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Open Borders Could Bring Chaldean Iraqi Refugees to S.D.

San Diego is home to one of the largest Iraqi communities in the United States. So there are questions here why the federal government hasn't done more to admit Iraqi refugees. Chad Pergram has the st

San Diego is home to one of the largest Iraqi communities in the United States. So there are questions here why the federal government hasn't done more to admit Iraqi refugees. Chad Pergram has the story from Capitol Hill.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq spurred some four million Iraqis to flee their homes. Two million of those escaped to nearby Syria and Jordan.

California Democrat Barbara Boxer's a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee . She finds this pulse of refugees paradoxical.


Boxer: We went there. Bush says we freed a country. And they want to get out of there.

Many left because of their ethnic or religious background, fearing for their lives if they stayed. But Republican Vista Representative Darrell Issa says he worries about one band in particular.

Issa: The really persecuted groups in Iraq are not Kurds, or Sunni or Shia, but the Chaldeans.

Chaldeans. Christians who face oppression from some radical Muslims.

This is important to Issa because about 30,000 or so Chaldeans reside in San Diego County. And it's likely the region would be a destination for many refugees if the U.S. were to open the borders.


Issa: The U.S. has allowed fewer than 100 Iraqi refugees to enter the country since January. But the White House is prepared to admit some 7,000 Iraqi refugees by later this summer. The State Department has floated a number as high as 20,000.

Barbara Boxer doesn't understand why the Administration is mulling this option after burning $10 billion a month in Iraq, and wrestling with a death toll of more than 3,500 U.S. service members.

Boxer: We now are facing an Administration request that we take the Iraqis home rather than bring our troops home. I have to just digest the tragic irony of this development.

But Darrell Issa thinks the U.S. should do something.

Issa: I don't think we should look at it as a number. I think we should look at it as our share.

And that's the controversy: What's the U.S. obligation to Iraqis after invading their country? Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff asserts that admitting Iraqis could open a vein for terrorists to come into the country.

That's what worries Republican California Representative Brian Bilbray .

Bilbray: I think that we need to recognize that our first obligation is to the American people and the national security of the American people. Only, only after that is secured do we have any moral obligation for any nationals around the world.

Bilbray concedes U.S. military intervention may have helped induce the maelstrom in Iraq. But in his mind, that's the price for American national security.

Bilbray: Any action related to those actions that compromise American security is not consistent with the mandate that we have within the Constitutional boundaries.

Ken Bacon heads Refugees International . He says Bilbray's concern is a red herring.

Bacon: Typically the refugee resettlement program has been the least likely way the terrorists would enter the country. Remember, none of the 9/11 bombers came here as refugees. They all came here as students or on legal visas somehow.

Regardless, Darrell Issa says the U.S. is already doing its part. Washington contributes about a quarter of all United Nations dollars used to run refugee camps around the world.

Issa: And that's the appropriate response, because if there's a temporary upheaval, then we should put people into refugee camps and take care of them for a temporary period of time.

Issa serves on the House International Relations Committee . But the top Republican on that panel, Florida's Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, believes the U.S. has a moral responsibility to do more. That's why she backed House legislation to open the borders to 20,000 Iraqis. Especially those who helped American troops.

Ros-Lehtinen: I don't think it's right for us to say, we've had enough. Keep cooperating with us. Your life is in danger. Thank you very much. Here's your hat.

Barbara Boxer says many administration backers don't want to admit Iraqis because that undercuts the President's dogged belief in the war.

Boxer: This President took us into Iraq to save the Iraqi people from Saddam. And now we're being faced with people having to leave Iraq now that they've been given this freedom? It just underscores the utter failure of this policy.

But while Boxer uses the Iraqi displacement as a yardstick to gauge the war, the question of what to do with Iraqi refugees remains. In San Diego, it's a question of geography. There's fear that if the U.S. doesn’t  permit some Iraqis to enter lawfully, refugees could eventually try an often-successful method of coming to the U.S. illegally: sneaking in from Mexico. 

From Capitol Hill, Chad Pergram, KPBS News.