Migrants walk through a field behind the border line between Serbia and Hungary in Roszke, southern Hungary in Roszke, in September 2015. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

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

October 19, 2015
by Katie Worth Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

When Muna Guled, her husband and youngest daughter were granted refugee status in America two-and-a-half years ago, their first priority was to bring over Guled’s three other children, still stranded in Ethiopia after escaping famine and violence in Somalia.

That dream will soon become reality — but for only two of the children. The third, 17-year-old Roda, is not technically Guled’s daughter. She is her niece, who Guled unofficially adopted after the girl’s mother went missing and her father and grandparents died.

In the past, this might not have been an obstacle. But the United States now requires refugees hoping to reunite with their families to prove that they’re related — either through a DNA test, or with official adoption paperwork, which can be impossible to obtain in war-torn countries. So when Guled’s two biological children board a plane to meet their mother and sister in Ohio in the coming months, Roda will likely be left behind.

This has been devastating news for the family.

“Roda doesn’t have anybody else. She is scared of what will happen to her alone. She is scared she will be kidnapped by bad people,” said Guled through her 16-year-old daughter Awo, who translated by phone. “Roda has said she will kill herself if she cannot come.”

Awo paused.

“Just a second, my mother is crying again,” she said.

The family’s story highlights the complications that have arisen as the federal government has tightened constraints on the main program refugees have used to reunite with family in the U.S. Through the late 1990s, the program was responsible for 15 to 20 percent of all refugee arrivals in America, but because of a series of restrictions imposed since then, it currently accounts for less than 1 percent. The changes have stymied fraud — as they were intended to. But at a time when the U.S. is bracing for thousands of new applications for shelter from refugees displaced by war in Syria, the restrictions have slowed — and in some cases outright denied — legitimate entries into the country.


War can scatter families across continents — a reality long recognized by U.S. refugee policy. Shortly after the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program was signed into existence by President Ronald Reagan in 1980, the agency established a family reunification program for refugees — now known as the P-3 program — allowing immigrants to bring over family members fleeing crisis.

In the years before 9/11, as many as 13,000 refugees a year joined relatives in the U.S. through the program, according to State Department statistics.

Suspecting fraud, immigration officials began to rein in the program. Starting in 1999, they no longer allowed extended families — siblings, grandparents, nieces and nephews — to apply for entry, confining the program to spouses, children and parents. In 2004, the Bush administration curbed the program further. Instead of making the program available to any immigrant who arrived in the U.S. legally, it would only be available to those who had been granted refugee status or asylum.

But the war in Syria, which has displaced more than 4 million from their homes, is fueling calls for the Obama administration to ease some of those restrictions. The U.S. has announced plans to absorb at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year, and once they arrive in America, those refugees will be able to use the P-3 program.

Until then, though, the tens of thousands of Syrians already in the U.S. through other immigration programs are barred from using it to reunite with family members displaced by the violence. Instead, their primary alternative is a separate visa program that currently has an eight-year waiting list.

Earlier this month, 84 members of Congress sent a letter to the Obama administration asking it to expand P-3 eligibility. Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-N.J.), one of the letter’s authors, told FRONTLINE in a statement that it made sense to accept refugees who already have support in the U.S.

“These families would have a home ready for them, a source of financial support, and the commitment to return to help rebuild Syria after the war is over,” he said.

A State Department official confirmed receiving the letter but declined to comment further.


Even if those restrictions are loosened, refugees applying for family reunification will face another hurdle to clear: DNA testing.

The inspiration for this requirement was born in East Africa, where more than 1 million Somalians have been displaced from their country by civil war and famine. In the mid-2000s, the U.S. was providing refuge to about 10,000 Somalians a year — many of whom went on to apply to the family reunification program to bring over relatives.

Immigration officials suspected that some were inventing “ghost children,” and filling out applications for children not related to them. There had even been some reports of brokers who sold the ghost children’s slots for profit, according to a U.S. Department of State official who spoke to FRONTLINE but asked not to be named.

