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Muslim Ban: Meet the Yemeni Americans Suing Trump in an Attempt to Reunite with Loved Ones

StoryDecember 26, 2018
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A group of Yemeni Americans have filed a new federal lawsuit over President Trump’s Muslim ban. The suit alleges the State Department has revoked previously approved visas, preventing many Yemenis from reuniting with their families living in the United States. We speak to two of the plaintiffs and the Center for Constitutional Rights, which brought the lawsuit.

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

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, a group of Yemeni Americans have filed a new federal lawsuit over President Trump’s Muslim ban. The suit alleges the State Department has revoked previously approved visas, preventing many Yemenis from reuniting with their families living in the United States. We’re joined now by two of the plaintiffs.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohammed Alobahy has lived in the United States since he was 16. He returned to Yemen to marry his childhood sweetheart, Amal, but she’s been prevented from coming here, even though her visa had been approved.

We’re also joined by Ahmed Abdulwahab Mohammed and his 4-year-old daughter Areg. They are both U.S. citizens, but Trump’s travel ban has separated their family. Ahmed’s wife, and Areg’s mother, has been unable to come to the United States, even though her visa was approved.

We’re also joined by Ibraham Qatabi, a Yemeni-American activist, senior legal worker at the Center for Constitutional Rights. And back with us, Baher Azmy, who is legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Baher, first, lay out this lawsuit, that you just filed this week.

BAHER AZMY: Sure, Amy. Thank you. So, people are aware, generally, about the Muslim ban, which has eliminated the possibility of obtaining visas for hundreds of thousands of potential applicants from Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen. And the Supreme Court, unfortunately, upheld major parts of the Muslim ban last year. But what we were seeing is, even individuals who had been approved for visas prior to the Muslim ban taking effect were later denied those visas, where State Department officials were saying, well, the Muslim ban, this proclamation, means you’re not entitled to the visa the consular officials and the State Department already granted them. So, there’s a way in which—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So this is retroactively.

BAHER AZMY: They’re making it retroactive, unlawfully, because the proclamation is not supposed to take away visas that were already granted by law. So, not only is, you know, the proclamation an outrageous, discriminatory act, consular officials are using it as a pretext to deny people benefits they’re actually already lawfully entitled to. So we filed a lawsuit demanding that these families be given the visas, be handed over the visas, that they were already approved for them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mohammed Alobahy, you are the lead plaintiff in Alobahy v. Trump. Could you talk to us about your situation, what happened with you?

MOHAMMED ALOBAHY: My wife had her interview on November 14th of 2017 at the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti. Right after the interview, she was given a letter that indicated that her visa was approved, and all she had to do was just wait two weeks until the visa is printed. But it’s been since that time until now we haven’t heard anything from the embassy. In March of 2018, her visa was basically denied under the proclamation. And in June of 2017, she was called back—we received an email stating that her visa is under—is eligible for a waiver. But since that time until today, we haven’t heard any updates. It’s just—we’re just—we’re not certain about what’s the next step going to be.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’ve been in this country for how long?

MOHAMMED ALOBAHY: I’ve been in this country for over 12 years, since 2006.

AMY GOODMAN: You went to school here?

MOHAMMED ALOBAHY: I went to school here. I went to high school here. I became—I got my bachelor degree in structural engineering at the University of Buffalo. I worked in Rochester, New York, for over two years. And due to the expenses of my wife and me trying to pay for my expenses, I had to move back with my parents here in New York City.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain. Your wife is living in Djibouti now.

MOHAMMED ALOBAHY: She is living in Djibouti.

AMY GOODMAN: With her brother?

MOHAMMED ALOBAHY: With her brother.

AMY GOODMAN: So you have to support—and what is the cost of living there? Why did they leave Yemen?

MOHAMMED ALOBAHY: They left Yemen because the city where they used to live before, the city of al-Hodeidah, came under attack by the Houthi rebels and the government army. So there is fighting in the city, which forced her whole family to leave the city of al-Hodeidah. So, they can’t really return back to Yemen, because there is no home for them to return back to.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Ibraham Qatabi into the conversation. You have been working with the Yemeni-American community for a long time now. How typical is Mohammed’s story?

