Iraqi Immigrants: Refugees in a Land of No Opportunity

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A young boy, the child of Iraqi refugees, plays outside his new home in Sterling, Mich.

At night, Aysar Jaber listens to her 11-year-old son scream in his sleep in the family's Phoenix apartment, plagued by nightmares about violence in his native Iraq. Jaber has nightmares of her own. Job applications have gone unanswered. Government assistance ran out months ago. Her husband found work washing dishes, but it's not enough. Each month, she pays $828 in rent for their two-bedroom apartment, then decides whether the family has money left over for soap. Nine months after her family resettled as refugees, Jaber, 41, said she worries constantly about eviction.

According to assistance agencies, Iraqi refugees across the country — some of whom, like the Jabers, risked violence, kidnapping and death threats for assisting U.S. forces — face the danger of homelessness in their adopted land, a threat heightened by the foundering economy. The government's refugee-assistance system as it exists is in crisis, and it's failing to meet its basic mandate to protect and serve refugees, said Robert Carey, vice president of resettlement policy at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which assists Iraqis and other refugees resettle in the U.S. A new report co-sponsored by the IRC and the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute points out that the problems existed long before the economic downturn, but the recession has highlighted and worsened its flaws. (Read about the plight of Iraq's refugees.)

The fundamental problem is that employment is the backbone of the U.S. resettlement program. Refugees are expected to find work when they arrive in the U.S. and to move as quickly as possible toward self-sufficiency, a system tailored to an economy with plentiful jobs. When jobs dry up, as they have now, the system collapses, Carey said.

Robin Dunn Marcos, IRC executive director in Phoenix, pointed to stark employment data among refugees from all countries served by her office. In the first three months of the 2008 budget year, her agency found jobs for 100 refugees. In the same period this year, only 28 found work. In 2007, the agency considered 80% of the refugees settled by her office to be self-sufficient. This year, so far, it's just 10%. At the same time, the annual number of Iraqi refugees is growing. Just 202 were admitted in 2006; this year could see an influx of as many as 17,000. (Read a story about how the U.S. removed the hurdles that Iraqi refugees face entering the U.S.)

The irony is that many Iraqi refugees are highly educated and have advanced degrees and high skill levels yet find themselves unable to find work in their professions, whether as doctors, civil engineers or other specialized professions, because of U.S. certification requirements. The fact that many Iraqi refugee doctors, highly qualified English speakers, are working in McDonald's, if they have a job at all, is an extraordinary waste of human capital, Carey said. Dunn Marcos said employers looking at applicants might hesitate to hire a physician who speaks several languages, for example, and instead choose a low-skilled applicant because of fear that the physician might leave at the first possible chance.

Earlier this year, several dozen aid agencies wrote to President Obama asking the Administration to overhaul its humanitarian goals and policies toward Iraq, including a new commitment to resettling vulnerable Iraqis in the U.S. The groups also asked the Administration to review its development goals in Iraq and increase aid for displaced people there and in neighboring countries.

The Administration appears to be listening. Scott Busby, director for human rights in the National Security Council's Office of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, said on Tuesday that the Administration is aware of the problems illustrated by the aid groups' report and is poised to embark on a review of the Federal Government's resettlement program. He cautioned, though, that some of the flaws in the resettlement program are fundamental structural problems that are going to take time to fix. "We will look at whatever the needs are and try to address them as quickly as we can," he said.