After a long day of work driving truck, Rabi Mohamed returns to an empty home, thinking of the wife and three kids he had to leave behind in Ethiopia. He’s done all he can to get them to St. Cloud, but says the U.S. government is creating hurdles to their immigration, relegating them to a meager life in a refugee camp. 

Rabi is now seeking relief through litigation after spending six-and-a-half years in a holding pattern with no official decision from the federal government about bringing his family over.

“I went through so much difficulty since I have been away from my family,” Rabi said. “I had to get used to a life that I never experienced before—a life of living on my own.”

Rabi, a 35-year-old Somali refugee, is suing the United States government for putting his requests to sponsor his family’s immigration to Minnesota on hold. He has been separated from his wife, Sahra Abdulahi, and their three sons—ages 10, 7, and 4—for more than seven years. 

Rabi filed his lawsuit Tuesday in federal court, naming Ur Jaddou, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Rena Bitter, assistant secretary of State for Consular Affairs, as plaintiffs.

The lawsuit asks a judge to find that the federal government violated Rabi’s constitutional right to due process when it delayed issuing a final decision on Rabi’s request to sponsor his family’s immigration. It also asks a judge to declare that Rabi does not have to submit DNA evidence to prove his relationship to his family, and to compel U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to issue a decision on Rabi’s request, among other demands. 

In an email to Sahan Journal, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said they do not comment on pending litigation. The agency did not comment on the backlog of family reunification cases. 

In an interview translated from Somali, Rabi shared how he became separated from his family in 2015, and the complications that arose when they tried to reunite with him later. 

“It fills me with so much dread that I am away from my wife and my children,” he said. “It’s a lonely life.”

One visit in seven years

Rabi, a legal permanent resident, immigrated to the United States in 2015 after he was approved for refugee status. The designation did not apply to his wife, whom he met and married in 2011 in the Ethiopian refugee camp where they both grew up, and where his wife and children still live.

Rabi reluctantly immigrated to the United States without his family because his parents had filed paperwork for his immigration when he was a minor, according to his lawsuit. 

“Because he understood that adding his wife and young son to his refugee case would significantly delay processing, Mr. Mohamed made the difficult decision to travel to the United States alone, hoping that his family would soon be able to join him in the United States,” the suit said. “By the time Mr. Mohamed left for the United States, Ms. Abdulahi was pregnant with their second child.”

Rabi had dreamed of making the trip with his wife, and thought it wouldn’t be long before she would join him with their two sons. (The couple’s third son was born later.)

“Life in the camp was difficult and bleak: refugees had few, if any, work opportunities and there was not always enough food,” said Rabi’s lawsuit. “Mr. Mohamed and Ms. Abdulahi entertained themselves by daydreaming together about what their lives would be like outside the camp.” 

He couldn’t have known that he would only see his family once in the next seven years. Rabi visited his wife and children in Ethiopia from late December 2018 to March 2019, at which time Sahra became pregnant with their third son. Rabi has never met the boy, Kalid, who is now four. The couples’ older sons, Hudayfi and Hamza, are 10 and 7, respectively.

“I felt an incredible amount of happiness to see my family again, to be able to spend quality time with them,” Rabi said of the visit. “At that point, I had been away from them for four years, and in those four years, I had not experienced real happiness until I was back with them. And the day I had to leave them again, I felt dread and sadness that I still carry with me.”

Refugees must apply to become a legal permanent resident of the United States after living in the country for a year. Once Rabi became a permanent resident, he filed family reunification petitions in 2016 to bring his wife and sons to the United States under the Refugee Act of 1980. 

He complied with multiple requests from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to supply the agency with additional documentation identifying his relationship to his wife and children, according to the suit. He also obtained assistance from U.S. Representative Tom Emmer, who sent an inquiry to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services outlining Rabi’s concerns. 

But, the lawsuit said, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services ultimately said the agency couldn’t verify Rabi’s relationship to his family, and closed his petitions. 

According to the suit: In 2021, the federal agency requested further evidence to prove Rabi’s relationship to his wife and sons. Rabi responded with marriage and birth certificates issued by the Ethiopian Vital Events Statistics Registration Agency, which the United States government recognizes as official documentation.

Rabi didn’t receive updates from the agency for more than a year after sending in the documents. He filed a public records request in 2022 for his family’s immigration files to better understand why his petitions were still pending. 

