Anisa Mohamud’s father told her that anywhere she felt safe was home, and she felt safe in Wisconsin. Armed militias had brutally attacked her family in Somalia, spurring the survivors to flee to different countries. From a tiny apartment in Madison, Mohamud and her sister have worked feverishly so their relatives could join them.
Her father died waiting. Her mother and younger brother were one flight away when President Donald Trump issued an order blocking refugees from Somalia and other predominantly Muslim nations he considered security risks. President Biden called the bans “un-American” and the Mohamuds rejoiced when he rescinded them last year.
But months later, U.S. officials rejected the Mohamuds again — and would not say why, documents provided by their lawyers show. Federal officials declined to comment, citing privacy rules, and said they are committed to welcoming more refugees after subjecting them to “rigorous vetting.”
“I’m just shocked from what’s going on,” Mohamud, 31, a naturalized U.S. citizen who works as a caregiver for the sick and elderly in their homes, said in a telephone interview. “I don’t know why. … We are not bad people. And we don’t deserve this.”
The Mohamuds’ case is raising concerns about the pace of the U.S. refugee system months after Biden boosted the refugee admissions cap to 125,000 people, a repudiation of the record low ceilings under Trump. But fewer than 4,500 refugees have arrived since the fiscal year began on Oct. 1, worrying advocates that the Trump administration’s “extreme vetting” policies remain in place. The former president has said he strengthened vetting to protect national security, but critics say vetting is already stringent and his system shrank the program instead.
The Mohamuds are among a select group of 300 refugees who were in the advanced stages of processing when Trump issued a new refugee policy in October 2017 that barred people from Somalia and 10 other nations he considered “high risk” from traveling to the United States. Advocacy groups sued and a 2020 federal court settlement in Seattle required the government to prioritize their cases, returning them to the front of the line.
But refugees’ lawyers say the outcome so far is a prime example of their broader concerns about the humanitarian program under Biden. Two years after the court settlement, lawyers say, case processing is slow and shrouded in mystery. One group they are tracking was deemed “ready for departure” to the United States when Trump’s ban stopped them, and lawyers said they seemed most likely to have been admitted under Biden. But 53 of more than 100 refugees in that group have been rejected under Biden. Advocates say they don’t know why.
Refugees’ lawyers are also tracking people seeking to join relatives in the United States: Only 14 of 69 refugees in that category have received decisions in their cases — all were approved. Many others are still waiting for a decision. The statistics are based on the lawyers’ analysis of reports the Justice Department is required to provide every 90 days, under the court settlement.
“Raising the cap is the first step but that doesn’t ensure that people are going to get here,” said Mariko Hirose, litigation director at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and one of the main lawyers involved in the settlement. “These refugees have been stuck in the system for years and years.”
The Justice Department, which represents the government in court, did not dispute the lawyers’ figures. One official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the litigation, said the settlement required the government to “prioritize” the cases but did not guarantee either a speedy decision or an approval.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which adjudicates refugee applications with the State Department, said the government is complying with the court settlement while also conducting “rigorous vetting” to protect national security.
State Department officials said the agencies have been stretched thin by the pandemic, which limited the ability of USCIS refugee officers to travel abroad to interview applicants, and restricted operations at State’s resettlement support centers, an issue they are trying to address now with a mix of in-person and video screenings. Officials have also been consumed by the arrival of more than 76,000 Afghans since the war in Afghanistan ended, most on humanitarian parole, a temporary status that does not count toward the 125,000 refugee cap. Refugees are on a path to permanent residency.
“The rebuilding process is well underway and will enable us to support much-increased admissions numbers in future years,” the State Department said in a statement. “We are committed to admitting as many refugees as possible for Fiscal Year 2022.”
The Mohamuds came forward seeking help from advocacy groups after federal officials denied their case last year. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said in a letter that the denial was “a matter of discretion,” according to copies of the records. Hirose, their lawyer, said the Justice Department has told them that a security hold was placed on the family’s file on the day of Trump’s travel ban, and they are trying to get more information.
Advocacy and resettlement organizations worry that more refugees are facing the same issues; they do not know the identities of all the refugee applicants denied in the Justice Department’s 90-day reports.
“It’s opaque,” Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the Jewish community’s refugee agency and one of the groups that brought the lawsuits that led to the settlement. “We don’t understand why they’re doing that.”
Before the civil war broke out in 1991, the Mohamuds were thriving in Somalia with homes in the city and the countryside. Anisa Mohamud’s mother was in medical school; her father was a businessman. “We had a beautiful life,” she said.
But they were part of a minority group that became a target, even after they fled from the city to their grandparents’ farm. In 2000, armed militias raped their mother and killed their grandfather and older brother, and the traumatized family went into hiding.
When the girls became teenagers, their mother feared for their safety and sent them to live with a friend in Egypt. The teens ended up in the United Nations refugee program and in 2012 resettled in the United States.
Their mother and brother fled to Uganda and won approval in 2016 to come to the United States, records show.
“Finally we get to be together,” she recalled saying.
Her mother and brother sold their belongings in the capital city of Kampala and in Wisconsin, the sisters prepared for their arrival by renting a bigger apartment. At a layover in Istanbul just as Trump was issuing the new refugee rules, an official blocked them from boarding the plane to the United States. They returned to Uganda, homeless.
Mohamud said she and her sister work two and three shifts a day as caregivers so that sick and elderly residents can remain in their homes, bathing them and administering medicine. Mohamud said she wishes she could do the same for her own mother, who has been diagnosed with hypertension and bipolar disorder. Mohamud said she has been able to afford to visit her once.
“My mom needs help,” she said.