Obama, McCain Skirt Iraqi Refugee Issue

Every couple of weeks an email from Baghdad pops up in Iraq War veteran Joey Coon's inbox at his home in Washington, D.C. It's Coon's 23-year-old Iraqi interpreter, nicknamed Dash, pleading for help to get out of Iraq and into the United States. Dash feels in constant grave danger that he and his family will be killed because of his work with American troops.

"People like Dash put their lives on the line to help keep people like me and my friends and fellow soldiers and Iraqi civilians safe," said Coon. "It was a very admirable, heroic thing that he did, I think, and I do feel that both soldiers and the American people in general have a certain responsibility here."

That responsibility, however, is one that is more or less being shirked off by the presidential campaigns. While both candidates hotly debate each other's plans for withdrawing or maintaining troop levels in Iraq, virtually nothing is being said about the 4 million Iraqis who have been displaced by the war or about the tens of thousands of Iraqis like Dash who feel at immediate risk for having worked with the Americans. Even less is being said about how the incoming administration will deal with the humanitarian crisis still evolving.

That's why Coon and veterans like him are working harder than ever to mount a national campaign to save the lives of their interpreters by bringing them to the United States. Although there has been some progress recently made in establishing special immigrant visas for Iraqis who worked for Americans, the process of getting these Iraqis to the United States continues to be filled with long, bureaucratic delays. As papers get shuffled, untold thousands of Iraqis are left in danger.

Dash "sends me heartbreaking emails, frequently," Coon said. "He is frantic to get out of that situation. Every day is a struggle, and every day he's worried for his life."

An email from May 28 reads: " please don't forget me, please do you best to me, i am your brother and you are my only hope in my life."

Dash has spent the last year living on the run, careful whom he talks to and always on the look out for those who want to kill him for his involvement with the U.S. military. His family and most of his friends have since abandoned him.

The unwillingness of the presidential candidates to fully confront this Iraqi refugee crisis, in the opinion of some experts, is nothing less than an act of dangerous denial.

"This is going to be a major issue," said Kirk Johnson, who worked for USAID in Iraq and subsequently founded the List Project to resettle Iraqi employees in the United States. "I think for whoever enters the White House, there is no more immediate opportunity that exists to send a signal to the Arab world and to the rest of the world and to those of us in our country, that after eight years of President Bush and after the difficulties that we faced in Iraq, that our moral compass hasn't be shattered. But that we can still see our friends and allies as our friends and allies, not as terrorists... If they are allowed to die or just be left behind, I don't see how anybody could think we could win a heart or mind in Fallujah or Ramadi or Baghdad. It's one of the most clear moral urgencies that the war has presented."

While McCain has put the Iraq War at the center of his campaign, he studiously avoids any real discussion of the humanitarian crisis. His campaign has denied repeated requests for an interview on this topic. His campaign website makes no mention of how he will address the needs of Iraqis who helped American troops and who are now in danger. Nor does it mention the broader issue of the more than 4 million Iraqis who have been displaced by the war.

Obama has also said relatively little about this issue. His campaign's immigration policy chair, however, claims that the senator is deeply committed to helping Iraqis in danger as a result of the war.

"There is no single issue that any presidential candidate can talk about exclusively," Mariano-Florentino Cuellar said. But Obama, he continued, "has tried to emphasize to the public that in addition to thinking about the impact of the war directly on American security interests, we have a responsibility to think about the humanitarian impact of the war."

Cuellar said that an Obama administration would be committed to trying to expedite the process of granting visas to Iraqis chosen for resettlement in the United States. This would include Iraqis like Dash who have worked for the American troops and therefore qualify for a special immigrant visa (SVI). The Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, passed last January, allows for 5,000 SIVs a year for the next five years and was intended to clear away many of the obstacles that delay the visa granting process. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced guidelines for the SIVs July 9. The problem is the process is still a bureaucratic nightmare. As of April 30, only 636 Iraqis have received SIVs, according to the State Department.

Cuellar said that the process for resettling Iraqis takes time, energy and a consideration for security concerns, but that an Obama administration would probably do "a lot better than we have been doing."

Coon met Dash about half way through his tour of Iraq in 2005. Dash, whose real name cannot be given for security reasons, would help Coon and the other Americans by talking to local Iraqis to get information on the area. Anti-American Iraqis view interpreters such as Dash as traitors for helping the occupation. Interpreters have had their homes bombed, their family members kidnapped. Hundreds of interpreters have been killed since the start of the war.

Dash had a 15-year-old relative named Adnon who would occasionally help the U.S. troops by warning them of any insurgent activity. "He was a nice kid, and we had a great relationship," Coon said, "and because of the friendship we built, he would sometimes warn us of danger."

In December 2005, insurgents kidnapped the boy and his 10-year-old brother, beheaded them and threw their bodies outside the gate of the Americans' camp. The intelligence team told Coon that the kids were killed because Adnon was friendly with American troops and actively tried to protect them and his own family.

"That just tells you a little bit about how intolerant these vicious insurgents [are], how brutal they can be and how intolerant they are of people who in any way help Coalition forces," Coon said.

Coon's unit eventually left the area, which is about 40 miles north of Baghdad. Dash stayed to work with other units, but he soon quit out of fear of being murdered. Yet just because he stopped working for the Americans doesn't mean he is safe. Dash is still known as a person who helped the Americans and he is therefore at risk. "He can't escape the danger," Coon said.

For the past nine months, Coon has tried to help Dash get a visa to come to the United States. It has been a long, overwhelming process filled with infuriating obstacles. Dash, for example, must sign original documents and mail them back to Coon and his lawyer in the United States. But in many of the villages in Iraq, there is no working postal service.

The two friends struggle to communicate, Dash often unable to get cellphone access in the villages. Coon will send an email, which Dash can eventually check, but the interpreter does not have a strong enough grasp of English to understand words like "scan" or "PDF."

Coon is hopeful that his immigration lawyer will succeed in resettling Dash in the United States. But he says he wishes the administration would recognize America's responsibility to these Iraqis who risked their lives for American troops and make the process of getting here easier. For now, Coon's only real connection to his friend back in Iraq is an occasional email. One from April reads: " Dream...lives there in U.S with my Good friends without fear and i hope my Dream come soon."

UPDATE: The immigration policy chair for Barack Obama's campaign, Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, has responded to this article: "As Senator Obama has said, America has a moral and security responsibility to confront Iraq's humanitarian crisis. That's why the campaign has called for at least $2 billion to expand services to Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries and an international working group to address the crisis."