So in early 2008, the State Department launched a pilot program to determine the extent of fraud by testing relationships using DNA.

In the initial pilot of 476 applicants in Nairobi, Kenya, only 16 percent were genetically related to every person they said was in their family. Another 39 percent tested false for at least one family member. In the remaining 45 percent of cases, applicants either refused to participate or didn’t show up for the test.

Officials interpreted these results as proof of widespread fraud. The P-3 program was suspended, and did not reopen for more than four years.

This stunned refugees around the world, many of whom had spent years waiting for P-3 applications to be approved. Most were told to apply for an alternate visa, but it was even more restrictive than P-3 and soon had a multi-year waiting list.

The suspension was likewise criticized by refugee advocates, who argued that fraud wasn’t the only explanation for the pilot program’s results. For example, if a family had five children and just one tested false, they would all be counted as fraudulent. And if any member of the family didn’t show up for a test, that family would also be considered fraudulent, even if the no-show was for a legitimate reason.


Critics also took aim at the narrow “nuclear family” concept that DNA tests impose, noted a report by the  Immigration Policy Center, a nonpartisan immigration research group. During war, children whose parents are dead or missing are usually taken in by relatives or neighbors. Official adoption paperwork is not the norm.

“It’s completely tone-deaf to the realities that refugees face,” says Jen Smyers, director of policy and advocacy with the Church World Service Refugee and Immigration Program, a refugee resettlement agency. “In Nairobi there are women who, when they were fleeing their village that was being burned, encountered a small child on the side of the road and picked it up and ended up raising it for the next five years. They know if they’re asked, ‘Did this child come out of your body?’ and say ‘No,’ they won’t be able to bring the child with them. So they say yes. That’s fraud, but it’s not gaming the system.”

There can be problems even when a child does belong to the mother, noted attorney Emily Holland in “Moving the Virtual Border to the Cellular Level,” published in the California Law Review: DNA tests can turn up “long-buried instances of infidelity and rape, often concealed due to fear, stigma and shame.” Uncovering them can introduce new crises to already traumatized families.

The United Nations Refugee Agency has recommended that refugee workers confirm relationships with documents, interviews and other tools, and argues that DNA tests should be used only as a “last resort.”

But when the P-3 program was finally reinstated in 2012, it came with the requirement that all parent-child relationships be proved through DNA tests, or by official adoption papers. Refugees pay for the DNA tests, which can cost several hundred dollars, but are reimbursed for positive tests.

Since then, fewer than 100 people have arrived in the U.S. each year through the family reunification program, while hundreds of additional openings went unfilled. The State Department official said it’s possible those figures could grow as more people work through the new requirements, but that family reunification was unlikely to return to its former numbers.

David Martin, a law professor at the University of Virginia who helped shape the Refugee Act of 1980 and has worked with every administration since then to refine it, noted that there is no easy approach to the problem. Even those cases that are fraudulent are often “living lives of desperate privation” and badly in need of relocation, he said. But so are thousands of others, and it is beyond the capacity of the U.S. refugee program to take them all.

“So you make choices, and when the choice is to reserve some spots for family members, it makes sense to make sure they’re really family members,” he said.

He noted that the system does have some flexibility and can make exceptions to the DNA rule on a case by case basis to accommodate extraordinary circumstances.

Muna Guled hopes her family’s circumstances will allow them to find a way to bring her niece to America. Her other two children had been living in Mogadishu with their biological father, but they and Roda have now moved to Ethiopia because it will be easier to join their family in the U.S. from there. Guled’s two biological children have passed the DNA test and they may be able to fly to Ohio before the end of the year.

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

“I think my life is just starting now, I’m getting a good education, I feel good in America,” Awo said. “I just wonder when my brother and my sisters can come and enjoy with me this beautiful life.”

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