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Yemeni Student is Among Thousands to Win U.S. Visa, Only to Have It Effectively Denied by Travel Ban

StoryAugust 11, 2017
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Thousands of Yemenis and other nationals from countries covered by Trump’s travel ban are currently stranded in different parts of the world as the State Department refuses to honor the fact that they won a U.S. government immigration lottery. Many of the winners have already sold their homes and cars, left their jobs and even relocated in anticipation of their move to the United States. Their eligibility to receive green cards under the program will end only three days after the travel ban is slated to expire on September 27, meaning their applications will likely not be processed in time, which lawyers say operates as an effective ban. We are joined by Hamed Sufyan Almaqrami, 29-year-old Yemeni Ph.D. student in applied linguistics who was awarded a diversity visa in 2016. Due to Trump’s travel ban, he is now stranded in India. We also speak with his attorney, Yolanda Rondon of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and Stephen Pattison, a U.S. immigration attorney who spent nearly three decades with the State Department.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Thousands of Yemenis and other nationals from countries covered by Trump’s travel ban are currently stranded in different parts of the world as the State Department refuses to honor the fact that they won a U.S. government immigration lottery. Many of the thousands, who won the right to apply for a green card through the U.S. diversity visa program lottery, have already sold their homes and cars, left their jobs, even relocated to places like Djibouti, Malaysia and other countries, in anticipation of their move to the United States. Their eligibility to receive green cards under the program will end only three days after the travel ban is slated to expire on September 27th, meaning their applications will likely not be processed in time. Former State Department official Stephen Pattison, who will join us in a moment, said, quote, “Taking this away from people who have won it is the cruelest possible thing this administration could do. It makes us look petty and cruel as a society,” he said.

Earlier this week, the International Red Cross issued a rare statement, saying it’s extremely alarmed by the recent wave of airstrikes in Yemen, which have killed dozens of civilians and hit homes in public spaces, such as markets. The airstrikes are being carried out by the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is deepening, with more than 400,000 people reportedly suffering from cholera, looming famine, with the United Nations warning 19 million of Yemen’s 28 million people are in need of some form of aid.

Well, for more right now, we’re joined by several guests. In Chennai, India, we’re joined on Democracy Now! video stream by Hamed Sufyan Almaqrami, a 29-year-old Yemeni Ph.D. student in applied linguistics who’s at university in Tamil Nadu, India. He was awarded a diversity visa in 2016 but, due to Trump’s travel ban, is now stranded in India. And in Washington, D.C., we’re joined by his attorney, Yolanda Rondon of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, or ADC. Her group’s suing the State Department over the diversity visa winner denials and delays.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Hamed, let’s begin with you in India. Tell us your story. How did you apply for—to be in this lottery? And tell us your reaction when you won, and then what you did about it.

HAMED SUFYAN ALMAQRAMI: Well, as anybody in the world who dreams of United States of America, dreams to enter the land of freedom, the land of dignity, I was one of them. And I applied through this program at October 2015. And on May 2016, I had been notified that I have been selected for a diversity visa.

So, at that time, I was here in India doing the first chair of my Ph.D. degree in linguistics. So, I had to go back to my Yemen, to Yemen, to my country, Yemen, in order to get some documentation, which I’m short of. So, at that time, you know, the situation which Yemen is—I mean, it’s passing through, so all airports were blocked. So it was very difficult for me to move to Yemen, but—and the—I mean, due to these less flights to Yemen, the price of tickets were double, were double. So, I got a ticket. I borrowed such an amount of money from friends. Then I left to Yemen.

I was thinking that I will spend only one month there in Yemen. But the situation get worse. And I tried to got all this, my documentation—date of birth certificate, policy clearance certificate. Then, I was trying to get out from Yemen to India, but, I mean, the situation get worse. All of the airports now are closed. So, if I want to go back to India, I have to move to another part of Yemen, which is the south, the south of Yemen. And there is a problem between south and north of Yemen. I had to go through a very difficult route, where conflict is at highest level. So I ventured my life. I brought my life at risk in order to be—to get out from Yemen to India, then to Malaysia, for my interview. I left—I left Yemen on December 2016 to India. Then I came—I mean, I have wasted there seven months out of my university, out of my classes.

