Tears, despair and shattered hopes : The families torn apart by Trump’s travel ban
Five-year-old Gamila Almansoob has asked the same question for years: “When are we going to daddy?” Each time, the Yemeni girl’s mother gives the same reply: “When we get the paperwork.”
Gamila’s father, Ramy Almansoob, a US citizen, moved to Virginia in 2015 with the hopes that his wife and three daughters could soon follow and escape their war-torn home country. After a lengthy vetting process, the visas were approved on 4 December 2017. That same day, however, the US supreme court ruled that Donald Trump’s travel ban on six Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen, could go into effect.
Ten days later, instead of printing the visas, the embassy gave the family a notice saying that they were now ineligible. Gamila cried as her mother tried to explain to her that this was not the paperwork they needed.
“These children are not dangerous. If you want to make America great again, it starts with children,” said Ramy, 34, who was born in the US, but raised in Yemen. His wife was told that no waivers would be granted and that the denial was final. “I need them with me.”
The Almansoobs are among the hundreds of Yemeni families and Muslims across the Middle East and Africa who have had their lives upended in recent weeks, following the implementation of Trump’s signature anti-immigrant policy in December after months of legal obstacles. One year ago, the “Muslim ban” sparked massive airport protests and headlines across the globe, but in the first month of its enforcement, the president’s order has largely faded from the news even as families are being denied entry to the US, separated from loved ones with no end in sight.
This third version of the ban, which the supreme court has allowed to proceed as the legal challenges advance, targets visas from Syria, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, North Korea, Chad and Venezuela. It’s unclear how many people been affected so far, but immigration lawyers have reported that clients are receiving denials en masse.
The president’s proclamation allows for a waiver for people who would face “undue hardship” if denied a visa. But attorneys said the embassies have automatically denied waivers, giving families no opportunity to even present a case.
For applicants in Yemen, which is experiencing a major cholera outbreak amid a violent conflict, the “hardship” is clear, said Ibraham Qatabi, a Yemeni American activist with the Center for Constitutional Rights. Yemenis who are now being denied have already gone through years of “extreme vetting” and are simply trying to live with close relatives who are American citizens, he said.
“This administration is saying US citizens from a certain class aren’t allowed to bring their children. It’s basically legalizing discrimination.”
Seyed Mousavi, a 24-year-old Los Angeles resident originally from Iran, was elated when his fiancee’s visa was approved last year – a short-lived joy followed by one of the most devastating moments of his life when the embassy in Yerevan in neighboring Armenia said she was being rejected and that no waiver would be considered due to the travel ban.
“I’m trying my best to find a solution,” said Mousavi, who graduated from the University of Southern California and met his fiancee, Arefé Fayazbakhsh, in Iran. He said it was hard to imagine leaving the US, but even harder to think about the ongoing separation.
“I’ve invested so much into being American and calling this place home,” he said. “I try my best to be there for her all the time … but all she’s telling me is, ‘I want you to be by my side.’ It’s heartbreaking.”
Behnam Babalou, a 39-year-old Iranian man, who has a son with US citizenship, has been trying to get visas for his family since 2013. Babalou, a civil engineer, has invested in a California company, making him eligible for a visa that supports entrepreneurs. Although his petition was approved in 2015, his case has been stuck in “administrative processing” for nearly two years – until his visa was denied on 22 December with a one-page notice citing the president’s proclamation.
“This news was so sudden and unexpected, we just don’t know what to do,” he said in a phone interview from the Iranian island of Kish, speaking through a translator. He added: “We feel like we have been betrayed.”
Babalou’s uncle, Farhad Najafi, a California physician, said he feels guilty for encouraging his nephew to invest in the US – an arduous process that has now reached an apparent dead end: “His money is taken hostage here. His life is taken hostage.”
For some, the consequences of the travel ban could be fatal. The American Civil Liberties Union said it is representing an Iranian American woman whose father is seeking a visa to get an emergency surgery that has a high rate of success in the US, but not in Iran, where it could leave him paralyzed or dead. The visa request was initially refused and is now in limbo as a waiver is being considered.
“It’s really the kind of situation that is so urgent and critical that the waiver should be granted immediately,” said Vasudha Talla, staff attorney.
“This is a medical visa. This is a humanitarian act,” said the daughter, who requested anonymity for fear that speaking out could harm her case. “My father is dying. Why are you doing this to us?”
A state department spokesperson declined to comment on specific cases or provide data on visa denials since December.
Ramy, the Yemeni American father, said it was hard to remain hopeful when he thinks about his daughters – ages five, nine and 12 – and how much he has missed.
His wife tries to keep him positive: “She keeps telling me not to give up, that there is a day we’re going to meet again.”
But he doesn’t know when that will be: “I was born here, and I’m going to die here. I can’t leave America.”