi refugees to the United States remains bogged down by "major bottlenecks" resulting from security reviews conducted by the departments of State and Homeland Security. Applicants must wait eight to 10 months from the time they are referred to U.S. authorities by the U.N. refugee agency before they set foot in the United States, he said.
"Resettlement takes too long," Crocker wrote.
Each DHS case officer in Jordan can interview only four cases a day on average because of the in-depth questioning required, and just a handful of officers were in the region, partly because Syria refuses to issue visas to DHS personnel, Crocker said. "It would take this team alone almost two years to complete" interviews on 10,000 U.N. referrals, he estimated.
As more Iraqis flee, he noted, delays are "likely to grow considerably."
"Refugees who have fled Iraq continue to be a vulnerable population while living in Jordan and Syria," he wrote. "The basis for . . . resettlement is the deteriorating protection environment in these countries."
Crocker suggested fast-tracking security checks for Iraqis, doubling the number of interviewing officers in Jordan and continuing to push Syria to issue visas. But he also suggested what he called "real alternatives," such as allowing State Department officers to conduct interviews, arranging DHS interviews by video from Washington or allowing Iraqis who work for the U.S. Embassy to go through the process in Iraq, instead of outside the country.
In a letter to Crocker the following day, Emilio T. Gonzalez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, wrote that the ambassador's cable "does not reflect an accurate picture of DHS's commitment or performance to date." Gonzalez disputed many of Crocker's points and blamed the State Department, which has overall responsibility for the U.S. refugee program, and its partner agents, called Overseas Processing Entities. They handle initial security screening, medical examinations, sponsorships and orientation for applicants.
"It is the OPE's capacity to prescreen the Iraqi cases . . . that has been driving the pace of the Iraqi program," Gonzalez wrote. "I can assure you categorically that USCIS has sent refugee officers to conduct every interview requested" by State.
Gonzalez acknowledged that Syria is a problem, but he said authorities have cut processing time for cases to four to six months, not the eight to 10 months cited by Crocker. Paul Rosenzweig, a DHS deputy assistant secretary for policy, also disputed the idea of a two-year backlog, saying the administration expects to be able to process 12,000 refugees next year and has ramped up operations quickly.
But progress to date has been slow. Since February, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees has referred about 10,000 Iraqis to the U.S. refugee program . The State Department, however, has admitted just 829 Iraqis this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, and officials caution that they may admit only about 1,750 by the end of the year.
Since 2003, the year of the U.S. invasion, the United States has admitted 1,521 Iraqi refugees.
A spokesman for Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, declined to comment on internal deliberations. In an e-mail obtained by The Washington Post, she agreed with DHS's corrections to "many errors" in Crocker's cable.
Several State Department officials said Crocker's intention was to "galvanize" Washington to meet expectations and called any mistakes "honest misunderstandings" based on his perception in the field.
"The numbers are not where we hoped they'd be," a State Department diplomat said.
‘Everyone is sort of pointing fingers’
Amelia Templeton, spokeswoman for Human Rights First, which provided a copy of the cable to The Post, praised Crocker's "clear-sighted analysis" of the plight faced by Iraqis whose lives are in limbo and who are running out of money, but expressed disappointment about "talk and not much substance" from the administration on refugee resettlement.
"What we've seen consistently in all of this is State trying to point to [the U.N. refugee agency] as the point of delay, DHS pointing to State -- everyone is sort of pointing fingers, and nobody is taking responsibility for getting people here in a timely fashion," she said.
In the Senate, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) will propose attaching legislation backed by a dozen lawmakers in both parties to a defense authorization bill this week; it would expand refugee and immigrant visa programs for Iraqis, including those threatened because they helped U.S. reconstruction efforts.
"Ambassador Crocker's plea for help is the latest reminder that the administration has failed to adequately address the enormity of this situation," Kennedy said in a statement, vowing to "cut through the red tape." He added, "While we can't solve the problem alone, the least we can do is our part to allow those at risk to resettle here."