Bill unveiled to address ‘nightmare’ of Iraqi refugees

Legislation introduced Wednesday by a House lawmaker would increase assistance for Iraqi refugees abroad and expedite the resettlement of refugees and their families who have worked for U.S. agencies, companies and aid groups in Iraq.

The bill (H.R. 3674) sponsored by Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., notes that since March 2003, the United States has admitted 1,459 Iraqi refugees while neighboring Jordan and Syria have admitted 750,000 and 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, respectively.

Earlier this year, the United States pledged to admit 7,000 refugees in 2007, but that number was later reduced to 2,000; fewer than 1,000 have been admitted thus far. The slow pace of processing Iraqi applications to come to the United States has provoked a storm of criticism from other nations, aid groups, members of Congress and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who reportedly sent an angry cable to Washington earlier this month demanding that bureaucratic bottlenecks be addressed.

"Iraqis are the third largest displaced population in the world and the fastest-growing refugee population globally," Hastings said in a statement. "We cannot ignore this crisis."

Hastings added that "the nightmare that Iraqi refugees are facing is unfathomable," and threatens to destabilize the entire region.

The bill would authorize the Homeland Security secretary to confer special immigrant status for Iraqis employed by the U.S. government, U.S. companies or nongovernmental organizations in Iraq for at least a year, who fear reprisal, persecution, injury or death as a result of their support for the U.S. mission in Iraq. Immediate family members would receive protection as well.

The bill also would require the Homeland Security and State departments to expedite processing and streamline the screening of refugees, as well as double the number of Homeland Security officials conducting interviews with refugees. Up to 20,000 Iraqis would be admitted into the United States each year from 2008 through 2010, under the legislation.

It also would authorize spending $700 million annually from 2008 through 2010 for refugee relief in Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iran and Lebanon and $500 million annually over the same period to provide training, personnel and technology to improve border security in Jordan.

Last week, Homeland Security and State both appointed senior civil servants with experience in immigration and refugee affairs to coordinate and advise the department secretaries on ways of improving the screening and admittance process. Lori Scialabba at Homeland Security and James Foley at State have been instructed to improve coordination between the two departments, which have primary responsibility for screening and admitting refugees.

Hastings, chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission on security and cooperation in Europe, wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month to press for greater urgency in dealing with the refugee crisis.

"The United States has a responsibility to provide leadership in addressing this expanding humanitarian crisis," Hastings wrote in the Aug. 20 letter. "I am . . . concerned that we are not doing enough."

Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., and James McGovern, D-Mass., are co-sponsors of the legislation.

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