The 26-year-old, one of thousands who’ve fled war-torn Yemen for Djibouti, a country within the Horn of Africa, was granted an interview with American officials at the U.S. Embassy there, in November 2017. She was presented with a letter declaring her I-130 visa had been approved. All that was left to do was for it to be physically printed.
Amal didn’t hear back until March 13, 2018, when she was asked to return to the embassy. The couple, who communicate each day by video, rejoiced imagining their long-awaited reunion. Their separation had already been excruciating painful without the added anxiety over Yemen’s worsening crisis and rising expenses in Djibouti. Now everything finally seemed to be falling into place. Why else, they thought, would the embassy summon Amal if not to hand her a visa and passport?
At the embassy, Amal received a second letter—one with a remarkably different message.
She had been deemed “ineligible” for the already approved visa, pursuant to a seemingly innocuous directive called “Presidential Proclamation 9645”—informally known as the current iteration of the Muslim Ban.
The original approval letter, which Alobahy agreed to share with News Beat, gave no indication that the pending visa could be revoked nor that her application required further consideration as Trump’s third such ban winded its way through the courts.
It appears Amal’s only misstep was something far beyond her control: Having been born in Yemen, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation. The deadly civil war there has killed more than 16,000 and displaced more than 2 million, with an additional 22 million—about 80 percent of Yemen’s pre-war population—in desperate need of assistance. The conflict has quite literally consumed the entire country amid a cholera outbreak that has infected more than a million people. (To put that in perspective, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 2.9 million cases across the globe each year.)
Amal’s experience is emblematic of the plight of thousands of relatives of U.S. citizens barred from traveling to America as a result of Trump’s travel ban, including some who’ve waited a decade or more while their applications were being considered, immigration advocates say. Those banned from coming to the United States include applicants who were approved for visas prior to the enactment of the latest Muslim ban, and some who were subsequently denied waivers under a program that ostensibly takes a second look at claims on a case-by-case basis. Critics say the program’s addition is nothing more than a smokescreen to protect the ban’s legal standing.
The current executive order bars people from Yemen, Syria, Iran, Somalia and Libya—five Muslim-majority nations—as well as Venezuela and North Korea. In the case of Venezuela, it only pertains to certain government officials and their family members.
While the first ban was characterized by almost instantaneous eruptions of anger and protests at U.S. airports, immigration rights groups say the current iteration is equally disorderly. That’s because the ban has moved abroad as desperate family members of U.S. citizens remain in limbo, with immigration officials providing little reassurance about when or if they’ll be permitted to travel to the United States.
At the center of the immigration battle is the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti. The American outpost has been flooded with Yemenis with close familial ties to U.S. citizens, many whom have been denied immigrant visas, ever since the embassy in Yemen closed in 2015 due to the war. Some have been waiting more than a decade for clearance to travel.
Those who have been refused are left with nearly no other options, because the only way to circumvent the Muslim ban is through waivers, but even those have become exceedingly elusive, immigration advocates say.
“I feel like I’m being targeted just for being a Muslim.”
– Mohammed Alobahy
In March, attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the Rule of Law Clinic at Yale Law School traveled to the embassy to document the impact of the ban on visa applicants. They reported mass denials of waivers, despite the travel ban giving officials discretion to issue waivers on a case-by-case basis.
“We found family members who only have one child in Djibouti and one in the U.S. We found a U.S. citizen [who] left their job in the United States to stay with their family abroad,” says Ibraham Qatabi, senior legal worker at CCR, and one of the editor’s of the 36-page report the nonprofit civil rights group released after its investigation, titled “Window Dressing the Muslim Ban.”
“So there was a complete systematic discrimination against Muslims, against Yemeni Americans, and their families,” he added.
Immigration advocates lament how the virtual elimination of immigration from these Muslim-majority countries has become institutionalized, and how little attention has been paid to Trump’s draconian measures, even among an American public that angrily opposed his initial executive order. The hectic scenes at airports quickly translated to mass protests on city streets across the nation.
Demonstrators were responding to reports of treatment of immigrants that they believed to be in direct contradiction of long-standing American values. The words emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty became a rallying cry: Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Lawyers rushing to various points of entry after the first ban was signed reported that Homeland Security (DHS) agents were caught off guard by the hastily implemented directive—a characterization supported by the DHS Inspector General’s own investigation. Green card holders permitted to live and work in the United States were refused entry. Refugees previously vetted for resettlement were turned away. Many dozens of others were held in detention, as confusion reigned.
Advocates argue there’s still reason to confront the current system, even if it feels less-immediate.
