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February 26, 2013

ABA Panel: Special Immigration Visa Program for Middle East Refugees a ‘Burdensome and Lengthy Process’

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Gina Cabrera-Farraj, program officer with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration covering refugee admissions for the Middle East and North Africa.

The requirements for gaining admission into the United States through the Special Immigrant Visa Program — created to assist the resettlement of Iraqi citizens who helped the U.S. government during its mission in Iraq — is bureaucratic and has prevented asylum applicants from obtaining the protection they need, experts said at an _ Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities panel.

“I generally refuse to use the SIV program and I will never use the SIV program again,” said Eric Blinderman, an international litigation counsel who served in Iraq advising senior members of the U.S. coalition and Iraqi governments. “It is an extremely cumbersome process.”

Marcia Maack, assistant director of pro bono activities for the law firm Mayer Brown LLP

Marcia Maack, assistant director of pro bono activities for the law firm Mayer Brown LLP

“Unfortunately, the program hasn’t worked as well as everyone had hoped,” said Marcia Maack, assistant director of pro bono activities for the law firm Mayer Brown LLP, one of the law firms  that has partnered with The List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. The project was created in 2007 to help U.S.-affiliated Iraqis immigrate to the United States.

Maack explained that the SIV program was established to recognize this group of individuals who had helped the United States, and that the U.S. had a special obligation to expedite the resettlement process for these individuals under threat.  However, experts said the program is underutilized, primarily because many Iraqis have difficulty complying with the onerous requirements and lengthy process.

Many U.S.-affiliated Iraqis have a very difficult time gathering the information required for the Special Immigrant Visa because of the many steps to verify their employment with the U.S. and the proof needed to demonstrate threats made against them in Iraq.

According to State Department statistics, the United States has admitted more than 79,000 Iraqi refugees.  In 2009, those numbers were increasing.  But by 2011, numbers declined after two non-U.S.-affiliated Iraqis were arrested in Kentucky for allegedly plotting to send weapons and cash to al-Qaida in Iraq.

“…We had a revamping of the security clearance system at this time and [that] brought refugees to a halt,” said Gina Cabrera-Farraj, program officer with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration covering refugee admissions for the Middle East and North Africa.

“On average — when we first started in 2008 — it was about a year from start to finish for the Special Immigrant Visa.  It’s now, I would say, an average of two years, and we have clients who have been waiting for three or four years and still have not received their visas,” Maack said.

According to Maack, U.S.-affiliated Iraqis have received multiple security clearances for the jobs they held with the U.S. government.  “They are already perhaps the most prescreened group of refugees ever, and yet I think they go through more security processes than any other group of refugees,” she said.

A total of 25,000 visas were made available under the SIV program through fiscal year 2012, with the possibility of an extension in 2013 if visas are unused.  However, fewer than half of potential U.S.-affiliated Iraqi applicants have obtained a visa under this program, Maack noted.

“The SIV program was not designed to operate as a barrier to entry,” said Blinderman.  “It just became that way for all sorts of internal bureaucratic reasons and issues associated with the interpretation of the regulations — which again have nothing to do with the particular individuals who are working on it — it’s just the nature of how the policies have been put into effect.”

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