Reunited Somali families stranded after crackdowns

Amal Hassan (left) and Sadiyo Ismali have waited months for Somali relatives whose immigration is delayed because of new DNA testing requirements

Amal Hassan (left) and Sadiyo Ismali have waited months for Somali relatives whose immigration is delayed because of new DNA testing requirements

Amal Hassan sits quietly in an old office chair in a dark, abandoned cubicle at Catholic Charities in downtown St. Paul. Her face is framed by a finely stitched hijab that is her porthole to the world, and what a world Hassan has seen: Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, she has spent most of her life as a refugee, believing both of her parents were shot and killed during the civil war that lingers to this day.

In 1991, when Hassan was three years old, she left Mogadishu for Nairobi with her grandmother and two siblings. They took up residence in a one-room government apartment with no bed nor running water. By 2004, they secured passage into the United States, via Atlanta, where they lived with an uncle for several months before moving to the Twin Cities.

"It was just like heaven," she says of coming to America. "In my mind I knew this was the place where we were going to have a better life and achieve our goals."

And then, last November, something even more amazing happened: Hassan learned that her mother was still alive.

It happened when she was shopping in the produce section of Cub Foods. She ran into family friends who had just arrived home from Nairobi. They told her that they has seen Hassan's mother there.

"At first I couldn't believe it," Hassan recalls. "I ran to the lady and said, 'What? How can this happen? How?'"

Hassan's grandmother traveled back to Nairobi to see if it was true. It was. Filled with hope, Hassan set about the tedious bureaucratic task of bringing her mother to the United States.

"I've been calling her and I've been telling her that I'm trying my best for the process," Hassan says. "I'm still waiting. The law is not in my hands so I've just got to wait."

A recent decision by the U.S. State Department may keep Hassan and her mother waiting for the foreseeable future.

Hassan's mother would be eligible to come into the country under a P3 visa, part of a family-reunification program. Since the late 1970s, when it was created to help Vietnamese refugees bring family members to the United States, the P3 visa has reconnected thousands of families. The program allows an "anchor relative"—a family member already legally living in the United States—to apply to have nuclear family members join them, with the hope of maintaining bonds between parents and children, brothers and sisters.

Since 2003, the main beneficiaries of the P3 visa have been Africans, 35,000 of whom have gained entrance with the visa. Not all of them, it turns out, were legal. Last spring, a State Department investigation discovered widespread fraud within the program: People were claiming strangers as relatives for up to $10,000 a head.

In response, the State Department cracked down, adding a DNA test requirement to prove that family members are related.

"We had heard there was some fraud in the program, so what we wanted to do was check it out and make sure the law was being observed," says Todd Pierce, a spokesperson with the Bureau of Populations, Refugees, and Migration at the U.S. State Department. "This is the first time we've used DNA testing as a way to substantiate the results, and we found a very high fraud rate."

While the program is well intended, the sudden change and the lack of communication have thrown legitimate refugees into chaos.

While the effects of the decision have been felt throughout many of the nation's African immigrant communities, nowhere has that been more pronounced than here in the Twin Cities, home the United States' greatest concentration of Somalis, estimated to number 60,000. Catholic Charities in St. Paul, a local refugee resettlement organization, says the decision has affected nearly 1,600 people who were hoping to immigrate to the area. Since March, only one person has arrived from Africa to the Twin Cities, while nationwide estimates are in the low hundreds. Last year Catholic Charities helped resettle between roughly 50 and 135 people to the Twin Cities each month.

Sadiyo Ismali, also from Mogadishu, has lived here with her husband since 2004 and now has a daughter. Her mother and six siblings were supposed to arrive in the Twin Cities last July, but like many of the thousands of refugees, Ismali's family was delayed pending a DNA test.

For three months, Ismali waited to find out when and where to take her DNA test. Finally, in September, she received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security about where to take her DNA test. She took the test on October 2, but has not yet heard the results. Ismali's family overseas already took their DNA tests, which confirmed that all the refugees were at least related to each other.

"It makes me feel sad, so sad. Even I cannot explain to you the way I feel about the DNA test because so many people are hoping for their family," Ismali says. "There are some people that haven't seen their parents for 20 years, 30 years now. They're waiting for the DNA."

For resettlement organizations like Catholic Charities, the DNA test requirement has created a whole new set of problems. For one, there is a cultural difference to overcome: In many African countries, the notion of family is more elastic, and many refugees may be caring for children orphaned by war.

"In Somali cultures, during the war they might grab a child from the street or a neighboring child and raise that child, that they call a son or a daughter," says Ibrahim Mohamed, a case manager with Catholic Charities in St. Paul who came to the U.S. as a refugee. "In the other parts of the culture...the first cousins are called brothers and sisters."

Mary Anne Sullivan, senior director for Catholic Charities in St. Paul, says she's frustrated by the sudden change in policy. Neither the State Department nor any other government agency communicated anything about the recent policy change, she says. "There was no official word. We just heard of it through anchor relatives who were told that by their relatives in East Africa."

A State Department official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, says the lack of communication was intentional so as to not tip off the fraudsters who were the target of the crackdown.

It could take up to six months to get the DNA test fully integrated into the refugee-immigration process, according to the State Department's timeline. For Hassan, that means she will have to wait longer before her mother can come to the United States. It's been a year, and she is no closer to seeing her mother.

"Just because they have found some false info about the DNA, they shouldn't be holding the whole thing," says Hassan. "They should be looking at each person, each case differently and what the situation is and contact people right away and tell them how it's going and give us feedback. So far it has been four months and I haven't heard from anybody. I mean, it's crazy. You kind of think, 'Hey what's going on? Are they not thinking of us?'"