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services responded to that request in March 2023. The records showed that the petitions for Rabi’s sons were temporarily closed until Rabi could provide DNA evidence. Rabi never received notice that the government wanted a DNA sample from him, the suit said, and the records did not clarify whether the decision to close his petitions was ever officially finalized.

Rabi said he did not provide a DNA sample with his petitions because DNA evidence is optional for such filings. Instead, he submitted other documents that are required with the petition—a marriage certificate and birth certificates for his sons, which he also shared with Sahan Journal.

Rabi’s attorney, Alexandra Zaretsky, said that providing a DNA sample is unnecessary based on the government’s requirements.

Meanwhile, the suit said, Rabi’s family continues to endure hardships in the refugee camp.

“Ms. Abdulahi told him that the family’s food rations had been cut and that she and his sons were hungry much of the time,” according to the lawsuit. “Mr. Mohamed felt distressed by his family’s difficult living situation and wished that he could be with his wife and sons to provide for and protect them. 

“Although Mr. Mohamed talks to his wife and children by phone whenever he can, he cannot physically be there to care for his young children, ensure they are clothed and fed, and hug and comfort his family.” 

The International Refugee Assistance Project, a refugee advocacy group in New York, and Prokosch Law LLC, a Roseville-based immigration law firm, are working on Rabi’s lawsuit

Zaretsky, an attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project, said that although there is a backlog in family reunification cases, waiting more than six years for a final decision on a petition is a comparatively long wait.

“This issue is affecting the Somali community in particular, but across the board, there are delays in family reunification,” Zaretsky said. “If the government sees this lawsuit and actually devotes the resources they need to clear the backlog, that would benefit everyone.”

Zaretsky added that Somali families are experiencing more delays because of the 2017 ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia, enacted by then-President Donald Trump. That created a backlog in cases that the U.S. immigration system is still experiencing today. The government’s constant requests for additional evidence unnecessarily delayed Rabi’s case further, she said.

“When they request evidence, that can cause a lot of delays in these cases. You’re asking people to track documents and to answer questions that in a lot of cases are unnecessary,” Zaretsky said. “That will add years of processing time and keep these families apart.”

‘Is it because I have no rights at all as an immigrant?’

As a young child, Rabi and his family fled civil war in Somalia and ended up in the refugee camp in Ethiopia, according to the lawsuit. His parents filed a case for their family to resettle in the United States. Processing refugee resettlement cases can take many years. 

In the meantime, Rabi and his family had few options for work, and there wasn’t always enough food to go around.

“Life in Ethiopia is very sparse,” Rabi said. “Anyone who wants to work, can work in America. But in Ethiopia, you can want to work and still find it difficult to find a way to support your family.”

He met his wife Sahra Abdulahi in the camp and the two lived a happy life despite the struggles of a refugee camp, the lawsuit said. Their first son, Hudayfi, was born in 2012. 

“Mr. Mohamed adored his young son, whom he would often carry around on his back,” the suit said. 

Hudayfi had trouble sleeping at night after Rabi left. When Rabi’s second son was born in 2016, Rabi was not able to hold him or support his wife in childbirth, according to the suit. 

“My children are years older now,” Rabi said. “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 or make happen—things that I’ve been waiting for years to happen.”

Rabi talks to his wife and children over the phone when he can, and regularly sends money to support them. But maintaining his life in Minnesota and his family’s life in Ethiopia has become a financial and emotional strain. 

“Often, I will find my mind wandering. I will be at work, and my heart and mind will be somewhere else [with my family],” he said. “I will only turn back when someone speaks to me. People always ask, ‘Where is your mind at?’” 

What he wants most from the lawsuit is a clear answer about the status of his petitions. Rabi said he thinks there was a delay in processing his petitions because he submitted them the year Trump became president and began cracking down on immigration.

“His government had made changes that made it difficult for immigrants to come here, so a lot of immigrants began to face challenges,” Rabi said. 

Yet, he’s still experiencing delays under President Joe Biden’s administration. 

“I have been asking myself, ‘Is this because of the circumstances when I first came? Or is it because I have no rights at all as an immigrant?’” he said.


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...

Aala Abdullahi is the innovation editor at Sahan Journal, where she leads the newsroom's community engagement efforts. An Al Jazeera and CBC alum, her passion lies most in using concrete data and audience...