SEATTLE — Somehow the bullets that sprayed the car that Ubaida Mufrej was riding in with a group of Iraqi contractors didn’t hit any of them, even though the driver had pushed through three armed men blocking a desert road outside of Baghdad that day in 2006.
The men — subcontractors of an American company — were coming back from handing over a water treatment facility to a local community as part of the U.S.-led rebuilding efforts in Iraq following the 2003 invasion. The men had left the handoff ceremony hurriedly after sensing animosity from some of the locals. But one of the subcontractors, Mufrej said, had to go back to finish part of the deal one day after the shooting.
“He got killed, right?” asked Ali Altamimi as he heard Mufrej’s story.
Ten years after the Iraq War, Mufrej and his friend and business partner Altamimi sit in a cluttered office in Seattle’s industrial district. The two men, engineers by training, left Iraq in 2009 and now own a business of buying cars at auctions and shipping parts back to Iraq.
Altamimi and Mufrej are two of tens of thousands of Iraqis who immigrated to the United States in the decade after the war.
Mufrej came here under a special visa for Iraqis who aided the U.S.-led efforts in Iraq. But that program is set to end this year, despite the federal government only issuing less than a quarter of the special visas allocated. Vacant slots would be terminated, but applications in progress would continue to be processed.
Around 5,500 out of a possible 25,000 visas have been issued to Iraqis seeking to move to the United States, according to the U.S. State Department.
As the nation marks the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, Republican and Democratic lawmakers are urging the Obama Administration to continue the visa program, which is set to expire at the end of September, and reform the application process to aid those who want to move to the U.S. Earlier this month, 19 members of Congress sent a letter to the Obama Administration with their concerns that also includes the special visa program for Afghanis who have worked with the U.S. in that war.
“Often, sterling (visa) applications are denied, and perhaps for good reason, but under the current program, the Chief of Missions (COM) at Embassies Baghdad and Kabul can approve or deny letters with little transparency into how that decision was made,” the letter stated. “Further, (visa) applicants have no means of challenging or appealing an adverse COM decision.”
Congress created the Special Immigrant Visa for Iraqis in 2008 with the aim of helping them move to the U.S. faster than the often protracted refugee process. The visa was made for men and women who risked their lives while working for businesses or reconstruction operations that helped U.S. forces in Iraq. The program allotted 5,000 visas annually until 2012. That limit only counts primary visa holders and not their families or dependents.
Advocates say the requirements to apply for the visas can be unnecessarily onerous, with extensive paperwork, timelines and agencies involved. The application process requires recommendations from U.S. military personnel, for example.
“The bigger problems are the delays in processing, the total lack of information given when someone is denied, and the lack of any appeal process,” said Kirk Johnson, founder of The List Project To Resettle Iraqi Allies, an advocacy group.
The application also requires a “police certificate” from Iraqi authorities, which are not trusted by many Iraqis looking to apply, Mufrej said.
“The responsibility of the United States to the Iraqi people did not end with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq,” said Bob Carey of the International Rescue Committee, one of the largest refugee settlement organizations in the country.
Like Mufrej, Iraqis who were known to work for the U.S. government were often the target of killings, violence, kidnapping, death threats and other harassment. “This story is the story of thousands,” said Mufrej, who lost two uncles and a cousin to militia violence that plagued the country after the invasion. One uncle was kidnapped in 2006 and never seen again. “Probably, he died.”
The State Department said the number of qualified applications for the visa has not exceeded the 25,000 allotted. “We have established procedures to account for national security concerns and reduce chances of fraud in the process. We have an obligation to ensure that recipients of SIVs — like all others who enter the United States — do not pose a threat to our security. We have made demonstrable progress in bringing more Iraqis to the United States, while ensuring our security is upheld,” the State Department said.
The State Department also pointed out that more than 80,000 Iraqis have been settled here through the refugee program. More than 10,000 people, both primary applicants and dependents, have come to the U.S. through the Special Immigrant Visa.
The List Project To Resettle Iraqi Allies said this week that the SIV program has a backlog of 1,500 applications. The group lobbied hard in 2007 to create the program.
To Johnson, a former USAID reconstruction manager in Fallujah, the State Department’s focus on the lack of applications is curious. “If they have too few people why is there a backlog of potentially thousands of names?” he asked.
Johnson said the effectiveness of the program solely lies on the Obama Administration.
“It’s one thing to exist on paper, but the implementation matters,” Johnson said. “After some time Iraqis began to see a mythical program, one that Americans announced and exists on websites but don’t act on it. I think the word got out the SIV wasn’t worth pursuing.”
Fresh out of college, Mufrej worked under American engineering firms. The money was good and he believed he was helping his country, Mufrej said.
Mufrej says he was one of the lucky ones to get in line for the visa early, before it was required to get a background check through Iraqi authorities. He says many Iraqis don’t trust local authorities and giving them personal information puts them in jeopardy.
Now, though, Mufrej and Altamimi are focused on building their business. Altamimi plans to bring his wife here when he becomes a citizen. They married after he resettled here and he couldn’t immediately bring her here. He wants four children. Mufrej has the same plans with his fiance. Maybe five children for him.
In the U.S., the men have kept busy, taking road trips to California and plan to go to Texas next. They want to get to know their new country. The two men return to Iraq occasionally to see family and tend to their business, but they don’t see returning to live there.
“You can’t forget what happened. We lost too many family members,” Mufrej said, shortly after taking a drag from a Marlboro.