March 11, 2007 | CBS —When U.S. troops invaded Iraq, they had a major handicap – they didn’t speak the language. There would have been no progress, and likely more American dead, had it not been for Iraqi citizens who volunteered to serve our armed forces as translators.

Many thousands of Iraqis believed in the cause. They signed on as drivers, construction workers and office workers. But now they and their families are being hunted down by insurgents bent on killing them for collaborating. No wonder many are fleeing Iraq, desperate for asylum. But as they appeal to the U.S., many feel they’re being left behind.

As correspondent Scott Pelley reports, they’re finding that America, which was so eager for their help in the beginning, is not so eager to save them now.

“I lost everything. I lost my country, I can not stay there, anymore, and I lost all my friends. I can’t see them, I lost my family, and I feel like a prisoner,” says a man, who 60 Minutes will identify as “Rami.”

Rami used to be a translator for U.S. forces; he’s now in hiding in Syria, and for the interview with Pelley, he insisted on wearing a disguise to protect his family still in Iraq.

“I lost everything. I lost my country, I can not stay there, anymore, and I lost all my friends. I can’t see them, I lost my family, and I feel like a prisoner,” says a man, who 60 Minutes will identify as “Rami.”

Rami used to be a translator for U.S. forces; he’s now in hiding in Syria, and for the interview with Pelley, he insisted on wearing a disguise to protect his family still in Iraq.

Three years ago, Rami worked side-by-side with American soldiers in a guard tower on a U.S. Base. Then, the insurgents figured out he was working for America. “They called my … at my house and say that ‘We’re going to kill you if you…because of your involvement with Americans,'” Rami recalls.

At first, Rami says he didn’t care. “But, then they said that ‘We’re going to hurt your family.'” Rami says he went to the American soldiers and asked for protection but says that request was turned down. “So, I felt like I was left alone without any protection,” he recalls.

Asked what he did at that point, Rami says, “Well, I had to quit. I felt like I was abandoned.

“He has no life. He’s hiding all the time,” says Private Joe Seemiller, who was Rami’s American partner in the guard tower. When they first met, Seemiller says he didn’t know whether he could trust Rami, but says that over time, they became “pretty good friends,” not just co-workers.

Asked if he thinks of Rami in the same category as an American soldier, Seemiller says, “Absolutely. He gave up his entire life for this country. And now he’s stuck. And there’s no one to help him. And we owe him whatever service we can provide to make him safe.”

What do we owe him?

Says Seemiller, “Bring him here. Bring him home. He can stay at my apartment. I got a spare bed for him.”

From privates in guard towers to senior officials at the top, getting Iraqis allies out has been nearly impossible. John Agresto was a senior official in Baghdad.

“I would talk to the people in the you know, in the State Department mission there in the Green Zone. ‘Can we not get these people out?’ ‘No.’ The answer always was, ‘These are the good people who need to rebuild Iraq,'” he recalls.

Good people, but he was also told, they might be security threats.

“I went especially for one woman whose son had been kidnapped. She had nothing to fall back on. And I thought it would be easy because she had relatives in America, and I was told no. There is just simply no way. Homeland Security is not going to have her leave. Or not going to accept her. Maybe she can go somewhere else, but she can’t come to America,” Agresto remembers.

“A lot of Iraqis we talk to say that the United States didn’t do the job that it should have done protecting them while they were still in Iraq,” Pelley remarks.

“I agree with the sentiment. We did not do enough to protect them. And I have enough dead friends to prove it,” Agresto agrees.

No one knows the work of the Iraqi allies better than retired Major General Paul Eaton. He was in charge of training the Iraqi army in 2003 and 2004. “I have no doubt that the translators have saved a great number of American lives,” he tells Pelley.

And Eaton believes America owes them the same.

“Do you think it is politically impossible to open the doors to immigration to Iraqis because it’s an admission that the war has not gone well?” Pelley asks.

“The war is not going well. Everybody knows it. The president of the United States and our Congress need to admit that a population is at risk. At risk because they have thrown their lot in with us,” Eaton says.

How much risk? Well, like Rami, hidden behind the mask and glasses. He’s not an insurgent, but he’s in disguise because he works for America. He can be sure he’s being watched, and at the end of the day he’ll go home to his neighborhood to take his chances. Rami learned that even quitting his job didn’t protect him.

“After three months insurgents came to my neighbors and they were asking about me and my location,” he remembers. Rami then decided it was time to leave Iraq. “You know, I had a family member, was working with me, as a translator, in the same base. And he got killed,” he explains.

The family member had quit two years earlier, before being targeted by the killers. After that, Rami says he had to flee to Syria.

Flee, like so many others. At the Syrian borders, one can see caravans of cars leaving Iraq and heading towards Syria; no one is going the other way. The border post is mobbed. There were about 1,000 people on the day 60 Minutes stopped by. It’s a refugee crisis that is largely unnoticed by the world.

