“It could take up to two years. It could take even longer. There are never any guarantees,” I say, with a sympathetic smile.
His expression falls. He shakes his head and wipes his hands across his face. I can’t help glancing at the picture of a little girl on the table between us. How many years since she’s seen her father? How many more until she sees him again?
I work as a paralegal in a refugee resettlement office, and one of my jobs is to help refugees apply for family reunification. I help them fill out an application and advise them on what documents to collect. I might ask four or five times to have their family members retake their pictures until they meet the application standards. We might wait months for a friend in their home country to track down a copy of a marriage certificate.
In the mean time, when I hear news about unrest in places like Baghdad and Darfur, I shuffle through my mental gallery of 2″ x 2″ photos, wondering if the people whose named are scribbled on my bright green case-file tabs are safe. If I had used the first set of pictures, would they have gotten out before this latest spurt of violence? Or would the case just have been held up?
But these are the lucky ones. Once all the I’s have been dotted and T’s crossed, if all the paperwork checks out, if the background checks are clean, if there are no policy changes, and if the family can be contacted and make it to all their appointments, they’ll be able to join their family member in the U.S.
Not all cases are so simple. When I was a caseworker, one of my clients was helping me get a new refugee family settled in. He watched their 7 year old daughter run around the yard, laughing, and said to me quietly, “My daughter would be that age by now.”
Surprised, I said, “I didn’t know you had a daughter. Did you know you can apply for her to come?”
He shook his head and looked away. “No,” he said. “No, I can’t do that. I don’t know where she is.”