For Some Refugees, Safe Haven Now Depends on a DNA Test | FRONTLINE | PBS

When Muna Guled, her husband and youngest daughter had been granted refugee standing in America two-and-a-half years in the past, their first precedence was to deliver over Guled’s three different youngsters, nonetheless stranded in Ethiopia after escaping famine and violence in Somalia.

That dream will quickly change into actuality — however for less than two of the youngsters. The third, 17-year-old Roda, is just not technically Guled’s daughter. She is her niece, who Guled unofficially adopted after the woman’s mom went lacking and her father and grandparents died.

Prior to now, this may not have been an impediment. However the US now requires refugees hoping to reunite with their households to show that they’re associated — both by way of a DNA check, or with official adoption paperwork, which may be unattainable to acquire in war-torn nations. So when Guled’s two organic youngsters board a aircraft to satisfy their mom and sister in Ohio within the coming months, Roda will doubtless be left behind.

This has been devastating information for the household.

“Roda doesn’t have anyone else. She is scared of what’s going to occur to her alone. She is scared she might be kidnapped by unhealthy folks,” stated Guled by way of her 16-year-old daughter Awo, who translated by telephone. “Roda has stated she’s going to kill herself if she can not come.”

Awo paused.

“Only a second, my mom is crying once more,” she stated.

The household’s story highlights the issues which have arisen because the federal authorities has tightened constraints on the principle program refugees have used to reunite with household within the U.S. Via the late Nineties, this system was liable for 15 to twenty p.c of all refugee arrivals in America, however due to a sequence of restrictions imposed since then, it at present accounts for lower than 1 p.c. The adjustments have stymied fraud — as they had been supposed to. However at a time when the U.S. is bracing for 1000’s of recent functions for shelter from refugees displaced by struggle in Syria, the restrictions have slowed — and in some instances outright denied — legit entries into the nation.


Struggle can scatter households throughout continents — a actuality lengthy acknowledged by U.S. refugee coverage. Shortly after the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program was signed into existence by President Ronald Reagan in 1980, the company established a household reunification program for refugees — now often known as the P-3 program — permitting immigrants to deliver over members of the family fleeing disaster.

Within the years earlier than 9/11, as many as 13,000 refugees a yr joined kin within the U.S. by way of this system, in keeping with State Division statistics.

Suspecting fraud, immigration officers started to rein in this system. Beginning in 1999, they no longer allowed prolonged households — siblings, grandparents, nieces and nephews — to use for entry, confining this system to spouses, youngsters and fogeys. In 2004, the Bush administration curbed this system additional. As a substitute of creating this system accessible to any immigrant who arrived within the U.S. legally, it would solely be accessible to these who had been granted refugee standing or asylum.

However the struggle in Syria, which has displaced greater than 4 million from their houses, is fueling requires the Obama administration to ease a few of these restrictions. The U.S. has introduced plans to take up at the least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the subsequent yr, and as soon as they arrive in America, these refugees will have the ability to use the P-3 program.

Till then, although, the tens of 1000’s of Syrians already in the U.S. by way of different immigration packages are barred from utilizing it to reunite with members of the family displaced by the violence. As a substitute, their main different is a separate visa program that at present has an eight-year ready checklist.

Earlier this month, 84 members of Congress despatched a letter to the Obama administration asking it to increase P-3 eligibility. Rep. Invoice Pascrell, Jr. (D-N.J.), one of many letter’s authors, instructed FRONTLINE in a press release that it made sense to simply accept refugees who have already got assist within the U.S.

“These households would have a house prepared for them, a supply of economic assist, and the dedication to return to assist rebuild Syria after the struggle is over,” he stated.

A State Division official confirmed receiving the letter however declined to remark additional.


Even when these restrictions are loosened, refugees making use of for household reunification will face one other hurdle to clear: DNA testing.

The inspiration for this requirement was born in East Africa, the place greater than 1 million Somalians have been displaced from their nation by civil struggle and famine. Within the mid-2000s, the U.S. was offering refuge to about 10,000 Somalians a yr — a lot of whom went on to use to the household reunification program to deliver over kin.

Immigration officers suspected that some had been inventing “ghost youngsters,” and filling out functions for youngsters not associated to them. There had even been some stories of brokers who offered the ghost youngsters’s slots for revenue, in keeping with a U.S. Division of State official who spoke to FRONTLINE however requested to not be named.

