Hundreds of Somalis are struggling to get their families reunited in the United States.
Amina Awnur is in Willmar. Her husband is in limbo.
For four years, Awnur has been trying to get U.S. authorities to allow her husband to come to Minnesota from Kenya. He has repeatedly gone to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi with documents, but officials tell him they need more.
“I am really frustrated and very tired, because it has taken so long,” she said through an interpreter.
The 30-year-old Somali-born woman, who now is a U.S. citizen, is among hundreds of refugees whose family members are hung up in Africa, struggling to prove to the State Department that they are who they say they are.
Waiting sometimes for years to have their visas approved, they are children, parents, siblings and spouses displaced by the continuing upheaval in Somalia. Stuck in Kenya, they have been unable to provide satisfactory paperwork establishing their identity, according to immigration lawyers in the Twin Cities.
“It’s a huge problem,” says Leslie Karam, whose firm recently filed a lawsuit against a State Department official in Nairobi on behalf of a Minnesota man who is trying to get his wife out of Kenya. “The U.S. consulate in Nairobi has indicated their administrative processing can take several months,” the lawsuit says. “It has been almost two years.”
Local immigration attorneys say that while a lot of Somalis are getting into the United States, hundreds more have visa applications hung up in Kenya. The exact number is unknown because the State Department has declined to provide data on delayed applications, while cases here are spread among many attorneys.
The problem stems from the lack of basic records in Somalia — like birth certificates and passports. U.S. authorities want applicants to produce them when they apply for a visa, said Brian Aust, another local immigration attorney.
“It’s a big issue,” he said. “Since 1991, when the civil war broke out, there has been a massive governmental breakdown in Somalia.”
With no U.S. embassy in Somalia, Somalis must go to Nairobi in neighboring Kenya. Refugee camps in Kenya issue identification cards that help people get visas. But life in the camps is so hard, lawyers say, that many people stay in Nairobi instead and don’t get the IDs.
Attorney Elizabeth Streefland has been representing a Somali client whose wife and children have been stuck in Ethiopia for years. His wife can’t work because she cannot speak any Ethiopian languages, and the children cannot go to school because they are not Ethiopians, he says.
‘The timing can vary’
A State Department spokeswoman said that “most administrative processing is resolved within 60 days of the visa interview, but the timing can vary based on the individual circumstances of each case.”
She said that Somalis are treated the same as applicants from other countries, and more than 1,000 visas were issued to Somalis in the 2013 federal fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30.
“At the same time, we must ensure that applicants do not pose a security risk to the United States and otherwise are eligible for a visa” she said in an e-mail. “Applicants sometimes require additional screening to determine whether they are eligible.”
Federal authorities have been concerned about possible links between Somali immigrants to the United States and Al-Shabab, a group that has recruited young Somali men to fight in the Somali civil war. The State Department has designated Al-Shabab as a terrorist group and alleged that it has links to Al-Qaida.
One thousand visas for Somalis aren’t many when there are 500,000 Somali refugees in Kenya and thousands who want to join their relatives in the United States, said Minneapolis attorney Abdinasir Abdulahi. He laughed when told that the State Department said that most processing is resolved in 60 days. “For people whose cases are languishing for three or four years, that’s not true,” he said.