September 28, 2007 , George Packer, The New Yorker
The Senate Does the Right Thing
Late last night, to the amazement of refugee advocates, the Senate approved by unanimous consent an amendment by Senator Kennedy to a defense bill that will make it easier for America’s Iraqi friends to be admitted as refugees to the United States. The Administration lobbied against it this week—the talking points included complaints about infringement on executive-branch authority—but Kennedy’s office agreed to a number of compromises, and won the support of holdout Republican senators.
The amendment raises the number of Iraqi interpreters and U.S. government employees (with at least one year of service) who can be admitted under a special immigrant visa program from five hundred to five thousand each year for the next five years. It creates a special category (“Priority 2”) of persecuted Iraqis—including U.S. employees, people working for American news and nongovernmental organizations, contractors, and members of religious minorities, and their families—whose refugee applications can be heard directly by the U.S. government without a United Nations referral, which should speed up and streamline an extremely sluggish process. And the bill allows for these applications to be reviewed at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, so that Iraqis don’t need to flee the country and become refugees elsewhere first (though the language on this point is vague, and there will have to be continuous pressure to make it happen).
Given that, as shown in an exchange of letters between Kennedy and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Pentagon alone estimates the number of its Iraqi workers to be more than twenty thousand, the new bill will not solve the problem; but it will make it harder for the President to keep his hand on the brake. He still hasn’t said a word about the issue. But his ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, did a great favor for endangered Iraqis by sending a cable to Washington, which was subsequently leaked, describing the exodus of Iraqi staff and calling for actions similar to those spelled out in the Kennedy amendment. Senator Arlen Specter played an important role in persuading his fellow-Republicans to back the compromise amendment. And advocates like Refugees International, Human Rights First, Kirk Johnson, and Kennedy’s staff have been working tirelessly to break through the bureaucratic and political resistance put up by the White House.
We’ve grown so inured to the politics of the Iraq war that no one is surprised to find the war’s most ardent backers doing their best to prevent the honoring of such an obvious debt. As one Iraqi refugee wrote to me earlier this year, “I wish those who were more excited about the drums of the war had the courage to deal with its consequences rather than keep silent about the plight they left us in.” Now, at least, Congress has stepped in to correct the Administration’s negligence.