DNA Tests Refugees' Claims Of U.S. Relatives

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Early this year, the Department of Homeland Security conducted a first-ever DNA sampling of several hundred refugee applicants in Africa. Tests showed that a large percentage of applicants were not related to people they claimed as family members living in the United States.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

A program for resettling African refugees in this country has been suspended because of fraud. The program lets refugees already in the U.S. petition for family members overseas to join them, but officials say DNA testing shows some are scamming the system. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: The U.S. does not normally test refugees' DNA, but administration officials says for years there's been anecdotal information that brokers had infiltrated this particular program, paying money to get slots. To figure out how big the problem was the State Department earlier this year set out to test a sample group of several hundred refugees in Nairobi, many Somalis and Sudanese. Officials decline to be recorded and won't give exact results but they briefed a number of resettlement experts this spring, including Bob Carey. He's with the International Rescue Committee and heads Refugee Council USA.

Mr. BOB CAREY (Vice President of Resettlement, International Rescue Committee; Member, Executive Committee, Refugee Council USA): They indicated that in the testing of family relationships that they had found, that a lot of them or a number of them were not borne out by DNA tests.

LUDDEN: In other words, the people applying were lying about their relationships?

Mr. CAREY: Yes.

LUDDEN: A senior official with citizenship and immigration services says a high number of people also refused to take the test or simply didn't show up for it. Taken all together, officials concluded there was a quote, "very significant fraud level." The U.S. is now doing more systematic DNA testing of refugees in both East and West Africa while those resettlement programs remain suspended.

Ralston Deffenbaugh, with Lutheran Immigration and Refugees Services, says it's crucial the program have integrity. For one thing, no one wants legitimate refugees bribed or threatened out of their rightful spot.

Mr. RALSTON DEFFENBAUGH (President, Lutheran Immigration and Refugees Services): It's also important on the domestic side because we want to make sure that as we involve volunteers and communities and so forth and the program depends so much on them, that they feel that they're not being taken as chumps.

LUDDEN: Still, some worry the fears are overblown.

Ms. LAVINIA LIMON (President, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants): Of course people are going to make false claims.

LUDDEN: Lavinia Limon heads the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. She says there may well be some criminal fraud but she feels sure many who lied are themselves refugees and the DNA results are a measure of their desperation.

Ms. LIMON: They've been in these camps for five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years. There is no future for them and they have a friend or a distant relative here in the United States. You know, when I put myself in that position, would I lie and say my cousin was my sister? Absolutely.

LUDDEN: Bob Carey of Refugee Council USA points out those who flunked the DNA test were not automatically headed for the U.S. They've not yet had their interview with Homeland Security, an interview designed in part to ferret out fraud. Carey says part of the problem is that so few of the world's refugees, less than one percent, get resettled anywhere. The process for choosing who gets to come to the U.S. can seem random and arbitrary. Now Lavinia Limon worries that process could get even more cumbersome and costly.

Ms. LIMON: Now, with this DNA stuff, what are they doing to do? Are they going to require DNA testing for every refugee who claims family reunion?

LUDDEN: The senior immigration official says, it's possible. We're committed to doing the right thing, the official says, even if that means a redesign of the program as a whole. That worries Ralston Deffenbaugh of the Lutheran Refugee Group.

Mr. DEFFENBAUGH: If it seems that family reunification has this dark shadow over it, then we might literally have, you know, the babies go out with the bathwater.

LUDDEN: Bob Carey says the suspension of this African resettlement program is already hurting innocent refugees.

Mr. CAREY: There are families, legitimate families, who are separated now with family members in the United States who are desperate about the conditions under which their family members in Kenya are living and their vulnerability, and at this point they are on hold.

LUDDEN: Administration officials can't say how long the wait will last. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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