20 years after the invasion, Iraqis are still waiting to come to the United States

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ammar Rashed has a stack of letters from U.S. troops attesting to his work during some of the most dangerous days of the Iraq war. But six years after applying to immigrate to the United States under a program of interpreters who helped America, he is still waiting.

“You don’t have to make me and my family suffer for years,” Rashed said in a Skype interview from Jordan, where he lives. “It’s really frustrating.”

Rashed is one of thousands of Iraqis, many of whom risked their lives working closely with Americans during the war and its aftermath, trying to enter the United States. An estimated 164,000 Iraqis have already found homes in America.

US officials cite several reasons for the delays, including an attack on the US embassy in Baghdad, the hacking of a refugee database, the COVID-19 pandemic and cuts to the refugee program under then-President Donald Trump.

Sometimes the process is slowed down as applicants struggle to prove their US ties

Mohammed Subhi Hashim al-Shafeay, his wife and four children have been in limbo for a dozen years as he tries to document his work for a US security contractor in Iraq’s Justice Ministry.

They live as refugees in Jordan. But al-Shafeay can’t work and can’t afford to send his eldest child, a high school student, to college. Her youngest children resent school because Iraqi refugees have been exempted from paying school fees this year, unlike low-income Jordanians.

“It’s not a life. We want a future for our children,” he said.

The US invasion in 2003 sparked a vicious sectarian war that engulfed Iraq. Then the militants seized large swaths of territory. Iraqi forces have retaken their country amid intense fighting, but huge challenges remain, including rampant corruption, lack of basic services, ongoing violence and more than a million people still internally displaced from the country. Between the invasion and this year, no less than 300,000 Iraqis have been killed as well as more than 8,000 American soldiers, contractors and civilians.

Recognizing the role Iraqis have played in helping the United States, as well as the violence they have faced, the United States has put in place ways to help them emigrate.

According to the State Department, 106,000 applied for a program, known as the Direct Access Program, for people affiliated with the United States such as those who worked for a US non-governmental organization. There are also about 100 Iraqis who applied for a narrower special immigrant visa program for Iraqis who worked directly for or on behalf of the US government. This program stopped accepting applications in 2014, but applications already in the pipeline are still being processed.

Rashed applied through another route, which allows for 50 visas per year for interpreters who have a recommendation from a general.

Almost from the start, there have been complaints that the process to come to America is taking too long. Several jurisdictions have considered making programs more efficient without compromising security.

The State Department declined interview requests for this story. But in the reports, US officials noted measures such as adding staff to speed up visa processing. The embassy in the Iraqi capital just reopened limited consular services last fall after closing for three years following an attack in 2019. The government also noted the impact of the pandemic on visa processing in the world and the transfer of federal resources to the crisis in Ukraine. The US refugee program, which has suffered historic cuts under Trump, has only begun to show signs of recovery in recent months.

In January 2021, the United States suspended the direct access program after three people were accused of stealing information from a database of American refugees to fraudulently help Iraqis trying to emigrate. The program was only relaunched in March last year. As it reopened, the United States said it was “committed to ensuring that those who have sacrificed their own safety for our collective interests have the opportunity to seek refuge in the United States.”

For Iraqis still waiting, it can be confusing.

Al-Shafeay said he was hired by a US contractor to work as a bodyguard for the Iraqi Justice Ministry from 2003 to 2006, when he left Iraq. He said he was told the heist confirmed his employment, but it was difficult so many years later and far.

He and his wife worry about their children. Jordan has hosted tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees over the years, but these refugees struggle to obtain permission to work, especially in key professions, and are essentially barred from becoming citizens. Al-Shafeay wonders about his family’s future there. The family relies on donations from aid groups.

Al-Shafeay said the family were afraid to ever return to Iraq because a former brother-in-law, who is now a member of an Iran-backed militia, repeatedly threatened them. His eldest is a high school student but barely leaves his room. He says there is no point in studying because his parents cannot afford university fees in Jordan.

Ali Al Mshakheel is a former Iraqi journalist now living in Maine. He said he heard almost daily from Iraqis in America trying to help family or friends still in Iraq. Al Mshakheel himself has four siblings and a father whom he tried to help emigrate. During the program’s suspension, he wrote an op-ed calling on the Biden administration to unblock it. Even now, he sees little progress.

Rashed and al-Shafeay still want to come to the United States

Rashed has spent most of his life in Iraq. Now it’s too dangerous for him there because of the work he did for the US military. He said he worked with US troops in 2008 who were fighting the Mahdi Army, supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr. But now, as al-Sadr has become an important political figure, his supporters are increasingly in positions of power. Rashed is both a Jordanian and an Iraqi citizen, but he sees no future for his children in Jordan.

“I need them to live better with a better nation and a better future,” he said.

The people working to help her are also frustrated. Rashed’s attorney, Wes Pickard, said Rashed completed his consular interview in 2019. At that time, the visa process could reasonably be expected to go quickly after that.

Since then, Rashed has been stuck in what’s called “denied administrative processing” – background checks – with little indication of when the process will end.

Jennifer Patota, a lawyer for the International Refugee Assistance Project, said there are a number of reasons why people might get stuck in background checks – their name is similar to someone else’s about which the government has suspicions, for example.

Kevin Brown worked with Rashed on two tours in Iraq and wrote him a letter of recommendation. Now retired from the military and living in Connecticut, Brown said it was frustrating to hear that someone he worked so closely with — “his right arm” — is still waiting.

Brown said he would like Rashed to become an American citizen “But if he can’t be, I would like to know why.”


Associated Press reporters Karin Laub and Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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