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Somali immigrant visa petitions stalling over identity paperwork

Abdinasir Abdulahi is speaking out for Somali immigrants

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By Gregory Pratt
Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Local immigration attorneys are up in arms over the United States embassy in Nairobi's refusal to issue certain visas to Somali applicants.

At issue are I-130 applications by Somalis in America, which are petitions to bring over family members. United States Customs and Immigration Services has to approve the application, then sends it over to the American embassy, where the visa is provided. Somalis who have fled their homeland for Kenya have their visas processed by the U.S. consulate in Nairobi.

The problem, immigration attorneys say, is that the embassy is denying cases left and right. "It seems that they are creating these artificial walls or impediments to Somalis applying for visas," says Brian Aust, a local immigration attorney.

The situation, Aust says, is that the consulate refuses to issue visas to persons who are "unable to establish their identity," which is an old problem for Somalis: The government of Somalia disappeared in 1990, and most of the country's records have been destroyed in a civil war since then.

It's not unusual for Somali immigrants to face extra scrutiny from American officials, Aust says. The government closely reviews I-130 petitions for alien relatives to make sure that people who claim to be sponsoring a relative are, in fact, family. Sometimes, the government insists on DNA testing.

But applicants have run into a different layer of red tape, attorneys say.

The Kenyan government passed a refugee law in 2006 mandating that any person "who has entered Kenya, whether lawfully or otherwise and wishes to remain within Kenya as a refugee in terms of this Act shall make his intentions known by appearing in person before the Commissioner immediately upon his entry or, in any case, within thirty days after his entry into Kenya."

Abdinasir Abdulahi, an immigration attorney and Somali himself, says that language is tripping up Somalis, who often enter Kenya but do not plan to remain within Kenya. Somalis often use Kenya as a "transit" point, Abdulahi says, so they don't register with the country and therefore lack the documents requested by the government.

Abdulahi considers this a critical issue for the Somali community in Minnesota. He says he has an 80-year-old client who petitioned to get his daughter a visa. The client is descending into dementia and wants to see his daughter again soon. DNA testing proved she was his daughter, Abdulahi says, but the U.S. consulate denied their visa because she's been living in Kenya since the year 2000 but only registered with the Kenyan government a year ago.

A State Department official says visa applicants must provide valid documentation to establish their identity, and that this is "not new" and is a "legal requirement everywhere." The official says the government understands "this is difficult for Somalis because of the conditions in their country, but proving one's identity is required by law."

Attorneys like Aust and Abdulahi are frustrated by the government's responses to their inquiries.

"It's boilerplate," Aust says. "There's no give-and-take on this. It's a very one-sided dialogue from the embassy on this issue."

On May 18, the local American Immigration Lawyers Association will hold a panel in St. Paul to discuss the issue.


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