“All Americans need to recognize that our democracy is an experiment—and one that can be reversed,” former Marine Gen. and Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned in his first public statement since leaving the Trump cabinet earlier this year. That experiment relies on the ability of Americans who fight for our democracy and sacrifice to protect our way of life to do so effectively.
Since 2003, U.S. troops deployed to Iraq have been aided by Iraqi nationals who have risked their lives — facing threats from both Sunni insurgents and Shia death squads — to assist the U.S. in its military missions. These thousands of Iraqis placed themselves, and their families, in harm’s way by visibly aligning with the “occupying force.”
In return for their service, many Iraqis were promised the right to move to safety in the U.S., but tightening restrictions on refugee admissions are undermining our assurances.
Last September, then-Secretary Mattis wrote a memorandum to the president warning him of the risks associated with reducing the annual cap on refugee admissions to the U.S. beyond 45,000. He argued that the U.S. owes much of the success and safety of our own troops to the Iraqis who fought alongside them and guided our strategy,
Mattis’ memorandum demonstrates a long-held, bipartisan dedication to a strong, streamlined refugee admissions program that upholds crucial U.S. commitments overseas.
Mattis wrote, “A failure to honor our commitments to those who supported the U.S. in combat would undermine our diplomatic and military efforts abroad to protect the homeland.”
Until 2014, the U.S. operated a “Special Immigrant Visa” (SIV) program that set aside 5,000 visas per year for Iraqi nationals who worked as translators for the U.S. government. With that program, ended, Iraqis who supported the U.S. effort now have to apply for resettlement using one of two other channels — the “Direct Access Program,” which includes Iraqis who helped the U.S. but did not work immediately with U.S. troops, or the Refugee Assistance Program Priority 2, which includes people from other countries.
But these routes are jammed: In 2018, the State Department reported only two visas had been granted to Iraqi interpreters under the Direct Access Program; a 99 percent decline over three years.
In all, nearly 107,000 Iraqis are waiting to be processed for resettlement, yet the administration is considering more severe cuts to the resettlement program in FY 2020. What’s more, according to data from the Refugee Processing Center, the U.S. has only resettled 428 Iraqis during FY 2019, despite there being over 2,000 who have been cleared by USCIS for resettlement.
Furthermore, the 2017 refugee ban and its complicated aftermath resulted in more stringent vetting processes for Iraqi refugees, which slowed the application process and forced hundreds to remain in Iraq longer than necessary.
Instead of advancing U.S. national security goals and diplomatic interests by welcoming such refugees, the administration has consistently made it more difficult for individuals from these regions to receive refugee protection.
Although Gen. Mattis may be the most high-profile supporter of increased refugee resettlement, he is surely not alone.
Writing in support of the resettlement program last month, a bipartisan group of 18 senators argued, “The (refugee) program is a critical pillar of our national security and foreign policy, and enables the United States to fulfill key international commitments.”
Writing for the Washington Post, retired Navy Adm. Robert Natter and retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling said, “We strongly recommend that this life saving humanitarian program be restored to historic bipartisan-supported levels.”
Natter and Hertling also joined 25 of their retired colleagues in a letter to President Trump expressing concerns about the potential zeroing out of the refugee program for FY 2020.
Retired Army Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli said, “The rest of the world is watching how we handle the special immigration visa issue and our ability to get the kind of help we got in Iraq and Afghanistan will be greatly impeded because people will understand or at least believe that the Americans want your services now, but don’t count on them in the future.”
The government’s failure to honor its commitment undermines U.S. military goals, eliminates second-order benefits, and reduces U.S. diplomatic power with potential allies. As Gen. Mattis argued, the executive needs to return to a refugee cap of at least 45,000 to ensure we fulfill U.S. commitments and protect our experiment in democracy.