By Thomas Hedges, Center for Study of Responsive Law
In April 2003, President George W. Bush outlined the progress of Operation Iraqi Freedom at the headquarters of Boeing Integrated Defense Systems, an F-18 fighter jet production facility in St. Louis.
“We believe that people across the Middle East and across the world are weary of poverty, weary of oppression, and yearn to be free,” he said, pausing for applause. “And all who know that hope, all who will work and sacrifice for freedom, have a friend in the United States of America.”
But the U.S. 10 years later is loath to invite too many of our friends inside our borders. Of the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees who have fled the country, only about 80,000, or 5 percent, have been resettled here in the U.S.
Meanwhile, Sweden accepted an average of about 10,000 Iraqi refugees a year from 2006 to 2009, bringing the number of asylum seekers to about 50,000 in a country with a population 30 times smaller than ours.
Most Iraqi refugees, along with those internally displaced in Iraq, have received little attention from the nation that sought to bring them freedom. In the last four years, the U.S. has spent $2.1 billion on refugees in the Middle East region, with that funding dispersed among Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, the Palestinian territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
By contrast, the “too big to fail” banks enjoy an informal insurance policy from the government that costs $83 billion a year, according to a recent Bloomberg report.
The Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) for Iraqi and Afghan civilians, created in 2008, were meant to expedite the process of resettlement for those who provided “faithful and valuable service” to U.S. efforts in the wars and who might face “ongoing serious threats” as a result of their actions.
Flawed criteria for admittance, coupled with technical difficulties many refugees face in the application process, have led to a dearth of visas. Of the possible 25,000 SIVs, only 5,500 have been issued. The program, which anticipated four times as many resettlements, expired at the end of fiscal year 2012, failing many applicants who have struggled to relocate themselves and their families.
Earlier this month, 19 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to extend the program. They cited problems of inefficiency, lack of transparency and discrepancies between the Afghan and Iraqi SIVs—22 percent of the available Iraqi SIVs have been approved, but only 12 percent of Afghan ones have been issued.
“Innumerable Afghans who served the U.S. Government wait in peril,” the letter noted, “their lives and family threatened.”
The letter, however, did not point out where much of the danger and damage in Iraq and Afghanistan have come from. It did not contain the number of refugees or internally displaced citizens, which has grown in the last 10 years, nor did it juxtapose the $1.7 trillion cost of the war in Iraq with the scant $2.1 billion in aid the U.S. has spread across more than a dozen countries.
The gap between Bush’s words and actions should be remembered as Republican lawmakers such as Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina call for intervention in Syria for the sake of liberty.
This article was made possible by the Center for Study of Responsive Law.
Afghan children in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, in 2008.