Ever been separated from your husband, wife or children for three years? How about five? Ten? This is something that Sheila Stuhlman sees all the time in her job as an immigration lawyer. The slow immigration system can keep families apart for years and sometimes decades.
Years ago Stuhlman interned at the Center for Victims of Torture and took to the idea of helping immigrants resettle in the United States. “It was motivating to think I could make a small contribution to someone making a new start in the United States,” she said. Now Stuhlman is a senior staff attorney at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, a non-profit that helps low-income immigrants with their immigration cases, and recently spoke to the TC Daily Planet about family reunification and immigration reform.
What challenges do refugees and immigrants face regarding family reunification?
We are not a resettlement agency, but some of the difficulties have been that the government suspended the program where refugees can usually bring family members to live here in the United States. There had been what the government had considered a high level of fraud, so they stopped the program to try to reassess and put in some safeguards. So unfortunately, bringing refugees and their family members through the processing program is on hold for a while.
Waiting and hoping
The Twin Cities Daily Planet held several community conversations with immigrants and refugees enrolled at the Minnesota Literacy Council as part of our New Normal series. In North Minneapolis, we had a packed room of Minnesotans and immigrants from Laos, Togo, Somalia, Morocco, Mexico and South Korea. Once we started talking about family reunification, the floodgates opened.
While family reunification affects immigrants from all over the world, East and West African refugees in particular shared their frustrations with the system during our conversation. Mohamed Awal Traore, a 28 year-old immigrant from Togo, described what happened when he won a diversity visa lottery to come to the United States. Traore says that for years he understood that if you won the visa lottery, you were eligible to take your wife and children with you.
“I entered the lottery, and I didn’t know that they had just changed the policy,” Traore said. He claims that because the American Embassy hadn’t clearly communicated the changes, he suddenly faced a hard choice: Come to the United States and divide his family with the hope of eventually bringing them over, or miss an opportunity that might never come again. Traore arrived here a year ago, and has started paperwork to bring his family to Minnesota.
As Traore told his story several other people in the room nodded their heads, including Ahmed Elmi, 61, a Somali father who brought his children to Minnesota but had to leave his wife in a refugee camp in Kenya. “I don’t know when she will come over,” Elmi said. He has been waiting three years and has not heard much from immigration officials. “Now I am just waiting,” Elmi said.
What other issues do you come across?
There are a lot of refugees with family relationships that aren’t recognized by U.S. law. For example, a lot of informal adoptions have taken place in war zones where, let’s say your sister was killed, and you would then take care of her children but not formally adopt them. Without the legal adoption it’s not a relationship that the U.S. immigration law recognizes. Sometimes people simply can’t find their relatives—they’ve gone through a war and they can’t locate each other afterwards.
Some other issues come up with how the U.S. law determines and defines terrorism and who has provided material support to a terrorist organization. Typical examples are in countries where kidnapping is common: Let’s say you had paid a ransom to get your family member back, and it was a group of two or more people that you had paid, then you have now supported “material support to a terrorist organization,” which could bar you from the United States.
More broadly, our family reunification system is based on a preference system and there are long wait times. It’s not uncommon for families to wait four or five years for a family member to come over, so it keeps the family separated for a while.
So what’s the fix, especially for family reunification?
One of thing is to get the Priority 3 Program back up and running. I think they’re close to doing that and they’ve come up with a solution and they’ve done a test program where they use DNA testing to make sure that family relationships are real. Now, there’s a question about who is going to have to pay for that testing, especially if it turns out people really are related.
We also need to clear out the backlog in the family preference system so that people wouldn’t have to wait so long to bring their family members. We simply need to speed up the process. But I don’t know that I see anything like that coming down the pipeline.
How has this affected your clients?
We have lots of issues surrounding family reunification, even if you’re not a refugee. If you haven’t entered the United States legally, then you have to go back to your home country and then come back here to bring your family. But let’s say you’ve been here a year without permission: the law says you can’t come back here legally for ten years. So people go back home and (if they don’t qualify for a special hardship), then we see families divided. Some people want to take the risk to legalize their status, because they don’t want to risk being separated from their families. It’s scary for someone who’s contemplating perhaps being separated from their family members for ten years.
What are the next steps to passing immigration reform legislation?
Our Executive Director does a lot of policy work and we definitely advocate comprehensive immigration reform. It’s so important because so many people just don’t have a path to legalization. No matter what political fence you sit on there’s agreement that the system is broken. We’ve been focusing on enforcement for the last several years, and the government has focused on how many fewer people are crossing the border. It seems time to move towards other points of immigration reform, like moving towards a path to legalization where people could get in some sort of line to legalize their status, or to creating a better solution for keeping families together.
Obviously Congress is focused on debt and probably more pressing issues, so I’m not sure that those proposals would be seriously considered in the near future.
There’s are a lot of people out there working on immigration reform, and not a lot of movement on Capitol Hill. Is it a hopeless cause?
I don’t ever think it’s a hopeless cause to keep at it and keep working at it, but obviously there has to be movement on the Hill to actually get legislation passed. Unfortunately in times in the past where we have had momentum it hasn’t resulted in comprehensive immigration reform, but it’s certainly not a lost cause and hopefully when we have momentum again we’ll get it through.