The toughest debates to-date in Washington over national debt and deficit reduction have added to the concern already growing for the United States’ continued assistance to Iraqi refugees. Early in his tenure, President Obama affirmed the US’ strategic interest in providing for displaced Iraqi allies of the United States through the withdrawal from Iraq, but the Kentucky case of two resettled Iraqi men and suspected terrorists – whose alleged links to Al Qaeda prompted a Senate hearing on gaps immigration security and terrorist travel in June – has put a stigma on Iraqis seeking refuge in the States and caused some reluctance on the part of the Obama Administration to give wholehearted support for US-affiliated Iraqis. Now, after weeks of domestic-minded haggling over the debt ceiling occupied the nation’s full attention, the window for improving the US’ track record on Iraqi refugee assistance seems to be getting even narrower.
During budget negotiations earlier this year legislators signaled their intent for the foreign aid and diplomacy sectors to tighten their belts, sparking agency-wide preemptive cutbacks on foreign aid. Indeed, USAID budgeted only $63 million in total humanitarian assistance for Iraq for 2011. But this summer, the expected similar-but-trimmed-down approach for assistance programs in Iraq and elsewhere has been uprooted by the growing fiscal crisis and eleventh-hour debt ceiling deals between Congress and the President. The US government is now in full-time crisis management mode for all matters domestic, and the budget deal signed in early August places a low priority on foreign aid: humanitarian assistance has been lumped in with all intelligence and military operations under a small umbrella of ‘security spending’, which – given Congress’ affinity for intelligence and defense spending – worries those who advocate for increased resettlement efforts. What will remain of our pledges to the people of Iraq when the dust settles from the debt debates is as of yet unclear.
Encouragingly, this summer’s events have rekindled efforts to draw concern for our responsibility to Iraq’s refugees. Advocacy groups like the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Program and Human Rights First have stepped up their calls for resettlement reform and faster Visa processing times. US news outlets – long quiet on the subject – are providing coverage of the visa issues and are running commentary on the US obligation to the people of Iraq. This coverage has not been in vain – the firestorm around the arrested terrorist suspects has provoked seven Senators to request information about the cause of SIV program backlogs.
The affect of these voices on the US fiscal strategy for Iraq remains to be seen. But as the military withdrawal rapidly approaches and budget considerations begin in earnest, the time for re-introducing the necessity of honoring our allies stranded in Iraq and around the region is now.