Pausing the Risky Refugee 'Family Unification' Program Is the Right Thing to Do

By Dan Cadman on October 23, 2017

Reuters reports that the Trump administration is considering putting a pause on what the news service describes as the "refugee family unification program". I hope it's true.

Here's what the Immigration and Nationality Act has to say about this program—

[Sec. 207(c)(2)(A)] A spouse or child ... of any refugee who qualifies for admission under paragraph (1) shall, if not otherwise entitled to admission under paragraph (1) and if not a person described in the second sentence of section 101(a)(42), be entitled to the same admission status as such refugee if accompanying, or following to join, such refugee and if the spouse or child is admissible (except as otherwise provided under paragraph (3)) as an immigrant under this Act.

Reading the law, one conjures up the notion of wives and minor children being brought to join their refugee husband/father after he safely arrives at his new safe haven in the United States. That does, of course, happen. But it isn't always the norm. There are two additional important things to understand about how the program works in real life:

The first is that a "child" for purposes of this section means anyone unmarried under the age of 21. To take a hypothetical example, then, in practical effect a young unmarried adult Syrian male who purports to be under 21, who is claimed by his refugee "parent", would be entitled to entry under this "unification" program. What would that "child's" true age, background, and family bona fides be in such a circumstance? It's hard to know, when there are no vital records left in a country riven by years of civil war fueled by a repressive regime and multiple terrorist groups.

The second thing to understand is that the principal refugee is quite often the woman, who sometimes claims that she doesn't know where her husband is, or even whether he is alive. Thus, she will likely be directly accompanied to the United States by any children of tender age if she is approved as a refugee, and will only "find" her spouse or adult child and apply for him/them once she is well ensconced on our shores. Again, what would such a husband's background circumstances be? Would they be exactly as claimed — often, something along the lines of him hiding from government, militia, and terrorist forces — or would he have shadowy, under-the-radar radical ties? Like with the adult male child, it's also hard, nigh unto impossible, to really know.

So it is that a husband, or an older male child such as is described above, will often remain in the background while the wife/mother does the actual filing for refugee status. After all a wife/mother fleeing chaos and war presents a significantly more sympathetic picture. The men are fully aware that if she, as the face of the family, is granted refugee status, they can quickly follow to join. The problem, obviously, is that this "family unification program" is rife with risk and highly susceptible to being exploited — something not at all clear from the Reuters article, which would have us believe it's more evidence of a hard-hearted administration turning its back on the world's desperate.

I don't speak entirely in hypothetical terms when I speak of the risk in admitting adult male follow-to-joins, particularly from war-torn and terrorist-infested parts of the world. Such "family unification" provisions have in fact led to the admission of radicals and terrorists. Take, for instance the case of Ahmad Khan Rahimi (sometimes spelled "Rahami" in the press), the man recently convicted for his planting a bomb in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York that exploded, wounding 30 people. According to news reports, Rahimi was an Afghan follow-to-join whose father was the principal applicant, having previously obtained asylum in the United States in 1995. Rahimi was able to do so because the INA contains a "family unification" provision for family members of aliens granted asylum that is parallel to the one for family members of refugees. (See INA Section 208(b)(3).)

Another singular case shows even more clearly the dangers in follow-to-join circumstances. A Bosnian woman, Divna Maslenjak, was admitted to the United States in 2000 as a refugee. Over the years, she adjusted status to that of a lawful permanent resident, and then applied for and was granted naturalization. While a refugee, Maslenjak sought to have her husband join her under the provisions of INA Section 208 previously described. After the husband's admission, it was discovered that he had engaged in war crimes during the post-Yugoslavia war in the Balkans, and he was taken into custody. Thereafter, she herself was charged with the criminal offense of illegally procuring her naturalization by having concealed the material fact of her husband's participation in war crimes, under 18 U.S.C. Section 1425. In fact, Maslenjak had to have done so serially: First, when she made her own application for refugee status; again, when she sought to aid her war criminal husband to enter; a third time when she filled out the paperwork to become a resident alien; and the fourth and last time when she withheld the information in seeking citizenship.

Maslenjak was convicted in U.S. District Court and her conviction was later upheld by the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Stunningly, however, in June of this year the Supreme Court reversed, finding on technical grounds that the withholding was not material to Maslenjak's procurement of naturalization under the statute.

What is the unintended, but very real, consequence of this decision? It transmits the unambiguous message to aliens who obtain refugee status that they can serially lie to the government. With specific reference to the "family unification" program, it sends the disturbing message that you can withhold information relating to your spouse's — or son's, or daughter's — involvement with terrorist groups, or paramilitary death squads, or repressive regimes that engage in massive human rights abuses and yet suffer no penalties for having done so.

In sum, like many humanitarian efforts, the refugee "follow to join" program was built with the best of intentions, but is inherently risky and has been poorly administered. On top of all that, we now have court cases that render it even more dangerous to the American people. The administration's decision is a move in the right direction.