The Muslim ban has completely turned on its head a decades-long tradition of America welcoming family members of U.S. citizens into the country, said Gadeir Abbas, senior litigation attorney at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
“This particular example, where a U.S. citizen husband is trying to bring a foreign national spouse, that is and has been for years the most prioritized form of immigration in the United States,” Abbas told News Beat.
“The immigration that unites the husband and wife together has been seen as a desirable outcome for the immigration system,” he said, adding that there’s been a “cratering” of Muslim immigration to the United States as a result of the ban.
An aerial bombardment in Sana’a. (Credit: Fahd Sadi/ Creative Commons)
Abbas compared Amal’s predicament to a federal case in New York, in which a judge recently ordered the government print visas for about two dozen people in Djibouti who similarly had their approved visas revoked due to the ban.
U.S. District Court Judge Brian Cogan said officials must honor “its representations to prospective immigrants,” adding that inaction on his part would leave Yemenis in an “untenable position,” according to the New York Daily News.
Cogan set a June 12 deadline for the visas to be printed. On the surface, Cogan’s ruling was a clear victory for those Yemenis whose approved visas were suddenly revoked, but the judge did acknowledge, according to The News, that immigration officials have broad authority to enforce immigration law—which was essentially what the conservative justices on the Supreme Court argued when it upheld the current version of the ban, 5-4, on June 26.
Trump had introduced his third Muslim Ban via executive order on Sept. 24, 2017 after his previous two attempts were plagued by dozens of federal court challenges. Muslim Ban 3.0, as it’s been dubbed by critics of the policy, did not go into effect until December. With a court-imposed injunction lifted as the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear the case, immigration officials were free to carry out its directives.
It was during this three-month window when the ban was temporarily blocked by a federal court in Hawaii that Amal was approved a visa.
“For now,” Alobahy said, “it’s a waiting game.”
Alobahy, who lives and works in Rochester, NY, said he’s exhausted most of his options. If he doesn’t continue to fund his wife’s stay in Djibouti pending a waiver appeal, she’ll otherwise have to return to Yemen, where she no longer has a home.
Amal hails from Al Hudaydah, which was once the fourth-largest city in Yemen and a vital port city. The situation in Al Hudaydah became even more untenable when the United Nations and International Committee for the Red Cross pulled out in anticipation of intense fighting between Saudi coalition partners and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Underscoring the strategic importance of Al Hudaydah is the fact that most humanitarian aid and food arrives at its ports in a country where 18 million people are food insecure, according to the United Nations Secretary General.
The U.N. Migration Agency said the number of people displaced or killed since fighting intensified in Al Hudaydah on June 12 is on the rise.
“The situation is very bad and we’re doing our best to provide them with temporary shelter and support for the time being,” the agency said.
Even before fighting escalated in Al Hudaydah, the city had lacked “the basic life needs,” says Alobahy. His wife’s family had fled for the historic city of Sana’a more than a year ago, but her father stayed behind to look after their home. For four days the family couldn’t get in touch with him, only to later discover he suffered a stroke and had to travel 90 miles to Sana’a for treatment since there was no hospital back home.
For Alobahy, the Muslim ban is especially personal. Being away from his wife brings its own horrors—the inability to embrace her, for example, to explore new places and cultures, and enjoy each other’s company—not to mention the financial toll. But he also feels like he’s paying for the sins not of his making.
“I feel like I am being targeted just for being a Muslim,” he says. “I mean it’s very clear that the president stated that he wants to ban Muslims from coming to the United States. There is no other explanation of…what he intended to do.”
Others in Amal’s situation are yet again taking the fight to the Trump administration in court. This week, three dozen people impacted by the ban filed the first suit against the order since the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling, Vox reported. It’s their way of forcing the administration to be more forthcoming about the waiver process. According to the suit, the ban stipulates that people are eligible for a waiver if they meet one of three requirements: “’demonstrate’ that denial of entry ‘would cause undue hardship…would not pose a threat to national security…and would be in the national interest.”
“To date, however, no such guidance has been issued or publicly promulgate,” the lawsuit states, arguing that the current policy violates the Fifth Amendment right to due process, and the Immigration and Nationality Act. “The agencies do not appear to have established—and certainly have not provided any meaningful information to the public—about waiver application procedures, how waiver eligibility determinations are made, or whether any recourse exists for persons who are not considered for a waiver in the first instance.”
Immigrant advocates see the opaque nature of the waiver process as the administration’s way of placating the courts—which may have worked in their favor. In his ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts singled out the waiver program as being open to “to all covered foreign nationals”—meaning Trump’s executive order does not discriminate based on religion or nationality.
