Ahmed Almuliki hasn’t seen his wife in six years.
As the Yemeni wife of an American citizen, she is entitled to a travel waiver to come to the United States. But her application, in 2008, was subjected to enhanced screening and security checks. She was only granted an initial interview in 2012, and when the Yemeni civil war broke out in 2015, she made the perilous 18-hour journey across the Red Sea to Djibouti, near the Horn of Africa.
Then came Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, and everything stopped.
Almuliki tells me this story, through a translator, in a packed storefront office in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. He’s one of 50 or so Yemeni-American men, many of whom have lived in the neighborhood for decades, who came here to talk with their congressman, freshman Democrat Max Rose, and to my contact, Dr. Debbie Almontaser, a respected educator and community leader who founded New York’s first Arab-focused public school (she is the author of the new book Leading While Muslim: The Experiences of American Muslim Principals After 9/11).
The men tell story after story of horror. Family members caught between the bloody conflict in Yemen—itself stoked by Saudi Arabia and the U.S.—and the ban on travel imposed two years ago on January 27, 2017. Children stuck on different continents while the processing of paperwork, always frustratingly slow, has come to an absolute standstill. Mothers stranded in Egypt, Djibouti, and Yemen without any means of financial support. While our collective attention has moved on to other issues, they—many of them American citizens—are still languishing, victims of an absurd policy with no justification other than jingoism and fear.
These are the human faces of the Trump’s loudly promised Muslim ban, rebranded as a “travel ban” with enough just window-dressing to pass constitutional muster. In contrast to the fictional terrorists of Trump’s fevered imagination, they are real people. And while our collective attention has moved on to other topics, they are still languishing, victims of an absurd policy with no justification other than jingoism and fear.
Almuliki’s story is like several I heard that night. He has been an American citizen for 28 years, but still, after 10 years of effort, cannot obtain travel papers for his wife. Now, they are both elderly and in ill health. His wife suffers from kidney failure and diabetes, and has had to leave Djibouti—where an entire industry has sprung up to exploit Yemeni refugees awaiting action by the American embassy—for Egypt, where the hospitals are better.
There she sits, in an apartment building filled with other Yemeni refugees.
Technically, Almuliki says, his wife is under “administrative processing.” (Everyone I spoke to was fluent in the special language of immigration, as well as “PP 6945,” Trump’s presidential proclamation of the ban.) But there is no process, no hope.
Through the translator, Almuliki says he has spent over $100,000 on his wife’s ordeal. He once owned four stores—Yemeni-Americans own hundreds of small groceries in New York City—but had to sell them. Almuliki’s son, an American citizen, is in Egypt taking care of his mother. His daughter is in New York taking care of him.
“We were shocked by inhumane policy of the Trump administration,” Almuliki told me. “How can this inhumane policy say these applicants are a threat to national security? Have any Yemeni-Americans committed a terrorist attack in 40 years? We have young family members and spouses—how can we be targeted by this racist policy? We are part of American society.”
The “travel ban,” of course, is based on a series of fantasies: the prejudice that all Muslims are terrorists, the transparent lie that a blanket ban on travel is a sensible way to prevent terrorists from entering the country. It originated in a demagogic promise, in December 2015, of “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States, until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” That was hate-mongering, not policy-making.
Eventually, of course, the “Muslim Ban” became a travel ban and, in Trump’s words, was “watered down” into an absolute, open-ended ban on anyone from seven countries—Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea and Venezuela—from coming to the United States. But it is no less a fantasy, in terms of actual national security or immigration policy, than when Trump shouted it at a rally three years ago.
Like Almuliki, Hussain Saleh is a U.S. citizen, as well as a father of three and a grandfather. His Yemeni wife Sarsan has spent years in legal purgatory, going through numerous security checks and DNA tests, with Saleh spending a fortune of money to support her and to visit her and his three children, now aged 8, 6, and 2.
Sarsan actually was granted a visa in October 2017 to enter the United States—but then, Saleh says, it was inexplicably delayed. “Usually it’s two days to a week,” he said. “They held her passport for six months.”
Then the travel ban went into effect, and the visa was revoked entirely.
That was against the stated policy of the Trump administration, which had promised not to revoke visas that had already been granted.
So the Center for Constitutional Rights Sued with Saleh as a plaintiff. Within one day of the suit being filed—and being covered in the press—Saleh’s wife’s visa was reissued.
Their official U.S. wedding took place last Sunday in New York.
That happy ending, though, came after two decades of struggle. After fleeing to Djibouti, Saleh’s family lost all means of economic support, and were caught in the same exploitative situation as other Yemeni refugees. Although he operates a pharmacy in New York with his twin brother, he went broke sending them money. He spent over $10,000 just bringing them from Yemen to Djibouti.
“I had lost all hope,” Saleh told me in English. “I am a U.S. citizen, and so are my children, but they were living without schools or doctors… They were getting sick all the time, my wife was getting sick. But she needed someone to stay with her.”
Saleh added that nutrition is poor in Djibouti, and malaria is both commonplace and deadly.
Perhaps worst of all, Saleh’s children were in constant danger because they hold American passports. “Yemen is a war zone,” he told me. “A trip takes 20 hours that used to take one hour, because of checkpoints. And with a U.S. passport, you are a target. ‘You are American,’ they say, ‘go back to America.’”
Ibrahim Qatabi, Saleh’s lawyer at CCR, was furious at the injustices his client has endured. “People have sold their stores, hard-working people, forced to send that $5-6,000 per month to their families. What kind of ‘America First’ policy is this? It’s targeting Americans in a time of war, when you’re supposed to stand by your own citizens.”
If it weren’t for the CCR lawsuit and the accompanying press coverage, Saleh says he has no doubt that his family would still be in legal limbo, his children still in a foreign country. “My kids went to school today for the first time in years,” he told me. “But I have many friends who are still there.”
Mohamed Alahiri limped into our meeting room, supported by crutches. Like the other men I met, he is a U.S. citizen. He and his wife, a Yemeni national, had been a car accident in Cairo in October, 2018, where they had been waiting for a waiver from the travel ban to be processed by the United States embassy. After three surgeries and over $17,000 spent out of pocket on medical expenses—plus an additional $36,000 for the car accident, since he was unable to get insurance—Alahiri made the wrenching decision to leave his wife in Cairo with his eldest daughter, bringing his three other daughters with him back to New York.
But Alahiri is unable to work due to his injuries, and still faces eight more months of recovery. So two of his daughters went to North Carolina to live with his brother, splitting his family in three.
He told me that his 8-year-old daughter, who has remained with him in Brooklyn, “is crying day and night. She wants her sisters and mother. She’s lost 10 pounds, and bites her fingernails until the meat comes out.”
Alahiri’s wife has an interview at the American embassy scheduled for April 17, but he knows the odds are stacked against her. Even though, as the spouse of an American citizen, she is eligible for a waiver from the travel ban, waivers are rarely granted, and can take years to process. What’s more, given his injuries, he will not be able to fly to Cairo to accompany her to the interview. He’s in despair.
I asked Alahiri what his plan was in case she gets rejected. “I don’t know what to do,” he answered.
Like Saleh and Almuliki, Saleh is not used to financial precariousness. Indeed, he’s been able to pay such astronomical sums because he has been successful. His family first came to America in 1928. They were once embodiments of the American dream: hard-working, legal immigrants who made good.
Now, they’re living the American nightmare, honest people trapped by a dishonest policy.