WASHINGTON - Ten years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and set off a sectarian war that continues to this day, thousands of Iraqis are eligible to move to the U.S. because they risked their lives to help the war effort as interpreters, cultural advisers and other support staff.
But of the legislated allotment of about 25,000 "special immigrant visas" - which offer permanent residency as a reward to Iraqis who worked with the U.S. government - just 4,669 cases have been approved since 2008, and the program is scheduled to end in September.
Despite recent tweaks that have increased the flow of immigrants, the glacial bureaucracy in Washington, Iraqi applicants and their advocates say, can have disastrous consequences in Iraq, where people who worked with Americans receive death threats from Sunni and Shiite Muslim militants who still view them as "enemy collaborators," even though the U.S. military withdrew from the country 15 months ago.
"People don't forget what you did. Ever," said Khaldoun Kubba, who worked closely with the U.S. government after the invasion on projects in southern Iraq. He who arrived in the United States with his family in December after being granted a special immigrant visa.
Congress created the visa, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008, in a gesture of appreciation for Iraqis and Afghans who worked with the American military and other agencies and government contractors after the U.S.-led invasions of those countries.
At that time, militants were regularly tracking and executing Iraqis who served in supporting roles, and there was pressure from American military commanders for the government to get their allies to safety. Under the law, as many as 5,000 Iraqis a year may receive visas. Applicants may bring their spouses and children.
At first, however, the application procedure was prohibitively complex. Not only was it rife with duplication, but it also demanded that Iraqis provide documents that would've revealed what they did for a living, something many were trying desperately to keep secret. As U.S. bases closed when the American military began to pull up stakes, many Iraqis were forced into hiding for the year or two that it took for their resettlement cases to be processed.
The restrictions have been relaxed somewhat in the past year, but the process remains an exhaustive series of background checks, an in-person interview and reviews of letters of recommendation - with no guarantee of approval.
And rejection might come for a host of technical errors or mix-ups that might easily have been resolved if the Iraqis had more opportunity to plead their cases.
U.S. officials also are more sensitive to possible security issues after two resettled Iraqis were arrested in Bowling Green, Ky., and charged with trying to send weapons and cash to al Qaida. Both pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and lying about their backgrounds when they applied for refugee status.
Becca Heller, the director of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, a New York-based nonprofit group that's tracked rejections, said that even against that backdrop, the system rejected people who ought to be approved. She recalled the case of one Iraqi who was rejected after a background check turned up that he'd been held for two weeks at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison after the Americans had arrested him in error. He'd been released without charges, but his visa was rejected nonetheless.
In another case the project took, Heller said, an Iraqi forgot to pay for his candy bar before he walked out of a base commissary and was rejected because of "theft."
Heller doesn't dispute that U.S. intelligence agencies may turn up background information that would justify denying entry but she said that without a review process or an ombudsman-like figure for applicants, the U.S. government wasn't giving a fair shake to Iraqis who'd served the U.S. at great personal peril.
For example, there's still no formal appeals process for Iraqis who are rejected and want information as to why.
"While the overall numbers are a lot better, there's a lot more rejections. A lot of them have struck us as insane, and there's nothing you can do about it," said Heller, who met with Obama administration officials to advocate for changes to the process.
"Is accidentally stealing a candy bar sufficient reason to reject you for resettlement, given that the reason everybody is trying to kill you is because you helped our military?" Heller asked.
An official from the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, which processes special immigrant visas, said no category of visa came with an appeals process and that Iraqis who were applying for special immigrant visas were free to dispute incorrect information during their interviews. But if information that leads to a denial emerges after the interview, there's no recourse.
The official said the number of special immigrant visas issued had increased, thanks to a more streamlined process that now allows applicants to email their petitions directly to the Department of Homeland Security.
Since 2008, according to State Department figures, the U.S. has resettled 4,669 Iraqis on special immigrant visas; the dependents that accompanied them make for another 5,330. The State Department didn't divulge the number of rejections or pending applications, but it said the overall number of applications hasn't exceeded the 25,000 threshold.