So in early 2008, the State Division launched a pilot program to find out the extent of fraud by testing relationships utilizing DNA.

Within the preliminary pilot of 476 candidates in Nairobi, Kenya, solely 16 p.c had been genetically associated to each particular person they stated was of their household. One other 39 p.c examined false for at the least one member of the family. Within the remaining 45 p.c of instances, candidates both refused to take part or didn’t present up for the check.

Officers interpreted these outcomes as proof of widespread fraud. The P-3 program was suspended, and didn’t reopen for greater than 4 years.

This shocked refugees world wide, a lot of whom had spent years ready for P-3 functions to be authorized. Most had been instructed to use for an alternate visa, but it surely was much more restrictive than P-3 and shortly had a multi-year ready checklist.

The suspension was likewise criticized by refugee advocates, who argued that fraud wasn’t the one clarification for the pilot program’s outcomes. For instance, if a household had 5 youngsters and only one examined false, they might all be counted as fraudulent. And if any member of the household didn’t present up for a check, that household would even be thought-about fraudulent, even when the no-show was for a legit purpose.


Critics additionally took intention on the slender “nuclear household” idea that DNA assessments impose, famous a report by the  Immigration Coverage Heart, a nonpartisan immigration analysis group. Throughout struggle, youngsters whose mother and father are useless or lacking are normally taken in by kin or neighbors. Official adoption paperwork is just not the norm.

“It’s utterly tone-deaf to the realities that refugees face,” says Jen Smyers, director of coverage and advocacy with the Church World Service Refugee and Immigration Program, a refugee resettlement company. “In Nairobi there are girls who, once they had been fleeing their village that was being burned, encountered a small little one on the aspect of the highway and picked it up and ended up elevating it for the subsequent 5 years. They know in the event that they’re requested, ‘Did this little one come out of your physique?’ and say ‘No,’ they received’t have the ability to deliver the kid with them. So they are saying sure. That’s fraud, but it surely’s not gaming the system.”

There may be issues even when a baby does belong to the mom, famous lawyer Emily Holland in “Transferring the Digital Border to the Mobile Degree,” revealed within the California Legislation Evaluate: DNA assessments can flip up “long-buried cases of infidelity and rape, usually hid resulting from worry, stigma and disgrace.” Uncovering them can introduce new crises to already traumatized households.

The United Nations Refugee Company has beneficial that refugee employees affirm relationships with paperwork, interviews and different instruments, and argues that DNA assessments needs to be used solely as a “final resort.”

However when the P-3 program was lastly reinstated in 2012, it got here with the requirement that each one parent-child relationships be proved by way of DNA assessments, or by official adoption papers. Refugees pay for the DNA assessments, which might value a number of hundred {dollars}, however are reimbursed for constructive assessments.

Since then, fewer than 100 folks have arrived in the U.S. annually by way of the household reunification program, whereas tons of of further openings went unfilled. The State Division official stated it’s potential these figures might develop as extra folks work by way of the brand new necessities, however that household reunification was unlikely to return to its former numbers.

David Martin, a legislation professor on the College of Virginia who helped form the Refugee Act of 1980 and has labored with each administration since then to refine it, famous that there isn’t a straightforward strategy to the issue. Even these instances which might be fraudulent are sometimes “dwelling lives of determined privation” and badly in want of relocation, he stated. However so are 1000’s of others, and it’s past the capability of the U.S. refugee program to take all of them.

“So that you make selections, and when the selection is to order some spots for members of the family, it makes sense to ensure they’re actually members of the family,” he stated.

He famous that the system does have some flexibility and may make exceptions to the DNA rule on a case by case foundation to accommodate extraordinary circumstances.

Muna Guled hopes her household’s circumstances will enable them to discover a solution to deliver her niece to America. Her different two youngsters had been dwelling in Mogadishu with their organic father, however they and Roda have now moved to Ethiopia as a result of it is going to be simpler to affix their household within the U.S. from there. Guled’s two organic youngsters have handed the DNA check and they can fly to Ohio earlier than the tip of the yr.

Guled’s daughter, Awo, has change into fluent in English in her two-and-a-half years in Columbus. She says she likes her new life in America.

“I believe my life is simply beginning now, I’m getting an excellent schooling, I really feel good in America,” Awo stated. “I simply surprise when my brother and my sisters can come and luxuriate in with me this stunning life.”

Katie Worth

Katie Price, Former Reporter, FRONTLINE

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