Chaldean Catholics in Iraq want refugee status

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There’s more than half a million Christians in Iraq today — two thirds of them are Chaldean Catholics — a Christian group affiliated with Rome, but practicing its own Eastern rites. The group is under attack by the militant Islamic State, bombing Chaldean churches, attacking monasteries, and chasing Chaldeans from their ancestral land.

Southern California is home to an estimated 50,000 Chaldeans, mostly in San Diego County. Community leaders and a Chaldean bishop have been lobbying Congress, the State Department, even the United Nations to open the door to more Chaldean refugees.

They’ve found their champion on Capitol Hill in a former Jesuit seminarian: Democratic Congressman Juan Vargas of Chula Vista. He says they’ve “asked for help and they’re pleading for help and they’re begging for help. And that’s what I’m trying to do is give them that help.”

But there’s a problem: they’re still living within Iraq. Technically, the Chaldeans can’t claim refugee status until they leave the country. Vargas says there is precedent to a more relaxed interpretation of what constitutes a refugee: the U.S. opened the door to Jewish refugees still living in Russia during the Cold War. In fact, Chaldean activists were joined on Capitol Hill by the Rabbi who helped broker the deal that brought a wave of Jewish refugees to America.

Vargas has sponsored a measure that would allow individuals who are — or were — residents of a territory now controlled by the Islamic State to apply directly to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and give the State Department the authority to grant immediate escape for applicants who face imminent danger.

The measure has bipartisan support, co-sponsored by Florida Republican Tom Rooney. It’s also backed by Long Beach Democrat Alan Lowenthal, who met with the Chaldean delegation from San Diego and says they “feel like nobody cares about them.” He describes their thousands of years living in the region, “and now they’re being told they’re expendable.”

It’s not the first time the Chaldean Catholic community has been attacked. Six years ago, a Chaldean bishop in Mosul was kidnapped and executed by Al Qaeda. During the first World War, tens of thousands of Chaldean faithful, as well as their priests, were killed. Those earlier attacks led to a wave of American immigration – first in Detroit, then after the U.S. Iraq war in 193, in San Diego.

But Vargas ran out of time. His measure is stuck in committee, as Congress checked out of Washington for an eight week election recess. Vargas says he’ll continue to try to move the measure when Congress returns on September 12th.

Vargas sponsored a House Resolution earlier this summer calling on the U.S. to find safe havens in the U.S and elsewhere for these refugees. That measure passed in early August. 

Now, he also wants the cap on refugees lifted. The current U.S. cap for all refugees is 70,000 and just over 5,000 spots are left this year.

Until Congress is back in Washington, the push is to get the State Department to take action on its own as soon as possible. A spokesman for the Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration says administration officials "meet regularly" with leaders of religious communities in Iraq and their diaspora counterparts in the United States to discuss their concerns and ways the United States might be of assistance to them. "We are aware of a number of different proposals for how best to respond to the security needs of members of Iraq’s religious and ethnic minority groups." He says the U.S has a "strong track record" of resettling Iraqi religious minorities. Of the more than 110,000 Iraqi refugees admitted to the U.S. in recent years, more than 45,000 are religious minorities.

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