Then I came here in India. Also, I have to get policy clearance certificate from India, so one more month added to my absence. Now there are eight months. I got these policy clearance certificates from different places here, because my master’s degree was in Hyderabad city, and I have to get one from Hyderabad and one from Tamil Nadu. So, then, I got my interview appointment, which was on 25th of May. So, in order to be able to move to Malaysia, I had to get such a massive amount of money. My father is a professor in Yemen, and he’s a public servant, so his salary is unpaid for more than, I mean, nine months or almost one year, until this moment. So, I moved—I tried to call my friends and my uncle, who is working in Saudi Arabia, to send me such money support in order to be able to move. And, I mean, one of the conditions which was for entering the Kuala Lumpur was to get $2,000 in cash. Otherwise, you will sent—you will sent back to your country. You will not be allowed to enter Malaysia.

I entered Malaysia at 9th of May. I was so happy. I was thinking that my suffering is finished and I’m about to get my visa. I did my medical examination there, as well as other things, preparing for my interview. At the time of my interview, I was so happy. My file was complete. I have collected all my documentations from the early stage of my life until this time. They were all complete, and I entered my interview. It was a very nice interview, and the consul was very kind with me. She told me, “Just you have to answer these fact questions,” regarding my experience—I mean, my traveling for the previous 15 years and work. So I answered these questions and sent them back to the email of the embassy the next day exactly. But I’ve been waiting there for four weeks. I didn’t get any email to drop off my passport for getting the visa. Then I got a call from India, here, that I have to come back, because I have a cross-examination. So, at that time, I came back here in India, and I entered my exam without—I was not prepared enough for my exam, so likely I will not pass this exam.

Then, two days later, I mean, on 12th of July, I get a message from—I get an email from American Embassy in Kuala Lumpur that if you don’t have a close family relation or a credible bona fide with an American entity or relation, you are in eligible to get the diversity visa. Had I known that such conditions will be applied, I wouldn’t have applied from the beginning. So, it’s a very difficult situation. And we have already sacrificed our life. We have already sacrificed our studies, our time, our effort. We are in a very miserable situation. We cannot be here for more than—I mean, for more time. We are stranded here. We are not permitted to work, nor to go back our country. It’s very difficult. Also, my friends there in Malaysia are stranded and suffering a lot there in Malaysia.


HAMED SUFYAN ALMAQRAMI: They couldn’t—yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Hamed Almaqrami, I want to bring in your attorney, Yolanda Rondon, who is in Washington, D.C., a staff attorney for ADC. That’s the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Hamed is telling a very painful story. He risked his life to be able to get this visa. And he’s not saying he should have gotten it. He actually won. But now, because of the ban, explain how prevalent this is, how many people are affected, and just what this visa lottery is.

YOLANDA RONDON: Yes, it’s a painful story. And, unfortunately, Hamed is not unique. This has occurred to—we have over 90 clients of Yemeni origin and descent. There are also dozens of Iranians who are also part of our lawsuit and membership of our class, who have also suffered this. And so, that’s—it’s very widespread. And what we have determined and seen, that there is a discriminatory policy being applied to these nationals, essentially stating that because of your identity, you’re banned, right? And in our eyes, this violates the Immigration and Nationality Act, because it is arbitrary and capricious to add terms and conditions that are not provided under the law. The only three requirements is, one, you’re a national of one of the beneficiary countries, which includes Yemen, and that you have the requisite education attainment level or the qualifying work experience. And so they’re not allowed to add qualifications that Congress did not authorize.

Frankly, as well, what we’re seeing is that it is a policy being used to essentially run out the time. They know these individuals have to complete their visa’s process by September 30th, or they lose it. So, as such, they’re enforcing a Muslim ban, even though the executive order should not apply to them, and the Supreme Court has ruled that it should not apply in these cases.

But also look at the fact that this is the purpose of a diversity visa program. When it was enacted into law, the purpose was to diversify our immigration base, right? And so, to enforce this Muslim ban is to bring us back into the isolation time of where we only allowed in the European Anglo-Saxon immigrant. So it’s very, very, very disturbing about what is happening. Not only does it violate the INA, because it’s arbitrary and capricious, but also there is a clause in the INA against discrimination, prohibiting discrimination based upon nationality. And that is what is occurring here.

AMY GOODMAN: So what kind of recourse do you have? And explain the lawsuit that you’ve brought, Yolanda Rondon.

YOLANDA RONDON: Yeah, so, the recourse that we’re seeking is through a mandamus suit. And, essentially, a mandamus suit asks the court to order the consulate to process their applications, right? So, the class of persons, which represent even beyond Yemeni Iranians, but all nationals of the six countries, is essentially any person who won the physical 2017 lottery and has not received a visa and has been told that they have to have a bona fide relationship, right? And so, this lawsuit seeks for the court to say, “You must do your job, consulate, right? You must process these applications before September 30th. Don’t allow them to wait out the system to, you know, de facto or pretext discriminate against these nationals, who are otherwise eligible for a visa.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Yolanda Rondon, a staff attorney for the ADC. Overall, how many people—is it something like 50,000 people have come in on this visa, the diversity lottery?

