WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is considering using DNA tests for some foreign refugee applicants following a Bush-era pilot program that found massive fraud among those claiming family links to join relatives already in the United States.
The State Department said Thursday that it and the Homeland Security Department are nearing a decision on ways to reinstate a refugee resettlement program that was suspended last year when the fraud was uncovered.
"These new procedures will likely include DNA testing," the State Department said in a statement given to the Associated Press.
The U.S. experiment using genetic testing ended in 2008 and was aimed only at proving family relationships. The program was not used to identify nationality by country, similar to a controversial effort in England, officials said. Genetic experts have cast doubt on the ability to use DNA results to determine a person's country of origin.
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The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because a decision has not yet been made on reviving or expanding the pilot program.
Although no final decisions have been made, the State Department said it "was close to the end" of a review that had been delayed by the change in administrations. "Now that policy-level people responsible for this issue are in place, we expect to reopen the program with revised procedures in the near future," an official said.
The suspended pilot program, known as Priority 3, allows foreign family members of legal U.S. residents to join relatives here. Most people who immigrate through this program are African.
With little fanfare, the program was halted in March 2008 after DNA testing on applicants in Africa found that up to 87 percent of their familial claims were fraudulent.
The experimental program was conducted in late 2007 and early 2008 on about 3,000 people mostly from Somalia, Ethiopia and Liberia who claimed blood relationships with each other and wanted to be reunited with a family member who had been resettled as a refugee in the U.S.
DNA testing was not done on the alleged relatives in the United States. The State Department said it targeted Africans abroad only for genetic testing because they make up 95 percent of applicants to the program. The testing started, officials said, only after suspicions of fraud arose in applications originating among refugees in Kenya.
"We were... only able to confirm all claimed biological relationships in fewer than 20 percent of cases," the State Department said in a fact sheet. "In the remaining cases, at least one negative result was identified or the individuals refused to be tested."
The fact sheet was originally released last year in the waning weeks of the Bush administration but was reissued shortly after President Obama took office.
The idea of such testing on refugees came into the spotlight again this week when British authorities said they were using genetic tests on some African asylum-seekers in an effort to catch those who are lying about their nationality. That move has drawn criticism from scientists and provoked outrage from rights groups.
As the U.S. review winds down, questions were raised about what to do with the estimated 36,000 African refugees who arrived in the United States under the resettlement between 2003 and its suspension.
The Homeland Security Department has jurisdiction to determine if any of those applications were fraudulent but department officials said Thursday that they had no plans to check those already in the United States. Such a move would likely draw opposition from civil rights groups.
Officials said Homeland Security does not have a specific DNA testing program in place in the United States. But one official said it has always asked for a DNA submission if an applicant does not have evidence that proves there is a family relationship.