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.
Representatives of U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minneapolis and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken said they have been working to resolve the delays.
“This process can often be confusing and frustrating and we will continue to help people navigate the immigration system,” Klobuchar said.
“The embassy has these applicants going around in circles,” said Marit Karbowski, the attorney for Hassan Bashir and Deka Mohamed, the couple who brought the recent lawsuit. “One day the embassy will say they have all the documents they need to process the application, and the next day they will ask the client to bring in even more documents supporting their identity.”
Awnur came to Minnesota in 2005 with her mother, three brothers and one sister. Two sisters were killed in the civil war.
She works as a meat cutter on the production line of a Jennie-O Turkey Store processing plant, and sends her husband money to help pay his $200-a-month rent in Nairobi. She became a U.S. citizen in 2011.
In 2008, she said, she flew to Kenya and married Hassan Noor, 31, whom she’d met in Kenya in 2002. She returned to Minnesota and applied for a visa for him in January 2009. Her application was approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in March 2010.
But that was only the beginning. Noor was interviewed at the Nairobi embassy in November 2011, and since then has repeatedly been told to return with more documentation. Each time he is told it is not enough, she said.
“Every time they ask him for proof. He gives it to them … He doesn’t understand why they keep asking for more.”
Hassan retained attorney Abdulahi and refiled her visa application for Noor in June 2012. She flew to Kenya where she and her husband were interviewed at the embassy last May. Officials asked for proof of her income and asked him to bring a report from the Kenya police, proving he’d committed no crimes in Kenya.
After they provided that information they were asked for more documents.
“I told them I was sick and had spent a lot of time and money bringing my husband over and even after that they still said no.” She said she gave the embassy pictures of their wedding and a marriage certificate. “They said it wasn’t enough proof of his identity.”
On Dec. 27, the embassy called Hassan to say his medical examination had expired and he had to have another one, she said. “After he passed that examination, they said he still needed more identification.”
The exam cost $500, fingerprinting and police reports cost $300.
Awnur said her husband “is very confused about what’s happening.”
The State Department spokeswoman wrote the Star Tribune that the department “is continuously working to refine our visa application procedures. Newly implemented technologies are reducing the time required for certain types of administrative processing.”