Everett could get a new wave of Iraqi immigrants

EVERETT — Twelve thousand Iraqi refugees are expected to enter the United States in 2008, and Everett is among their likely destinations.

The U.S. State Department announced late last month that it has created a security screening system that will allow Iraqis to be processed and resettled in the United States at a rate of up to 1,000 people each month over the next year.

Local resettlement officials are prepared to accept the refugees, but say the federal government’s announcement isn’t a guarantee.

A similar announcement was made early this year, when federal officials said about 7,000 Iraqis would be resettled in the United States before the end of 2007.

“We didn’t get the 7,000, so I’m not sure how it will play out next year,” said Tom Medina, director of the state Office for Refugees and Immigrants. “They’re just now starting to come, but not in large numbers.”

Federal officials said the resettlement process stalled this year because of security concerns, an explanation refugee advocates rejected.

Most of the refugees expected to come next year are currently in Syria and Jordan, where as many as 2.2 million Iraqis have fled to escape sectarian violence. Iraqis who have worked as interpreters and other support staff for U.S. troops are among those expected to be granted refugee status.

“One of the most vulnerable groups is those people who have worked for the United States,” said Jacob Kurtzer, a congressional advocate for Refugees International in Washington, D.C. “If a man has been embedded with our troops, how can he then be a security risk?”

Every refugee, whether a teenager from Myanmar or an adult from Afghanistan, undergoes a strict screening process, Kurtzer said. The federal government’s claim that additional security measures were needed reflected a lack of political will to remove Iraqis from danger, he said.

But now that security measures have been implemented, Kurtzer said his agency expects that the 12,000 Iraqi refugees will arrive in the coming year.

Washington state typically receives about 5 percent of all refugees resettled in the country, Medina said.

Because refugees are better served when resettled in cities with an existing community from their native homeland, it’s likely that some of the newest Iraqi refugees will wind up in Everett, said Jan Stephens, director of Lutheran Community Services NW, an organization that resettles refugees in Western Washington.

It’s unclear how many Iraqis live in Western Washington, but those who live in Everett say their community numbers nearly 1,000 people and is one of the largest and most close-knit in the western U.S. Many of Everett’s Iraqis came here from Basra in the early 1990s, after they resisted Saddam Hussein during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and more trickled in early this century.

Iraqis who may have once sought refugee status due to the current war are now returning to their hometowns, said Lafta al Ali, an Iraqi who came as a refugee to Everett in 2000.

“It’s safer there now,” he said.

If more Iraqis come to Everett, the Iraqis who already live here will welcome them only if they have never been connected to Hussein’s Baathist government, al Ali said. “We have a good life here,” al Ali said. “If we know that somebody worked for Saddam, we’ll tell the FBI.”

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or kkapralos@heraldnet.com.

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