The State Department has suspended a humanitarian program to reunite thousands of African refugees with relatives in the U.S. after unprecedented DNA testing by the government revealed widespread fraud.
The freeze affects refugees in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Guinea and Ghana, many of whom have been waiting years to emigrate. The State Department says it began DNA testing with a pilot program launched in February to verify blood ties among African refugees. Tests found some applicants lied about belonging to the same family to gain a better chance at legal entry.
The U.S. has responded by halting refugee arrivals from East Africa, where hundreds of thousands of people have been stranded in precarious conditions since civil war erupted in the early 1990s. The temporary suspension has generated panic in African communities in the U.S., where thousands wait to be joined by relatives.
Typically, a refugee already living in the U.S., a so-called anchor, is entitled to apply for permission to bring a spouse, minor children, parents and siblings. The process requires interviews, medical examinations and security screening.
In February, the State Department launched pilot testing in Kenya to verify family relationships, mainly among Somalis. When applicants arrived for a previously scheduled appointment, a U.S. official asked them to volunteer for a DNA test.
An expert then swabbed the cheek of those who claimed biological relationships, such as a mother and her purported children.
The cell samples were sent to labs in the U.S. for analysis.
As word spread, some applicants began missing appointments, and others refused to cooperate.
The results prompted expansion of the testing to other countries. “We had high rates of fraud everywhere, except the Ivory Coast,” says a State Department official.
In late April, the government decided to temporarily halt the family reunification resettlement program for East Africans. A government official confirms that “many thousands of people” are affected by the suspension, particularly Somalis and Ethiopians.
Refugee resettlement agencies report that arrivals have slowed to a trickle.
In Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., home to the country’s largest East African population, Catholic Charities hasn’t handled a single family reunification case since March 19. The agency has resettled 35 East African families this year, compared with more than 450 last year and about 1,300 in 2006. “Everyone is calling or walking in here and asking what is going on,” says Angela Fox, a resettlement worker at Catholic Charities.
The government testing has raised questions about using DNA as an immigration tool.
Refugee advocates say the definition of family among Africans extends beyond blood relatives, especially when families fleeing persecution are scattered. “Some families are raising children who aren’t their own but whom they call son or daughter,” says Ms. Fox of Catholic Charities.