Four years ago, rampant fraud shut down a federal program that brought overseas relatives of refugees in the United States here to live.
Now, the retooled program is open for business again — this time requiring DNA proof of family ties.
One of the highest-ranking U.S. officials on refugee admissions met this week with Minnesota resettlement agencies and with refugee groups from Somalia and Burma to discuss the revised family reunification program and to find out why more people aren’t applying.
“When a program has been suspended for four years, we kind of thought there would be a lot of pent-up demand. We thought people would rush to file,” said Kelly Gauger, Office of Admissions deputy director in the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.
So far, the State Department has accepted just 121 applications since October, when officials reopened the program.
But in Minnesota, at least one refugee resettlement agency has noticed a surge of interest. Applications have been pouring in at the International Institute of Minnesota, one of six refugee resettlement agencies in the state.
“There’s a lot of interest,” said Amanda Smith, the institute’s refugee services director. The agency is helping about seven people a day with applications to bring their parents, spouses or children to the United States, she said. There is a waiting list for appointments.
Gauger and resettlement workers say the cost of the DNA testing may be one reason more refugees aren’t applying. On average, it costs $300 to test the DNA of the first relative and about $100 less for additional relatives, according to the State Department. The money is reimbursed if the results show all of the people are biologically related.
Ximenes Zedekiah of St. Paul doesn’t have the nearly $700 needed for DNA testing to bring his wife’s parents here from a refugee camp in Thailand. But he says he and his wife, Angela Paw, will scrape up the money when it’s time to pay because they have waited so long for their family to be together.
Zedekiah and Paw are both refugees from Myanmar, formerly Burma. They are members of the Karen community, an ethnic minority group that has settled in large numbers in Minnesota.
The couple recently filed an application and are waiting for the next step.
Federal officials deemed the DNA tests necessary in 2008 after they discovered widespread fraud in the family reunification program.
Following reports of fraud in Nairobi, Kenya, in particular, U.S. officials tested a sample of 500 refugees — mainly Somalis and Ethiopians in Nairobi. DNA evidence confirmed a biological relationship to the “anchor relative” in the United States in only 20 percent of cases.
Some in the Minnesota’s Somali community say it wasn’t always fraud — but a broader definition of “family” — that caused the discrepancy.
Testing in other African countries — including Ethiopia, Uganda and Ghana — found similar problems.
“There were some cases where parents were filing for seven, eight, 10 kids and none of them were biologically related to the parents,” Gauger said. “That raises the specter of child trafficking. What were these people doing?”
The suspension of the family reunification program hit Minnesota hard. The state is home to the nation’s largest populations of both Somalis and Liberians — two groups that heavily used the family reunification program.
With fewer people coming via family reunification, resettlement agencies began to increase the number of refugees with no relatives living in the state, leading to more refugees from Bhutan and Myanmar.
Definition too narrow?
Abdirizak Mahboub, of the New Minnesotan Community Development Center in Willmar, works with East African refugees. He said the new rules, much like U.S. immigration policies in general, are problematic because the narrow definition of “family” does not take into account the wider networks that many non-Europeans consider family.
“I don’t advocate for fraud,” he said, but “when you have your uncle or your brother not recognized as your family member you will do anything.”
The new family reunification program includes penalties for fraud.
Gauger said the government will continue the program for about two years and then assess the results.
“There is no requirement that there be a refugee family reunion program,” Gauger said. “We feel, frankly, like this is a bit of a last resort to try to save [it].”