They Forgot About Us’: Inside the Wait for Refugee Status

The New York Times

As the Biden administration prioritizes resettling people fleeing Ukraine and Afghanistan, many other refugees are waiting years in a system struggling to rebuild.

WASHINGTON — 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 Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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 chief executive 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,” Ms. Vignarajah said. “Because lives depend on the administration stepping up.”

President 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 American 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 a 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 Mr. 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. Mr. 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. Mr. 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.

His team plans to expand a program, currently used for Afghans and Ukrainians, that has allowed private citizens to sponsor refugees who seek to move to the United States.

Officials also are developing a more efficient application system, modeled after the emergency response to help Afghans, that would allow refugees to do their medical exams, interviews and security screening in tandem rather than waiting years between each step.

While the administration has a goal of hiring nearly 400 refugee officers, it currently has just 240, according to data provided by Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The president has said he is committed to fulfilling a campaign promise to reverse Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

For some applicants, time has run out.

Redi Rekab, an Eritrean widower, applied more than four years ago for his two teenage children stranded in Ethiopia to join him in Columbus, Ohio. He thought their reunion was imminent after the family submitted DNA.

Almost two years later, there had been no movement in their case. His son, Tiferi, grew impatient.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Rekab, a 54-year-old warehouse worker, said he was shocked to receive a call from his son, who said he had reached Libya and needed money to pay a smuggler for onward travel. Mr. Rekab said that he has been trying, in vain, to persuade his son to wait a little longer for approval to make a fresh start in the United States, rather than take the perilous — and often deadly — trip by sea for an uncertain future in Europe.

“The U.S. didn’t help me bring my children,” Mr. Rekab said. “But they approved people from Afghanistan and Ukraine in a very short time. It shows the U.S. doesn’t value us.”

Back in Milwaukee, Mr. Aden says his sons, who are now 21 and 22, represent a gaping hole in the life he has built in the United States. They were babies when he left Somalia and young teenagers when he started the process to bring them to the United States eight years ago. He missed their entire childhoods.

His 13-year-old daughter, Aisha, who was born in Uganda while Mr. Aden waited for approval to come to the United States, has yet to meet her siblings.

“I kind of lost hope,” she said. “And I feel like they’re not going to come.”

Feroza Binti Abdul Rashid, a 32-year-old Rohingya Muslim — a minority group that has faced a campaign of ethnic cleansing — arrived in Milwaukee in the summer of 2021, but her husband has not even been interviewed by American authorities yet.

Through an interpreter, Ms. Rashid said her 5-year-old daughter will often point at airplanes in the sky and ask if her father is finally coming. Last week, she called her father on WhatsApp and said she would send him $2 to help fly him over.

“She always says: ‘I only need my dad. I don’t need anything else,’” Ms. Rashid said.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs is a White House correspondent covering a range of domestic and international issues in the Biden White House, including homeland security and extremism. He joined The Times in 2019 as the homeland security correspondent. @KannoYoungs

Miriam Jordan reports from the grassroots perspective on immigrants and their impact on the demographics, society and economy of the United States. Before joining The Times, she covered immigration at the Wall Street Journal and was a correspondent in Brazil, India, Hong Kong and Israel.

They Forgot About Us’: Inside the Wait for Refugee Status