Lamia remembers when her family members started getting threatening text messages from members of the Shiite militia in their region of Iraq. Her father, who worked as a translator for the U.S. military, got them first — before he was killed, in 2006.

Lamia, who is being identified by a pseudonym because she’s concerned for her safety, eventually started to get the same kinds of messages. The militia’s patience with her was running out, they told her.

She knew she needed to leave Iraq, and in June 2016, her refugee application to the U.S. was approved. The problem: Her husband’s application was still pending. But Lamia was afraid of what could happen to her and her two children, so they left for the U.S., and hoped her husband would shortly follow.

“I had hoped that I and the rest of my family would all be resettled in the U.S. and have a new and comfortable life where we can be safe,” she told HuffPost.

Once in Charlottesville, Virginia, Lamia quickly began building a new life. She enrolled her children in the local public school system while she attended a job training program.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, Lamia’s husband received a bullet in the mail as a warning from the local militia. He was still married to Lamia, a woman whose family had betrayed them, and he was not safe.

“I was afraid he would receive the same fate as my father,” Lamia said.

Lamia traveled to Iraq with her two children the next month, in July 2017. She wanted her children to see her husband, even if for the last time.

She never expected that she would still be in Iraq almost eight years later — long enough for her to have a third child there — because of the U.S. immigration system.

More than 3 million refugees have been resettled in the U.S since the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act. But it can take years for refugees to solidify their case and be granted residency, and the government’s refugee admission program has long suffered from backlogs and delays due. Severe cuts to the program’s budget under President Donald Trump made these problems even worse.

Even after being resettled, refugees face a litany of challenges, including language barriers, reduced access to housing and economic opportunities and the challenge of obtaining citizenship. They also endure yearslong delays and difficult decisions — decisions that, as in Lamia’s case, can put their lives in danger.

According to the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship website, refugees are allowed to travel back to countries they initially fled from. But they are required to have a pre-approved travel document, which serves a similar purpose to a U.S. passport for refugees, in order to be readmitted to the U.S.

Lamia was in a rush to see her husband before he was harmed, her lawyer told HuffPost, and she believed she’d be able to get the travel permits later on, so she left without initially applying for one. But after she arrived in Iraq, the Shiite militia found out she’d returned and began threatening her again.

U.S. officials didn’t respond to her until January 2023, according to a formal complaint she filed in federal court last month against USCIS and the State Department — more than five years after she first submitted it.

By then, the militia’s threats had escalated. At one point, militia members beat her with weapons at a pharmacy.

Ultimately, the government denied her travel document but approved permits for her two children. That forced Lamia, who’d since had another child in Iraq, to make a bleak choice: break up her family and send her eldest two children to the U.S. alone or stay together as a family, in a country where their lives were in danger.

A USCIS spokesperson told HuffPost that the agency does not comment individual cases or on pending litigation. The spokesperson said it’s agency policy to “adjudicate requests for immigration benefits fairly, humanely, and efficiently on a case-by-case basis to determine if they meet established eligibility criteria required under applicable laws, regulations, and policies.”

Lamia’s lawyers at the International Refugees Assistance Project argue that none of this should have been necessary. They say that refugees should be readmitted through the same protections granted through that 1980 Refugee Act — the law under which Lamia’s entry was approved in the first place, which does not specify the need for travel documents.

“The U.S. government’s unlawful requirement that our client secure a refugee travel document to return to the United States has left her and her children stranded in Iraq under threat from the very militias she thought they had already escaped,” said Kate Meyer, an attorney at IRAP. “The United States needs to honor its commitment to welcoming those fleeing persecution and provide lasting protection.”

“We are asking the court to stop the government from applying its unlawful refugee travel document policy to our client so that this refugee family can return to safety in the United States together,” she added.

But time is running out. The children’s approval to return to the U.S. expires next month. If they don’t get on a plane before then, they will not be able to submit a new application and will forfeit their ability to return as refugees.

Meanwhile, Lamia says, the militia has threatened to hurt her husband unless he stays away from her. They rarely see one another. Lamia doesn’t leave her home, and her children no longer attend school.

Lamia said she has developed asthma and constantly experiences dizziness, which she believes is caused by stress. Her mental health has deteriorated rapidly.

“I honestly regret it all,” she said. “My children blame me and they know they are unsafe. I just want to come back.”


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