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Security Clearances Identified as a Impediment to Timely Resettlement of Iraqi Refugees, including U.S. Affiliated Iraqis

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By Jesse Bernstein, Pennoyer Fellow/Senior Associate- Refugee Protection Program and Ruthie Epstein, Researcher & Advocate- Refugee Protection Program

The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies recently issued a new report finding that U.S. efforts to bring U.S.-affiliated Iraqis to safety still fail to meet the needs of tens of thousands of Iraqis at risk because of their work with the U.S. government or U.S. organizations and media outlets.

The List Project's Kirk Johnson warns that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that does not contain a serious and comprehensive contingency plan to ensure the protection of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis is both strategically and morally shortsighted. The group is urging the Obama administration to plan for a potential evacuation of these U.S.-affiliated Iraqis.

The List Project's report highlights several significant problems with the existing systems to provide refugee resettlement or Special Immigrant Visas to U.S.-affiliated Iraqis facing danger in the region - problems that are long overdue for repair. These systems are intended to provide safety to Iraqis who have taken real risks in order to support U.S. efforts in Iraq. Yet, as Human Rights First documented in its April 2009 report "Promises to the Persecuted: The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2008," the U.S. government can take a year or more to complete all of the necessary processing. In the meantime, Iraqis with pending resettlement applications to the United States remain in Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and elsewhere in dangerous and vulnerable situations.

The List Project flagged that "a significant portion of bottlenecks and delays happen at the security processing stage." That finding is consistent with Human Rights First research showing that the "necessary multi-agency security clearance process appears to lack adequate staffing or coordination among agencies, and often leaves Iraqis and other refugees and immigrants languishing in destitution or danger abroad for months or years while their applications wait for approval in Washington." The U.S. Government Accountability Office has noted that, according to the State Department, "if serious delays occur in any one [refugee] case, they are generally due to the time it takes to complete security clearances." In April 2010, the Office of the Ombudsman of the Department of Homeland Security similarly found that Iraqi refugees can "face extended processing delays due to security screening by other U.S. governmental agencies."

Human Rights First is continuing to document this serious problem. On a May 2010 fact finding mission to Jordan, the organization interviewed numerous Iraqis who had been waiting up to four years for their security clearance to clear. In the coming weeks, Human Rights First will issue a report detailing our findings during this mission and identifying comprehensive reform recommendations. These reforms will build on our consistent calls, both in public reports and in letters, for the Obama administration to review and improve the staffing and coordination among the many agencies involved in the security clearance process. Such improvements would enable Iraqis and other refugees who meet the requirements for admission to the United States to move through the system in a timely and effective manner, an important step that could end months or years of waiting as requests for resettlement remain unresolved. U.S.-affiliated Iraqis, amongst many other Iraqi refugees, remain at risk today. The Obama Administration and Congress should not overlook the plight of Iraqi refugees. It is long past time for the United States to tackle this important issue.