The exodus of Iraqi refugees is one of the most under-reported stories of the war. The United Nations estimates that as many as two million Iraqis have left the country already and at various times over the winter they were coming across the border at a rate of 3,000 a day.

Syria has an open door policy and many neighborhoods in Damascus are becoming Iraqi. But there’s a catch: the Iraqis are not supposed to work here and many are going broke. The U.S. is spending about $21 million this year to help the refugees in the region but it doesn’t go far. Next door in Jordan, most Iraqi men are being turned away and some are being deported.

One man 60 Minutes met had overstayed his visa and had nowhere else to go. He told Pelley that if he was found out he’d be returned to Iraq, where he’d get killed.

Killed, because he used to work for the Mississippi National Guard; his leg was shattered in an attack on that unit two years ago.

Where is he going to go?

“I don’t know. We went to the U.S. Embassy. And we asked them for our help,” he says.

He says he explained to them he had worked for the National Guard unit and was wounded in battle. “The first time, yes, the first time we called them we told them we are translators. We’re working with the U.S. Army in Iraq and we got injured. And we can’t go back to our country. She said, ‘Okay, you know the danger when you work with the U.S. Army. And ask the Army to give you a visa.’ That’s it,” he remembers.

How many Iraqis, like this translator, worked for America? No one is certain, but by our tally it’s at least 100,000. Add their families and you’re well over a half a million people at risk. How many of them have been allowed to immigrate to the United States? About ten.

That is slowly changing. This January, the new Congress held hearings on the refugees. A few weeks later, the State Department said it would consider 7,000 applications. Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey is in charge of that program.

“I want to make it clear that this is a first of what will be an ongoing process. We’re not — we have no cap. We have no quota. And we have no limits on the compassion of the United States to accept refugees,” Sauerbrey tells Pelley.

“You know, even if the number ultimately becomes larger than 7,000 in a year, these are tiny numbers compared to the need. I mean, at the present time you have two million already displaced. 7,000 doesn’t sound like much,” Pelley remarks.

“Let’s put it in perspective,” Sauerbrey replies. “Most of these people don’t want to be resettled in a third country. Most of these people really want to go home.”

“The people we’ve talked to want to come to the United States because they feel like they’re marked for death back home,” Pelley says.

“Certainly there are some that are very vulnerable. And that’s what the resettlement program is about,” she replies.

Asked how many Iraqi refugees we can expect to come into this country annually from this point forward, Sauerbrey says, “Our understanding this year is that we will be probably actually receiving into the country perhaps somewhere in the neighborhood of two to three thousand.”

Admitting two to three thousand of the applicants is not even a good start according to Julia Taft. She’s a former assistant secretary of state and lifelong Republican, who has more experience than just about anyone in handling refugee emergencies.

“Well, my understanding is that there are tens of thousands who might be eligible. And I’m disappointed that the figure seems to be so low,” she tells Pelley.

“But the State Department would tell you that’s all that can be physically accommodated in the system,” Pelley remarks.

“Well, then the system’s really shrunk since I did it,” she replies.

In 1975, after the collapse of Saigon, Taft was in charge of finding homes in the states for South Vietnamese, who worked for the Americans.

“President Ford said, ‘Let them come. Let’s help them. This is what we must do for them. They deserve it,'” Taft remembers.

What was she able to accomplish?

“On the 20th of December, 1975, over 131,000 people had been resettled throughout the United States. Incredible,” Taft recalls.

Those 131,000 people were brought to communities all over the United States between May 1 and December.

There was organized opposition then, but Taft says that when Americans saw these families arriving in the U.S., the opposition melted away. “It was a huge enterprise. But it never would have worked had there not been the sustained commitment on the part of the administration working with Congress to make it happen,” Taft says.

“On the part of President Ford?” Pelley asks.

“Absolutely,” Taft says.

Asked if she’s not seeing the kind of political will and leadership in this case that she dealt with in 1975, Taft says, “I’m afraid that’s the case.”

“We took 131,000 Vietnamese in eight months. Nothing like that is even contemplated in this case,” Pelley remarks to Ellen Sauerbrey.

“You know, that was in a different day. And the different day was it was prior to 9/11. After 9/11, the United States put into place very thorough security checks that didn’t exist at that time. And it takes a lot of time to work people through the security process,” she explains.

But Taft says, “Some of these people lives are in jeopardy. You don’t wait around for months and months and months to try to find out if a former translator whose life has been threatened is gonna be a threat to the United States. You’ve already vetted this person. You know this person.”

Retried General Paul Eaton worries about the message all of this is sending to America’s other allies in the world. “Anybody who threw their lot in with the Americans deserves an opportunity for a future. And the loyalty has got to be in both directions. If we do not take care of these people, then the signal to anybody else in the future is a bad signal. And if you throw your lot with the United States, they’ll use you for a while and then they will – they’ll just cut you off,” he argues.

Asked if he thinks it’s a matter of honor, Eaton says, “I believe this is a matter of morality.”