Demonstrators march in downtown Minneapolis in June 2018 to protest President Donald Trump's travel ban on Muslim-majority countries. Earlier that day, a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ban on travel from several mostly Muslim countries. Credit: Christopher Juhn for MPR News

A backlog of family reunification cases has been growing since former President Donald Trump banned immigration from Muslim-majority countries, leaving refugees in Minnesota and elsewhere in limbo about their attempts to sponsor their family’s immigration to the United States.

Additional vetting requirements baked into Trump’s 2017 ban continue to delay the processing of refugee cases even though the policy ended when President Joe Biden took office in 2021, according to the International Refugee Assistance Project in New York. The bureaucratic delays snowballed when embassies across the world closed due to COVID-19 and world conflicts. 

“Under the Trump administration and with the refugee ban, there were a number of additional processing requirements that add layers of complexity and time to some of the security vetting and background checks,” said Melissa Keaney, an attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project.

Prior to 2017, U.S. immigrants applying for family reunification had to provide information about their previous addresses and phone numbers going back five years. Under Trump’s ban, they had to report the information for 10 years. The requirements also applied to refugees trying to immigrate to the United States outside of family reunification efforts.

There were approximately 20,000 refugee family reunification applications pending initial approval as of March, according to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. More than 25,000 cases had already passed that juncture and were awaiting interviews and additional processing at U.S. embassies abroad. 

Ben Walen, division director of refugee services at the Minnesota Council of Churches, said family reunification is built into the U.S. immigration system as a “support system” to help refugees succeed after they arrive.

“People will thrive if they have family around them, and families that are separate are going to struggle,” Walen said. “With the timeline extended, it’s making family separation longer than it should be.”

According to Walen, the Minnesota Council of Churches is working on about 180 pending family reunification cases. About 150 of those cases are filed by people from Somalia. Some cases date as far back as 2011. 

Walen said some of his agency’s clients had pending applications when the ban went into effect, and have seen little to no movement in their cases in the last six years.

“We definitely have heard it impacts family members that were expecting family to come. People were very eager to check in and see progress,” Walen said. “There are people that, at some point, lost hope that this was going to be a possibility.”

Many refugees whose immigration applications were in the final stages of processing in 2017 had already booked their travel to the United States, said refugee advocacy groups. But their applications were denied after Trump’s ban went into effect, and they were told to re-submit their applications with additional address and phone number information. 

“When you’re talking about individuals who have experienced more precarious housing situations, it’s pretty difficult to do that,” Keaney said of the requirement to provide 10 years of address and phone data. “That took a significant amount of time. All that information had to be re-run, all the security checks had to be redone, and that created a tremendous amount of backlogs because the security agencies were not prepared for that.”

Keaney said immigration officials run the addresses and phone numbers through a bulk matching system to check if any of the data has been flagged as security concerns. If they have, an application is automatically denied. 

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services reported that the median processing time for I-730 applications, one of the forms U.S. immigrants file to sponsor their relatives’ move to the United States, was just under eight months in 2017. The median processing time was a little over two years—28 months—in 2022, and a year and a half in 2023.

In an emailed statement, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said an application’s wait time may vary depending on an applicant’s ability to provide sufficient evidence for eligibility, as well as biometric requirements, such as fingerprints. 

“Each case is reviewed based on the totality of the evidence, and there may be variations on how long they take to adjudicate,” the statement said. 

To address the backlog of cases, the agency established goals in March 2022 to speed up the process. The agency wants to cut the processing time for I-730 cases to six months.

“These goals are internal metrics that guide the backlog reduction efforts of the USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) workforce and affect how long it takes the agency to process cases,” the agency’s statement said. “As cycle times improve, processing times will follow, and applicants and petitioners will receive decisions on their cases more quickly.”

The agency also plans to increase capacity, improve technology, and expand staffing to achieve its new goals by the end of September 2023.

There are other forms of family reunification besides an I-730 form, which is specifically for spouses and children, Walen said. For example, an affidavit of relationship is used to sponsor relatives such as parents and siblings. Walen added that he more often utilizes the affidavit of relationship application for his clients.

Resettlement agencies like the Minnesota Council of Churches primarily provide services to refugees who have already arrived in the United States. Walen said Minnesota agencies can only play a limited role in filing family reunification petitions for refugees due to agencies’ capacity issues.

Rabi Mohamed (left), a 35-year-old Somali refugee and truck driver in St. Cloud, has lived apart from his wife and three kids for more than seven years. His request to sponsor his family’s immigration was recently approved after he sued the federal government for putting his request on hold. Credit: Courtesy of Rabi Mohamed

Rabi Mohamed, of St Cloud-based, is a client of Keaney’s team. He sued the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services in April for delaying and denying his family reunification case for seven years. His wife and three young sons have been living in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. 

The first step in Rabi’s I-730 petition was cleared in May, just a few weeks after he filed his lawsuit alleging that the federal government violated his constitutional right to due process when it delayed issuing a final decision on his request. 

Despite the initial approval of his petition, Rabi’s attorneys said it could take six months to a year before his family undergoes processing at the U.S. embassy in Ethiopia and joins him in Minnesota. 

“I can’t even begin to describe my relief and happiness,” Rabi told Sahan Journal in June. “All they ever wanted was for me to be with them, and for so long they had no hope. They are excited about joining me now.”

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal covering immigration and politics. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. She’s a graduate...