The CCR’s Qatabi considers the waiver clause as a ploy simply to appease the courts. He points to the mass denials of waiver applicants at the embassy in Djibouti as evidence that immigration officials are not considering waivers on a “case-by-case” basis.
“There is no processes right now, there is no waivers,” he says. “There is a complete Muslim ban in place targeting people of color, targeting Muslim people, and its not allowing even U.S. citizen children and spouses [to] rejoin them here in the United States.”
It was a spectacular scene. On a brisk day in February last year, more than 6,000 Yemeni Americans descended on Brooklyn Borough Hall to protest the Muslim ban. The majority of the demonstrators were grocery store owners who closed their shops for one day to highlight the critical role Yemenis play throughout New York City on any given day. American flags waved amid the biting cold temperatures as Yemenis, young and old, punched the air, chanting: “USA! USA! USA!”
Debbie Almontaser, an educator, community activist and co-founder of the Yemeni American Merchants Association, which was borne out of the strike, says the implications of the ban have been “tragic.” She likened it to the forced separation of parents and children at the southern border.
“What’s happening to Yemenis and people who are banned by the Muslim ban is exactly the same thing,” Almontaser says, “except that it’s invisible for us in the United States because it’s happening at U.S. embassies. It’s happening at airports, and we are not seeing it.”
“This Muslim ban is part of the larger policy of minimizing immigration of people of color and ethnic backgrounds to the United States,” she added.
The suffering is all too real. Almontaser, who has become a leader of the Yemeni community in New York, said she recently learned of a man in Louisiana who committed suicide because of the pain the Muslim ban caused his family. Tragically, the U.S. government has only recently approved visas for his family members from Yemen. Instead of a joyous reunion, his family will be gathering for a funeral. Her own family has also been impacted.
“This executive order is a Muslim ban,” Almontaser insists. “It was designed to be a Muslim ban because of the campaign promise that Trump made to the world, that he was going to create a Muslim ban. We look back at all the video footage. We see it. We hear it.”
Without mentioning it explicitly, Almontaser was referring to Trump’s call for a Muslim ban in late 2015, among many other incendiary remarks during the presidential campaign, including his admission to CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he believes “Islam hates us.”
"The community on a whole is absolutely devastated by the emotional trauma that people are experiencing,” Almontaser says. “And we’re really, really concerned that this incident can have a ripple effect on the community and other people feel like this is the only way to put an end to this situation.”
Qatabbi, the CCR senior legal worker, says Yemen is virtually cut off from the rest of the world, while those trying to flee often do so at tremendous risk to themselves and their families.
He calls the denial of visas and waiver rejections “discriminatory,” and blamed the Supreme Court for “allowing a bigoted president” to pursue an anti-Muslim agenda.
“This is exactly why people need to stand up and continue to fight and pursue all kind of avenues, whether legal or through Congress, and to demand action to take down this Muslim ban,” Qatabbi says. “Because like Martin Luther King said, ‘A threat to justice somewhere is a threat to justice everywhere’—and this is exactly what’s happening.”
Meanwhile, the crisis in Yemen continues unabated. While much of America is well aware of the country’s interventions in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere, the lack of media attention of the Yemeni Civil War has left activists anxious. The silence from the media has been so deafening that the bloodbath has been dubbed ‘The Forgotten War’—borrowing the moniker oft-used to describe the publicity-starved atrocities of the Korean War.
“For three years, much of the world has ignored this raging conflict and heard little about its devastating consequences,” Amnesty International said in a recent report.
The exact toll of the war is hard to measure. Among the immediate questions: What becomes of a country that has been bombed mercilessly by regional rivals with little disregard for innocents caught in the crossfire? And what of America’s already precarious standing in the country? It already has the sickening distinction as the nation providing billions of dollars in arms to the Saudi-led coalition and then banning desperate Yemeni families who are struggling to escape its consequential devastation.
Alobahy and his wife are fighting this battle on two fronts: Amal by simply trying to survive, and Alobahy by wading precariously through bureaucratic obfuscation just so he can have her by his side once again. Ironically, the ordeal has not dampened America’s appeal. They more than anything su to call this country home.
“I don’t understand why I have to stand and explain myself…to the president that, as a Muslim, I deserve to have my wife living with me,” says Alobahy.
As for now, the couple makes do with what they have. Not a day goes by without them speaking by phone or video. Many thousands of miles separate Djibouti from New York. Thankfully, their smartphones open a digital portal unobstructed by laws of man. They take solace in each other’s words and shared dreams of a better tomorrow, fully aware that the next call may bring the good news they’ve been longing for.