IBRAHAM QATABI: This is one example of hundreds that we know. For example, the Center for Constitutional Rights received about a hundred—a list of 150 individuals who their visas were approved in advance but were not given, were denied at the end.

So, there are a lot of devastating stories that is coming out of Djibouti, Egypt and Malaysia, because back in 2015, when the war broke in Yemen, the U.S. Embassy had to shut down its doors in Yemen, and so all the Yemeni-American families were forced to move to different countries for their immigration interviews. And as a result, they’ve been stranded in a lot of different places, which created a lot of different—of difficulties for Yemeni Americans and their families. Mohammed is a perfect example, where he has to support his family here but also abroad, but yet, you know, he’s been waiting for his wife to come to the United States for over a year now.

And there are a lot of different examples where we know there are kids who were given visas, but not the mom; another example of our client, Mohammed Ahmed, where his daughter, Areg, 4 years old, now with him in the U.S., but her mom is stuck and stranded in Djibouti for about over a year, too.

So we have a lot of—the Yemeni Americans and their families are completely being hit by the Trump administration, given that the Trump administration, one, supporting the war in Yemen, supporting the Saudi-led coalition, where families cannot go back to Yemen, but in the same time having another domestic policy, the Muslim ban, that are also targeting the Yemeni Americans and their families, not allowing their families to come to the U.S., which is denying their basic rights to be united with their loved ones, with their children—another family separation crisis that we see today within our community here in New York, but also across the United States.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you about that, because, I guess most Americans are not aware, there is a sizable Yemeni community here in the United States. We’re talking about the poorest country in the Arab world, not only the scene of this horrific humanitarian crisis and war. But to what degree then has this now—this Muslim ban hit most at Yemenis here in the United States and their families, compared to even other Muslim nations?

IBRAHAM QATABI: For Yemeni Americans, most are people applying for their spouses or children. So, Yemeni Americans have been in the U.S. for generations, for over a hundred years now, including my own family. And so, there are thousands of people who have been trying to bring their loved ones for years. A good example is of our clients, who petitioned for their families about a couple years ago and are still stuck in a third country because they had to wait, because they couldn’t go back to Yemen because of the devastation that has taken place there. Yemen is currently the world’s humanitarian—the worst humanitarian disaster in history at this point, and also, you know, there is an outbreak of cholera.

AMY GOODMAN: More than a million people have it?

IBRAHAM QATABI: Yeah, impacting—there is a blockade. Even if you plan to go back to Yemen, you can’t go back to Yemen, by the State Department’s own account listing Yemen as “do not travel to” countries, stating Yemen that no place in Yemen is immune from violence. Yet they’ve been denying Yemeni Americans and their families—Yemeni Americans to bring their families to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you have this incredible story where the U.S.-backed Saudi regime is destroying Yemen, and President Trump just tweeted, “Saudi A”—I think that he said—”Saudi A” is going to “rebuild Syria.” They’re going to pour the money in to rebuild Syria. What about Yemen, which they are bombing regularly with U.S. weapons?

But that brings us to Ahmed Mohammed and your little daughter, who’s joining you on your lap right now, Areg, who’s 4 years old. What is astounding about your case and trying to get your wife here is that you went back, took a very dangerous journey back to Yemen. Can you explain what happened to you, how you tried to get back, and then what’s happening with your wife?

AHMED ABDULWAHAB MOHAMMED: After I applied for my wife, I had an appointment on embassy in Djibouti. So I traveled back to Yemen, and there was a very limit of flights to Yemen. And that day was hard, very hard, to travel to Yemen, so I went to Oman, and I traveled from the border all the way to where I live, in Taiz, the city called Taiz. It’s like about more than 24 hours I was traveling, local, in the buses and in very, very dangerous places. So, after that, I took my family to Djibouti. And also, the way to Djibouti was very hard, because Djibouti—they stopped all the flights from Yemen to Djibouti. I went through Sudan. Then, from Sudan, I went to Djibouti. So, it was a very, very hard journey from Yemen to—actually, from here to Yemen, then from Yemen to Djibouti.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you initially—you got an approval for your wife to come to the United States?

