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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘They forgot about us’: Inside the wait for refugee status

Ferozah Binti Abdul Rashid, a Rohingya refugee, and her 5-year-old daughter at their home in Milwaukee, Wis. on Sept. 16, 2022. Her husband has not been able to join the family in the United States.

By Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Miriam Jordan

For the past eight years, Ahmed Mohamed Aden has been trying to reunite with the sons he left behind when he fled Somalia.

He sought help from immigration advocates in Wisconsin, where he was legally resettled. He filed reams of paperwork with the United Nations refugee agency. He submitted DNA samples to prove he shares a genetic relationship with his children, which he hoped would speed up processing.

But earlier this month, he learned that their applications were still pending, stuck in a backlog of people fleeing violence and persecution who hope to find sanctuary in America.

“I did everything I can,” an emotional Aden said, holding his head in his hands as the social worker assigned to his case explained that his children would not be joining him in Milwaukee any time soon. “I tried.”

Aden’s sons are among thousands of people living in limbo as delays in the U.S. refugee system stretch to an average of five years or more, according to government estimates.

The average wait used to be roughly two years, before the Trump administration gutted the refugee program with the intention of sealing off the United States from refugees and other immigrants. And the coronavirus pandemic forced many U.S. embassies to close or curtail their operations, allowing cases to back up even more.

Many of the people who have been in the pipeline for years have grown increasingly frustrated, saying they are being pushed to the back of the line as the Biden administration prioritizes those fleeing crises in Ukraine and Afghanistan.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said she understands that the Biden administration is working with an overburdened system inherited from the Trump years.

But, she said, her patience is wearing thin.

“We’re at a point in the administration that while we recognize how the Trump administration decimated the infrastructure, it can’t be an excuse for too much longer,” Vignarajah said. “Because lives depend on the administration stepping up.”

President Joe Biden, who has promised to rebuild the refugee program, issued an executive order last year that directed his administration to cut the processing times to six months.

But in a report submitted to Congress last month, the White House acknowledged that the effort to provide temporary protection to roughly 180,000 people escaping Ukraine and Afghanistan “required a significant reallocation of time and resources” and “hampered the program’s rebound.” Last week, the administration said it would offer a similar status for up to 24,000 Venezuelans looking to escape their broken country, even as many more who cross the border would be expelled under a pandemic-era rule put in place by former President Donald Trump.

The shift means people in desperate conditions in countries like Somalia, Eritrea and Myanmar are facing the prospect of even longer waits. More than 76,000 prospective refugees were in the system’s pipeline waiting to be cleared for travel as of this summer, according to State Department data obtained by The New York Times.

Mulugeta Gebresilasie, a case manager at a resettlement agency in Columbus, Ohio, said that refugees already in the United States have felt penalized as their loved ones languish in camps for displaced people.

“Suddenly, the resettlement agencies were focusing on Afghan people,” Gebresilasie said. “The African refugees told me: ‘They forgot about us. We have been waiting so many years.’”

The U.S. refugee system was designed to provide a legal pathway for displaced people to find protection in the United States. Applicants must be recommended by the United Nations, a U.S. Embassy or a nonprofit; undergo interviews with U.S. consular officers overseas; and gather documents that can be difficult or impossible to procure in failed states: birth certificates, marriage certificates, travel documents, school records. They also undergo extensive medical and security vetting.

Once they are resettled, the refugees can petition for their immediate relatives to join them in the United States by providing DNA or other evidence of their relationship. The relative would then be interviewed at an embassy by a U.S. official before being approved for travel.

But millions of people are being admitted into the United States outside the traditional refugee program, diverting resources from those who have been waiting for years.

Much attention has been paid to migrants crossing the border in record numbers, in part because of decisions by Republican-led states like Florida and Texas to send some of them to liberal bastions like Martha’s Vineyard as a way to provoke outrage.

Those migrants can secure asylum if they can prove they would be persecuted at home; otherwise they face deportation. More than 1 million have been turned away on the basis of a Trump-era public health measure called Title 42, which allows the United States to expel people who would have otherwise been admitted for an evaluation of their asylum claims or placed into deportation proceedings.

In special circumstances, the United States government can grant “parole” to people from other countries, a legal tool that allows them to enter the country but does not automatically confer a green card or citizenship. That is what Biden’s administration has done in the cases of many refugees from Afghanistan, Ukraine and now Venezuela.

Over the past two years, the Biden administration has taken some steps to rebuild the overburdened refugee system, even as the president and his senior aides have debated how to unwind the Trump administration’s anti-immigration agenda. Biden has expressed concern about Republican attacks over his immigration policies, particularly as apprehensions at the U.S. southern border have hit record levels.

The White House named Andrew Nacin, a former WordPress developer who worked on immigration issues for the Obama administration, to lead the effort. Nacin is streamlining the White House’s digital services and is trying to apply some lessons learned from the scramble to assist Afghans and Ukrainians.

The president has said he is committed to fulfilling a campaign promise to reverse Trump’s limits on accepting refugees. The administration recently informed Congress that it would set the annual cap on the number of refugees at a maximum of 125,000 people, the same level as last year.

Trump, by contrast, set the limit at 15,000, the lowest it has been in the history of the refugee program.

The refugee numbers include only those who are legally resettled in the United States; asylum-seekers who cross the border from Mexico, for example, do not count toward the limit. Nor do the Ukrainians, Afghans or Venezuelans who come in under humanitarian parole.

But the United States has not even come close to hitting the 125,000-person limit, in part because it simply has not had enough personnel to get through the backlog.

By the end of 2021, the United States had tallied just 11,411 refugees, the smallest number since the establishment of the refugee program. The Biden administration resettled about 25,400 refugees this past fiscal year, according to the State Department.

In interviews, senior administration officials said it was unlikely they would hit their target in the coming year.

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