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Pentagon Officials Say They're Concerned About Drop In Admissions Of Iraqi Refugees

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now a story about a program born out of the Iraq War. It's a special refugee program for Iraqis who assisted the U.S. military and other American organizations on the ground during the conflict. But the number of refugees admitted is declining rapidly. More than 7,000 Iraqis entered the U.S. through this program in fiscal year 2015. This year, as of last week, just 48. Now the Pentagon is voicing concerns to the White House over the drop in numbers, according to a new Reuters report. Officials argue that by not providing safety to people who risk their lives to help the U.S. military, it will be more difficult to win future cooperation from locals in Iraq and other conflict zones. Yeganeh Torbati wrote that story for Reuters. She joins us now. Welcome to the program.

YEGANEH TORBATI: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Tell us who these Iraqis are who are eligible for this program. What kind of work do they do?

TORBATI: This program is open to Iraqis who worked for the U.S. military, for the U.S. embassy, for American contractors who worked in Iraq, for American news media who had a presence in Iraq and also for American non-governmental organizations who had a presence there.

CORNISH: And when you say work with the military, what kind of thing would you be doing as a local Iraqi for the U.S. government?

TORBATI: The most common task that I've come across is interpretation, but it's important to note that at least the interpreters that I've spoken to, often, their actual jobs went way beyond that. I spoke to one man who helped his U.S. Army supervisors navigate firefights, who helped introduce them to local influential government individuals or elders within different tribes. So really, you know their, tasks can run the gamut.

CORNISH: What kind of danger are they in that leads them to apply for refugee status?

TORBATI: Everything from actual assassination. That's happened many times, where people who were known to work with Americans have been killed and targeted specifically by militias who are opposed the American presence in Iraq. They can be kidnapped. And they can be ostracized from their villages and cities and communities.

CORNISH: So there's always been a high threshold for this program, right? You have to be screened pretty intensely.

TORBATI: Absolutely.

CORNISH: What's changed why there's been a drop in the number of people admitted?

TORBATI: So the Trump administration has instituted a number of changes to the refugee program since taking office in January 2017. It first did an outright ban on refugees in the first months of the administration, and then it required refugees to submit more information as part of their application. And so this meeting that I reported on that happened at the White House at which there were many officials from many different agencies, what was revealed at that meeting is that the way the FBI is conducting certain background checks that are required of Iraqi refugees, those checks are bringing up many more red flags than they were previously. And at that meeting, from the officials who have told me about sort of what transpired, it wasn't really clear to officials there exactly what may have changed in the FBI's screening methodology that, you know, wasn't the case before. And that's something that officials are going to be looking into a little bit more.

CORNISH: So in your reporting, you're finding there are people in the Pentagon saying, look, whatever we can do to help this process along, we need you to help the people who helped us. What does the White House say to that?

TORBATI: The White House says that the changes that we have made to the refugee program over the last year and a half are making Americans safer, that we vet refugees from Iraq or from any country more thoroughly than ever before.

CORNISH: And that includes whether they helped us and whether they're applying in this special refugee program.

TORBATI: Exactly. I think that the White House's emphasis is on the potential threat that's posed by refugees and not so much on the potential benefits, whether it's foreign policy benefits or whether it's - as some people in the Pentagon and throughout the administration would argue - the national security benefits that, you know, presenting a robust way for Iraqis to find safe haven after helping America presents.

CORNISH: Yeganeh Torbati. She is an immigration reporter for Reuters. Thank you for speaking with us.

TORBATI: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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