In its revised executive order, the Trump administration dropped Iraq from the list of Muslim-majority countries for whom travel to the United States is suspended for 90 days.
The move came after heavy lobbying from the Iraqi government, plus an outcry from veterans and U.S. diplomats in Iraq who said banning Iraqis from coming to the US represented a betrayal of the very people who risked their lives to work with the U.S. government.
Trump’s new executive order explains why the White House decided it now made sense to remove Iraq from its list of banned countries, saying, “The close cooperative relationship between the United States and the democratically elected Iraqi government, the strong United States diplomatic presence in Iraq, the significant presence of United States forces in Iraq, and Iraq’s commitment to combat ISIS justify different treatment for Iraq.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters after the revised order was signed Monday that Iraq’s government had taken steps to improve their vetting process. He listed “biometrics” and “updating lists of people within their country that pose a threat” as some of the specific steps Iraq took after the first travel ban.
So now Iraqis, who qualify for the Special Immigrant Visa program (well known as a bureaucratic nightmare that few successfully navigate), can still come to the US, but, Iraqi refugees — arguably those most in danger if they stay in Iraq — are still included in Trump’s overall refugee ban, which is scheduled to last at least 120 days.
This problem is highlighted in a new letter (full text) sent to President Donald Trump and signed by over 130 former senior U.S. government officials from both Democratic and Republican Administrations.
“We remain concerned that the Iraqis who risked their lives to work with the U.S. military, U.S. government and other U.S. organizations will be left in harm’s way for even longer due to the order’s 120-day suspension of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and overall reduction in refugee admissions,” the former officials write.
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The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act was enacted in 2008 to give certain categories of Iraqis priority access to U.S. resettlement under the refugee program. It included those who worked directly for the U.S. government, but also Iraqis who worked for American media companies or NGOs, or local organizations that received grant money from the U.S. government, plus any spouses, children, siblings or parents whose lives were also endangered through this work.
In 2016, the U.S. State Department anticipated admitting up to 15,000 Iraqis under the refugee program. Iraqis were among the largest numbers of refugees settled in the US that year, in addition to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Syria. The UN estimates there are 3 million internally displaced people in Iraq, and 251,000 Iraqi refugees hosted by neighboring countries in the region.
The resettlement to the US of these Iraqi refugees “like that of many other vetted refugees, will now likely be delayed as security clearances and other approvals expire, adding many more months onto their processing,” the letter to Trump says. “The United States has a moral obligation to protect these allies.”
A problem for the administration may be that any exemption for one country will likely invite requests for similar exemptions from others during the period in which the overall system is under review.
In order to qualify for resettlement in the US as a refugee — whether you come from Iraq or anywhere else — multiple layers of reviews, security checks and interviews have to take place, usually stretching the process out many years. When a security or medical clearance expires, it could significantly set the process back. This means that if and when the ban is lifted, those in the refugee-approval process don’t get to pick up where they left off. Instead, they may have to start all over, which could take years and put them in even more danger.
Statistically, refugees are among the least likely to commit crimes in the US. Still, the Trump administration wants to review the policies and procedures in place for vetting refugee applications, and it put the 120-day ban in place until it completes this study.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan has reportedly halted interviews for people applying for special visas, which are designed to help those who assisted U.S. troops in Afghanistan and whose lives are now in danger because of it. Afghanistan is not on the list of six countries temporarily banned from travel to the US.