U.S. Suspended A Program To Re-Unite Refugee Families Amid Fraud Allegations

Source of refuge, and separation
U.S. suspended a program to reunite refugee families amid fraud allegations, and now relatives are stranded

By Susan Carroll
The Houston Chronicle, April 12, 2009

When Mayam Kromah dropped by a Houston immigration clinic last week to check on her fathers refugee application, the caseworker mentioned that the federal government may require DNA testing before admitting him to the United States.

Kromah, a 24-year-old aspiring social worker, said her response was immediate: 'No problem.'

More than four years ago, Kromah filed paperwork to bring her father, Mamade, to Houston from the West African nation of Guinea through the U.S. governments P-3 program, which is designed to reunite refugees settled in the U.S. with family members stranded abroad. The program has been dogged by allegations of abuse for years, and it was suspended in October after a pilot program involving DNA testing found evidence of widespread fraud by people falsely claiming to be related to each other.

Refugee resettlement workers now say the programs suspension and prolonged processing delays have created a hardship for refugees in the U.S. who are eager for the safety of relatives left behind in Africa, where hundreds of thousands of people have been stranded in war-torn regions.

As the controversy over the fraud investigation unfolded, Kromah said she was promised her fathers application would still be considered because it was filed long before the programs suspension.

But she has grown tired of the wait and lingering suspicion.

'Im ready,' she said. 'If they say they want to do DNA (testing), thats fine with me. I just want to get this cleared up.'

Drop in admissions

Dario Lipovac, the resettlement services director for YMCA International Services in Houston, said he has a filing cabinet full of paperwork from applicants for the P-3 program, many of whom are still waiting to hear from immigration officials.

Houston has one of largest refugee populations in the U.S. In 2007, Texas resettled 4,440 refugees many from Africa ranking second to California.

The P-3 program aims to reunify families separated after resettlement, which has been considered a long-standing priority in U.S. refugee admission. Since 2003, the program has admitted roughly 36,000 relatives of African refugees, plus about 400 people from other countries, according to the State Department. The majority were from Somalia, Ethiopia and Liberia.

Admissions through the program were suspended last spring for applicants from a handful of East African countries after a pilot DNA testing program in Kenya found high rates of fraud.

A joint investigation by Homeland Security Department and State Department officials involving 500 P-3 cases found that 87 percent of applicants had either lied about a biological relative or failed to show up for an interview as word of DNA testing spread.

The DNA testing involved only applicants overseas, not the 'anchor' refugee who applied from the U.S. After the initial findings in Kenya, the DNA testing was expanded to other African countries that participated in the program and found varying rates of fraud, said Fred Lash, a State Department spokesman.

He said final results of the testing are not yet available, but the results were troubling enough that U.S. officials suspended the program throughout the world.

Admissions have dropped dramatically since the start of the fraud investigation from 5,090 in 2007 to 1,540 in 2008. Since October, only 139 family members of refugees have arrived through the program.

Lash said the U.S. government plans to reinstate the program by the end of this year. He said it will require more stringent biometric checks in the future, most likely through DNA testing. The State Department and DHS have not said whether that testing would include 'anchor' relatives in the U.S.

The definition of family

The programs suspension and processing delays have taken a toll on refugees in the U.S., who worry for the safety of family members left behind, Lipovac said.

'If you cannot get your family here, your American dream looks different,' Lipovac said.

Lipovac said African refugees often have culturally different definitions of 'family' and 'adoptions' than the U.S. government, which can lead to miscommunications and the appearance of fraud.

'You have families that technically are not considered families in the States,' Lipovac said, such as a refugee who takes in his brothers children or those of a distant relative killed in a war.

U.S. officials often require paperwork to prove adoptions, but that is not the custom in Africa, where children are frequently taken in by relatives or friends without documentation.

'There should be a little more humanity in the whole process,' Lipovac added.

Befakadu Moreda, a 45-year-old Ethiopian refugee settled in Houston, applied last month to bring an adopted son to the U.S., though not through the P-3 program.

Moreda has no documentation to prove 19-year-old Ashenafi Endale was abandoned as a baby. Still, he said, he believes U.S. immigration officials will reunite him with Endale, a math whiz with an affinity for poetry.

Moreda said he understands some people have abused U.S. immigration programs, but he said he has faith that U.S. immigration officials will sort out fraud from cases like his.

Even without a blood relation, 'He is my son,' Moreda said. 'There is no doubt. No doubt.'

Slow process

Kromah has few childhood memories of her father, who disappeared during the war in Liberia in the late 1980s. She was 3 or 4 years old the last time she saw him. Her only picture of him is a passport photo.

While her father was missing, Kromahs mother came to the U.S. as a refugee. She eventually brought her daughter through the family reunification program. After years without contact with his family, Kromahs father turned up in Guinea. They started to build a relationship through long-distance phone calls, she said.

Kromah is now planning to re-file for her father through regular immigration channels, hoping the application will move faster than through the now-troubled refugee program.

'I just want my family to be together. I will do whatever they want me to do, DNA, anything,' she said. 'This is just taking forever.'