Kurdish Refugees and Special Immigrant Visas from Iraq
The borders of modern-day Iraq were set at the post-WWI Paris Peace conference during which the Ottoman Empire was divided between France and Britain in the form of colonial mandates. Britain gained control over modern-day Iraq, Israel and Jordan, while France gained Lebanon and Syria. Borders were carved somewhat arbitrarily with little attention given to the social and religious histories of the region. This resulted in countries with multi-ethnic populations which ushered in a new era of instability and sectarian violence.
NICE serves two distinct, although possibly overlapping, Iraqi populations: Kurdish refugees and refugees who arrived via the Special Immigrant Visa Program (SIVs). The Kurds are a group of mainly Sunni Muslims who have lived in a geographic area known as Kurdistan for 4,000 years. Their homeland covers swaths of Northern Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, with the Iraqi portion being semi-autonomous and semi-self-ruled since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Because autonomy is only partial in this region, the Kurds remain the largest ethnic group (close to 16 million people worldwide) who do not have their own country.
In 1920, the Kurds were promised their own state. However, a subsequent treaty canceled this agreement and transferred their proposed land to Turkey. The Kurds have been fighting for independence ever since. In 1946, the Iraqi-Kurds established the Kurdish Democratic Party which led to the Kurdish-Iraqi Wars of the 1960’s and 70’s and to tens of thousands of internally displaced Kurds and Kurdish refugees. Iraq’s Ba’athist regime, which sought to “cleanse northern Iraq of its Kurdish majority,” gained control during this period. Saddam Hussein who was chosen to lead the party in 1979, led several “Arabization” campaigns, in which Kurdish Iraqis were forcibly displaced from their lands which were then repopulated by Iraqi-Arabs. The goal of the program was to guarantee government control over oil-rich and farmable lands in the North. The Iran-Iraq war which lasted from 1980-1988 and the first and second Gulf Wars have raised the number of Iraqi-Kurdish refugees to several million.
In 2003 the U.S. invaded Iraq, a new war began and thousands more were displaced. This is where the second group of NICE’s Iraqi clients, those who came with Special Immigration Visas, come into the picture. A special immigrant visa is a visa that is granted to Iraqis who “were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government in Iraq.” Whether they were translators, engineers or cleaners, these Iraqis are “experiencing ongoing, serious threats” as a result of their willingness to cooperate with the American army. In response, the U.S. government grants Special Immigrant Visas that allow these workers to immigrate quickly to the United States. Once the SIVs arrive they are eligible for the same funding and programs as refugees.
Between October 1, 2006 and November 30, 2012, the US admitted over 73,000 Iraqi refugees for resettlement. Arizona, California, Georgia and Illinois have received the largest numbers of Iraqi refugees. The city of Nashville, Tennessee, however, has the United States’ largest Kurdish population, with more than 9,000 residents as of 2000. During this same time period, more than 11,000 Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) were issued by the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.