AHMED ABDULWAHAB MOHAMMED: Yeah. I applied for three visas, for my wife and my daughter and my mother. So, I had to borrow for all the visas. We did the interview. They checked all the paperwork. They told me everything is good. Then, after—I did the interview on October 5th. So, on October 11th, I had the first visa, for my mother. Then, on October 11, I had the visa for my daughter, Areg. Then I was waiting for my wife. They told me like it’s going to be approved for like—I mean, it’s going to be like issued for the following weeks, like after two weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: This is 2017.

AHMED ABDULWAHAB MOHAMMED: That’s in 2017, yeah. So, I was waiting about six months for my wife to get her visa, and I don’t get anything back from them. So then I get scared if her visa is going to be expired.


AREG AHMED FARHAN: Yeah, Areg. Then I took Areg, and I left my wife there in Djibouti. And she was pregnant in her like last month.

AMY GOODMAN: Areg, let me just ask you: Where is your mommy?


AMY GOODMAN: She’s in Djibouti now? Can she come here to see you? No. Why not?

AREG AHMED FARHAN: Because her visa is not coming over. Her visa is not—come her visa for my mom.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Do you get to talk to her by phone sometimes?


AMY GOODMAN: Would you like her to come here?


AMY GOODMAN: Do you have a new little sister?


AMY GOODMAN: Have you ever met her?


AMY GOODMAN: You haven’t seen her yet? She’s in Djibouti with your mommy?


AMY GOODMAN: So, explain, Ahmed. She goes to Djibouti—again, extremely expensive place to be. She was told, yes, she could come here. There was no problem with her visa a year ago.

AHMED ABDULWAHAB MOHAMMED: Yes, she had officially received from the embassy that she had approval for her visa. And they told her only about just like a few weeks to get issued the visa, because they take a little process. Then, from that time, I never heard anything until July 2nd in 2018. They respond to us. They said—actually, before that, on February 2018, they called my wife. They told her, “OK, you have to come to the embassy.” She went there. They gave her a letter. They said, “We cannot give you your visa because the travel ban.” And the problem, she was—

AMY GOODMAN: Because of the travel ban.

AHMED ABDULWAHAB MOHAMMED: Because the travel ban, yeah. And the problem, she—they held her passport. Since we did the interview on October 5th, they held her passport in the embassy, so she couldn’t go nowhere. Her passport was in the embassy. And after that, they give her her passport back, and they give her the letter. They said, “Because of the travel ban, we cannot give you the visa.” And we was waiting, actually, until July 2nd in 2018. They sent me an email. They said, “You had a waiver. You got approved for the waiver.” So, from that time until now, I don’t get any like response, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Got no approval of the waiver.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Baher Azmy, I’d like to ask you, in terms of your lawsuit: What are you hoping to get? An immediate injunction action on this? Or do you have to go to trial to be able to get—adjudicate this situation?

BAHER AZMY: Yes, we’re hoping—you know, because there is no lawful basis to withhold the visa approval, we’re hoping the court very quickly orders the U.S. government to hand over the visa that’s already been approved. And just to say, I mean, I think, in reflecting on the two segments we started with, and concluding with, there is something so deeply concerning and depressing in these threads, which involve people fleeing conditions of violence and deprivation, in part created by this government. And to be met with exclusion from this government for problems we are in part responsible for, and to deny these human beings their desire for freedom to be reunited with loved ones and for opportunity, is the height of cruelty and arbitrariness.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, Ahmed, what do you tell Areg when she asks for her mommy?

AHMED ABDULWAHAB MOHAMMED: Areg—actually, I cannot explain to her the travel ban, what that means. But I always give her like a little hug. I tell her, “OK, your mom, she’s coming soon.” And sometimes I call her, and they allow her to talk to her, and they tell her mom, “Tell her, ’I’m coming.’” So, when, you know, she gets like—talk with me and with her mom, she comes down and—you know, she lives with her aunt right now. But sometimes they call me like at nighttime. They said, “She’s crying. You have to come over to see her.” So I go there. I call her mom. So…

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we hope to have a show where you’re all on the program together, including your wife. I want to thank you all for being with us—both of your wives. Yemeni Americans Mohammed Alobahy and Ahmed Abdulwahab Mohammed, who are both suing the Trump administration. Ahmed’s 4-year-old daughter Areg, thank you for being here, as well as Ibraham Qatabi and Baher Azmy of the Center for Constitutional Rights. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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