They Can’t Go Home Again

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Pitiful response

Despite their woes, both families seem resolutely optimistic and say they have no intention of returning to Iraq. And when friends and family update them about life in Baghdad, it puts Michigan’s shortfalls in perspective.

“Our family is still over there and it’s just such a dangerous life,” Samir says. “The main things we hear about are the services. There’s almost no water, electric [or] transportation.”

Mona says that when they fled, they left their home fully furnished. Insurgents have since moved in. “We can’t go back,” she says, “or we’d be killed.”

Given this context, the Bush administration’s response to the displacement crisis has been pitiful. From 2003 to 2007, the White House — which instigated the war and made scores of Iraqis vulnerable by employing them as translators and drivers — refused to acknowledge the existence of a crisis at all, resettling a mere 466 refugees into the United States.

Rising violence and growing attention to the emergency forced President Bush’s hand in early 2007. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice created a high-level State Department task force on the refugee issue and promised to resettle 25,000 Iraqis. But over the course of the year, that target dropped to 7,000, and later to 2,000. By year’s end, only 1,608 Iraqis had been admitted.

The number of refugees processed each month would have to triple for the administration to meet its new 2008 goal of resettling 12,000 refugees. And on March 11, the State Department’s Senior Coordinator of Iraqi Refugee Issues James B. Foley told the House subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia that reaching that number is “not guaranteed.”

By contrast, Sweden, a nation of 9 million people, has resettled more than 90,000 Iraqis, in spite of its opposition to the invasion. The Center for American Progress’ Katulis and his colleagues have advocated that the United States should take in at least 100,000 refugees annually, based on UNHCR estimates of Iraqi citizens facing extreme vulnerability.

Why does America keep missing its targets? The State Department points to bureaucratic snafus, ranging from the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) stringent security review of each applicant, to jurisdictional confusion between the State Department and DHS, to a lack of interviewers in the field. Kurtzer says the fault lies with the White House, where officials refuse to take the problem seriously.

“There’s been a lack of political will from the senior levels of the administration to respond to this crisis in a way that we know the government is capable of responding,” he says. “When the White House is interested in putting resources and finding solutions to a problem, they are clearly capable of doing it.”

Such was the case in 1975, when, under President Gerald Ford, the United States resettled 130,000 South Vietnamese refugees between May and December after the fall of Saigon. Overall, more than 900,000 were eventually admitted to the country. “To do less,” Ford later said, “would have added moral shame to humiliation.”

Even the current administration has accepted expatriates when it has been politically viable. In May 2006, the White House agreed to move forward with the resettlement of thousands of Burmese refugees, a region that has garnered the attention of First Lady Laura Bush.