YOLANDA RONDON: Yeah. So the way the diversity visa lottery works is that there are certain countries that are selected and eligible based upon the low immigrant visa entrance level. And these generally include countries from Africa, the Middle East and South America. And, largely, these nationals don’t have any other way to enter the country due to economic means, but also because they don’t have the family ties, right? So, otherwise, they would use family immigration system.

And so, millions of people apply each year. Last year alone, there was roughly about 150 million people who applied. Out of that, the State Department selects roughly about 125,000, 150,000. And this is through a random selection process. From there, there are only 50,000 slots that are allowed to be filled. So, thousands and thousands and thousands of people hope that they’re selected, and they go through all this to get their documents verified, and come with the requisite medical examination. But at the end of the day, only 50,000 are allowed, under the law, each year.

AMY GOODMAN: And Hamed Almaqrami is one of those who was approved. We’re going to go to break, then bring in Stephen Pattison, spent three decades in the State Department. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “What a Shame” by Soomood, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’re talking about the diversity lottery for visas, people to come into this country. When they win, what happens when the Trump travel ban stands in the way? We’re also joined by Stephen Pattison, U.S. immigration attorney, who spent nearly three decades with the State Department serving as a consular officer and manager in postings in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Washington, D.C.

Stephen Pattison, we just heard the heart-rending story of Hamed Almaqrami. I mean, he is dealing, in Yemen, with a—you know, obviously, a catastrophe, the U.S.-backed Saudi bombing of Yemen, where the airport hasn’t worked in how long? His father stopped being paid, what, nine months ago. He risked his life to get out of Yemen, ultimately won this lottery, but now waits in India and cannot come into this country. Explain the significance of this and why you’ve called this one of the cruelest acts the administration, a U.S. government could engage in.

STEPHEN PATTISON: Sure. What’s happening is you have someone who is qualified to receive a visa under the visa lottery, which, as your previous commentator noted, is an annual process that allows up to 50,000 people who don’t otherwise have a family or an employment-based tie to qualify to immigrate to the United States. The visa numbers that are available in this category expire at the end of every fiscal year, so if someone wins the lottery and is unable to receive a visa before September 30th of that year, that opportunity expires, and they are back where they started.

The cruel thing about the travel ban, as far as it affects people who have won the diversity visa lottery this year, is that right now the Supreme Court is telling us that they’re going to—they’re going to determine whether the ban, as promulgated by the administration, is constitutional, but they’re not going to reach this issue until after September 30th. So, even if they decide at that point that the travel ban should not be applied to the diversity visa lottery winners, the people who won it and who are impacted by it right now will lose that opportunity, because they won’t be able to get that visa before the end of the fiscal year, because they will be stopped until the Supreme Court rules. This is cruel because people who win the lottery don’t get that chance each year thereafter. The odds are really, really small that someone who’s won one year, who isn’t able to use the number, will be able to use it the next year. So, effectively, that’s their chance, and it’s been taken away from them by a process that may well be overturned by the courts. I find that to be rather cruel.

AMY GOODMAN: And what recourse do you think someone like Hamed has, who has risked everything, actually won the lottery, but cannot come in?

STEPHEN PATTISON: Under our current laws, he has no recourse. If someone wins the lottery and is unable to get a visa by the end of the year, that’s it. The only thing he can do is apply again in the next year and see what happens.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, under President Trump’s proposed RAISE Act, that would halve legal migration, would this lottery be done away with entirely?

STEPHEN PATTISON: The lottery was set up by Congress. Congress can decide to take it away. I understand that one of the—one of the aspects of the RAISE proposal from the administration is to halve the amount of legal immigration that can come in each year, across the board, in all the various categories. The diversity visa has always been controversial, right from the beginning. And in its early days, it was re-established each year, and there were certain some years when it looked like it might not be re-established, until the very end of that fiscal year. So there have always been people who felt that the lottery, as operated, was not the best way to bring people into the United States. So—

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds. Stephen Pattison, five seconds to wrap up.

STEPHEN PATTISON: OK. So it could well be that the DV lottery will be removed as part of the RAISE program, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Pattison, we want to thank you for being with us, with the State Department for three decades. We also want to thank Yolanda Rondon and Hamed Sufyan Almaqrami. I’m Amy Goodman, headed to Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Saturday. Thanks so much for joining us.

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