A fact sheet released this week from the U.S. State Department reported widespread fraud in the refugee program that has brought tens of thousands of people from Somalia and other African nations to the United States.
The reported fraud spurred the State Department to suspend a humanitarian program in August which was supposed to reunite African "anchor" refugees already in the states with their family members who are still overseas.
DNA testing conducted earlier this year by the government to verify blood ties between anchor refugees and their supposed family members revealed that fewer than 20 percent of those checked could confirm their biological relationships, the fact sheet stated.
The suspension impacts the Priority Three (P-3) Program of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which grants access to those claiming to be "a parent, spouse, or minor child by certain legal residents in the United States."
Priority One (P-1) and Priority Two (P-2) refugees are admitted into the program based upon their vulnerability in their native country, through a referral from the United Nations. The P-1 and P-2 statuses of the program have not been suspended.
An applicant for refugee status must establish that he or she has suffered persecution or has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, creed or origin.
"In recent years, applications to the P-3 program have been overwhelmingly African -- primarily Somalis, Ethiopians and Liberians -- accounting for some 95 percent of the P-3 applications," the fact sheet from the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration stated.
When asked about the fraud described, Catalina Nieto, director of advocacy and educational programs for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said that the State Department fact sheet is "a very general report and it is referring to all refugees, not particular to Shelbyville."
The rights group is made up of a coalition of immigrants, refugees and their American-based supporters who work to "improve the rights and the public's perception of Tennessee's rapidly growing foreign-born population."
"We are talking about folks who are eager to reunite with their families and are eager to bring their friends and families to a safe and peaceful place," Nieto said.
Shelbyville has seen an influx of Somali refugees within the past few years, and there has been no reported evidence that any fraud has been perpetrated by local refugees. The suspension, however, may impact local refugees who are hoping to be reunited with family members here.
"The U.S. Government has a fair share of the responsibility to help resettle refugees from war torn areas," Nieto said. "We don't want government bureaucracy to be a significant obstacle for reuniting families."
The DNA tests were conducted after both the Departments of State and Homeland Security jointly decided to test a sample of refugee cases due to reported fraud in the P-3 program, particularly in Kenya, the fact sheet explained.
The rate of fraud varied among nationalities and from country to country, "and is difficult to establish definitively as many individuals refused to submit DNA samples," the State Department said.
Samples of some 500 refugees, who were under consideration for U.S. resettlement through the P-3 program, were initially tested in Nairobi, Kenya.
But after the sample "suggested high rates of fraud," testing was expanded to Ethiopia, Uganda, Ghana, Guinea, Gambia and Cote d'Ivoire, the State Department said.
"Most of the approximately 3,000 refugees tested are from Somalia, Ethiopia and Liberia," the fact sheet said. The initial DNA testing "was limited to members of families applying for the P-3 program, and not between the applicants and the anchor relative in the United States," the State Department explained.
Family reunification processing and resettlement in Kenya and Ethiopia was halted in March, the State Department said, and the suspension was expanded in May to include the countries where the second round of DNA testing was done. The State Department also stopped accepting applications for the P-3 program on Oct. 22.
"The Departments of State and Homeland Security, along with our resettlement agency partners, are currently discussing how to handle applications that were submitted earlier this year," the fact sheet said.
Impact on refugees
Holly Johnson, State Refugee Coordinator for the Tennessee Office for Refugees said Friday that to her knowledge, the suspension "has not had a significant impact on the local program."
"It will impact refugees nationwide who have submitted a non-fraudulent application for a parent, spouse, or minor child because they will be separated from their family indefinitely," she said.
Johnson said all resettlement agencies "are under strict guidelines regarding the reporting of suspected fraud in refugee families, and we are no different."
"I take it very seriously," Johnson told the Times-Gazette. "Of the hundreds of resettlement cases that I have handled in the ten years that I have worked in the local resettlement program, there were only two cases (in the state) where I suspected the possibility of fraud."
Those cases were reported immediately to their national organization, Catholic Charities, Johnson said, and then were passed on to the State Department and/or the Department of Homeland Security. She added they were not notified of the outcome of these reports because of confidentiality guidelines.
Johnson said that Catholic Charities' focus "is on resettling refugees that the U.S. State Department selects and sends to Middle Tennessee."
"Our goal is to have them living independently within six months of arrival," she said. "The many refugees that have resettled here over the last 40 years have a solid track record of getting on their feet and joining the community very quickly."
Johnson also noted that while those who work with refugees understand the deplorable living conditions that would inspire one to attempt to flee by any means possible, "we strongly believe that the established guidelines must be followed in order to preserve the integrity of the U.S. refugee program."
"In no way do we excuse or condone the falsification of these applications, and are saddened by the fact that honest people are suffering because of the dishonesty of others," Johnson said.
Gary Michelson, director of media relations for Tyson Foods, which employs nearly all of the Somali refugees that live in Shelbyville, said that Tyson has "zero tolerance for employing people who are not authorized to work in the U.S. That's why we use all available tools provided by the U.S. government to verify the documents of the people we hire."
"We check the employment documents of all new team members when they are first hired," Michelson said.
New hires are required to fill out a Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification Form and are required to present documents that prove identity and employment eligibility.
Since 1998, Tyson has also voluntarily participated in the U.S. government's Basic Pilot/Employment Eligibility Verification Program, which is now known as E-Verify, an internet-based system operated by the DHS in partnership with the Social Security Administration.
Tyson also uses the Social Security Number Verification System (SSNVS), an on-line service offered by the Social Security Administration (SSA), which allows registered users (employers and certain third-party submitters) to verify the names and Social Security numbers of employees against SSA records, Michelson said.
"If we learn one of our workers may not have proper authorization to work in this country, we take immediate measures. If they are unable to correct any discrepancies in their documentation, then they are released from employment," Michelson said.
New methods of verifying family relationship claims are now being developed with the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department said, which may include voluntary DNA testing. The P-3 program in Africa will remain suspended until new measures are finalized and implemented.
However, exactly what measures will be taken against the thousands of refugees who have come into the country through the P-3 program in the last 20 years will be a question for the Department of Homeland Security to answer, the fact sheet said.
Since October 1, 2003, some 36,000 people have arrived from Africa through the P-3 program, the fact sheet explained, but also only some 400 people have arrived from other parts of the world through the program.
The P-3 program has not been suspended for non-African nationalities, the State Department said, noting that "the number of individuals applying from non-African countries, such as Burma, Cuba, etc., is very small."
Citizens from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Central African Republic, Colombia, Cuba, Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Eritrea, Ethiopia, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe are eligible for consideration through the P-3 Program.