2022 Fellow Alexandra Zaretsky recently shared a recap of the first year of her Equal Justice Works Fellowship at the International Refugee Assistance Project. Alexandra’s work was funded by donations made during the Text-to-Give campaign at the 2022 Scales of Justice event.
As an Equal Justice Works Text-to-Give Fellow, I am working with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) to help reunite refugee families and to challenge the broader, systemic issues keeping Muslim refugee families apart.
In 1980, Congress created an immigration program for refugees who resettled in the United States to have their spouse and children join them. This program was later shut down by the Trump Administration in October 2017 as part of its “Muslim Ban”—which was later found unlawful. IRAP challenged delays on a mass scale and got the Muslim Ban declared illegal. Even so, the program remains mired in bureaucratic delays extending over multiple years, and though it is gone on paper, dismantling its legacy proves difficult.
Using a sample size of cases covered by IRAP’s settlement agreement over the 2017 Ban, nearly 40% of refugee family reunification cases at the final stages of processing when the Ban came down are still waiting for the day they can be with their families again. These years of separation mean important milestones missed and family memories that will never be created.
One of the affected families is the Mohamed family. When Mr. Mohamed—a Somali man who entered the U.S. as a refugee—applied for his wife and sons to join him in the United States in 2016, he never imagined how long the process could take. The government transferred his applications around the country, incorrectly applied its own evidentiary standards, and temporarily closed the cases without bothering to inform Mr. Mohamed. Seven years later, Mr. Mohamed is still waiting for his family to join him.
“My children are years older now,” Mr. Mohamed told Sahan Journal. “They say, ‘When are you coming?’ When are you going to take us with you?’ They ask me things that I am unable to provide for them… things I’ve been waiting for years to happen.”
“The government transferred his applications around the country, incorrectly applied its own evidentiary standards, and temporarily closed the cases without bothering to inform Mr. Mohamed. Seven years later, Mr. Mohamed is still waiting for his family to join him.”Alexandra Zaretsky /
2022 Equal Justice Works Text-to-Give Fellow
Unfortunately, Mr. Mohamed’s experience reflects a system that is built to exclude Muslim refugees. Families, like Mr. Mohamed’s, often become separated when people flee their homes and become refugees. Men leave because a militia is coming for them and there is no time to travel as a family. Women leave to escape sexual violence. Parents arrange for the children to leave with what money they have, praying for a better future for them.
The government has yet to defend its delays in court, instead promptly moving the families’ reunification applications forward once the lawsuit is filed. In this way, the government keeps these issues out of court and out of the public eye, quietly allowing the Muslim Ban to continue.
Throughout my fellowship over the past year, IRAP has helped file a dozen cases on behalf of families awaiting reunification, including Mr. Mohamed’s, working on our own and with our network of pro bono lawyers. For example, in Mr. Mohamed’s case, the government approved his petitions on paper, but the family still faces a yearslong wait to complete processing. Even though their initial approval can be rescinded at any time, the government claimed that its job was done and that it has no further obligation to Mr. Mohamed. IRAP challenged this logic in court, and a federal judge in Minnesota is currently considering Mr. Mohamed’s case.
“My work at IRAP aims to ensure that families like Mr. Mohamed’s will not be silenced.”Alexandra Zaretsky /
2022 Equal Justice Works Text-to-Give Fellow
My work at IRAP aims to ensure that families like Mr. Mohamed’s will not be silenced. IRAP led a campaign to fix the broken program and will keep taking this fight to federal courts around the country. This piecemeal strategy is not ideal, but I hope that the Biden Administration will realize that it would be better off addressing the delays as a systemic matter rather than responding to each lawsuit. IRAP has developed training materials and resources for pro bono attorneys so that more cases can be filed at a faster pace in the hopes that this will urge the government to act. We will keep filing the cases until the Biden Administration listens to the refugee families and heeds the call for reform.
In the meantime, these cases have real meaning for families kept apart. Of the 12 cases IRAP and our partners recently filed, four families have already seen movement on their cases, including one family who has been safely reunited in the United States. With the continued support of Equal Justice Works, I hope that more families will be reunited this year, as I continue my work with IRAP to chip away at the Muslim ban.
This blog was written by IRAP’s Equal Justice Works Fellow Alexandra Zaretsky and originally published through Equal Justice Works.