On Thursday, Ahmed Mohammad Ahmed Ali was elated: His 12-year-old daughter had just received an immigrant visa. Ali, who is 38 years old and was born in Yemen, became a U.S. citizen in 2010 and has been living in the United States since 2004. He lives with his wife and his two other daughters, all of whom are also U.S. citizens, in Los Banos, California. Ali and his wife have been trying to get a green card for their 12-year-old since 2011. Their daughter, who has never been to the U.S., has been living in Yemen with Ali’s parents. (The girl was not automatically born into citizenship because her mother had not been living in the U.S. for five years prior to the child’s birth.)
The U.S. consulate in Yemen closed in February 2015 after a rebel group took control of Sana’a, the nation’s capital. Since then, the country on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula has descended into civil and proxy war, with the United States playing a supporting role in a Saudi-led military intervention. An estimated 10,000 civilians have been killed in Yemen in less than two years, and the country is now on the brink of famine. An American commando from the Navy’s SEAL Team Six was killed over the weekend in a counterterrorism attack against al-Qaida in Yemen. An estimated 14 al-Qaida fighters were reportedly killed in that same attack.
Yemeni immigrants are subject to what it’s fair to describe as “extreme vetting.” The 12-year-old had to do an in-person interview with Department of State officials to get her immigrant visa. Due to the embassy closure in Yemen, that interview was held in Djibouti. It took the girl and her uncle 16 hours by bus to get from Sana’a to Yemen’s Aden International Airport. From there, they traveled to Jordan, where Ali met with his daughter. Then they went on to Djibouti, where she was at last interviewed by consular officials. Her visa was issued earlier this week in Djibouti, before Donald Trump signed his executive order temporarily banning Yemenis and people from six other predominantly Muslim nations from entering the United State.
The 12-year-old is now in the worst possible limbo. That immigrant visa grants her lawful permanent resident status the instant she’s admitted to the U.S. by Customs and Border Protection. And once she reaches the United States, Section 320 of the Immigration and Nationality Act stipulates that, as a minor living with her U.S. citizen parents, she automatically becomes a U.S. citizen. But on Saturday, hours after Trump signed that executive order, Ali and his daughter were pulled out of line by airline personnel and prevented from boarding their Ethiopian Airlines flight. Until she’s admitted to the United States, she will not have green card status. The girl and her father are trapped in East Africa, where they have no friends or family, as they wait for a resolution to an ordeal they had thought was over. “Everybody was happy,” Ali told me on the phone from Djibouti. “We were almost done after six years.” And then, in one day, he said, “Everything disappears.”
The Ali family’s San Francisco–based immigration attorney, Katy Lewis, said it’s “fundamentally unfair” that Trump’s executive order is being applied to a 12-year-old girl. Lewis said she had seen purported drafts of the executive order before it was issued, but never imagined the final order would be used to deny entry to someone who’d already gone through the years-long process of being issued an immigrant visa. The order, Lewis said, is “much broader and more sweeping” than what it purports to be. She believes the executive order is unconstitutional, because it discriminates on the basis of national origin and on religious grounds.
Although the executive order mandates a travel ban of 90 days, it’s unclear what will happen after that: It’s possible Yemenis will then be able to come to the United States or that the ban will be extended. The emergency stays that were issued on Saturday only apply to immigrants who’ve already arrived in the U.S. Lewis says she is working on getting an exception to the executive order; the order says that “Secretaries of State and Homeland Security may, on a case-by-case basis, and when in the national interest, issue visas or other immigration benefits to nationals of countries for which visas and benefits are otherwise blocked.” She has reached out to the offices of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Democratic Rep. Jim Costa for help but has yet to receive a reply from either representative.
Ali, who has been working as manager at a California shopping center since 2004, has missed weeks of work. His family can’t support itself in the United States without him, but he can’t leave his 12-year-old daughter behind in Djibouti. It’s also not safe for her to go back to Yemen. That 16-hour bus ride to the airport, he said, goes through extremely dangerous territory, and he will not subject his child to that again. On his lawyer’s advice, he went to the U.S. embassy in Djibouti on Sunday bearing a written request for the consulate to issue his daughter a travel document that would allow her to board a flight out of the country. Although the embassy was open, “no one at the embassy would talk with him or take the letter,” Lewis told me.
His daughter is crying a lot, Ali told me, and doesn’t understand why she can’t go to the United States to be with her mother and siblings. When I asked him if there was anything else he wanted me to mention in the story, he said, “It’s not fair.”
Update, Jan. 30, 2017, at 2:15 p.m.: Rep. Jim Costa, a Democrat who represents California’s 16th congressional district, released the following statement about the Ali family:
Due to President Trump’s hasty decision making, a 12-year-old girl with parents who are U.S. citizens and Los Banos residents is banned from entering the United States. My office is doing everything within our jurisdiction to help Mr. Ali and his daughter to get home as soon as possible and safely.
As a member of Congress, my number one priority is Americans’ safety both at home and abroad, and I think it’s obvious that keeping a 12-year-old out of the country is not strengthening the safety of our nation. This executive order is having a devastating impact on hundreds of other individuals and immigrant families that thought the United States would be helping them seek refuge. The vast majority of individuals being detained or prohibited from entering the United States have already been through one of the most extensive vetting processes in the world. Clearly, President Trump’s executive order was not vetted thoroughly by his Administration. Not only is it flawed policy, but it has the potential to be ruled unconstitutional.
Let us never forget that America’s diversity is what makes us strong. Banning individuals, mostly women and children, from entering the United States is not the American way. I will be supporting legislation that will rescind President Trump’s executive order because the executive order is flawed and is not making the American people safer.
Update, Jan. 30, 2017, at 10:20 p.m.: Ahmed Ali and his daughter are named plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit challenging Donald Trump’s executive order. The Ali family’s attorney Katy Lewis says via email that the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, argues that the executive order “violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law and statutory prohibition against discrimination. The lawsuit is filed on behalf of tens of thousands of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who have filed immigrant visa petitions for their immediate family members who are nationals of seven predominantly Muslim countries.”
Lewis’ firm has established a GoFundMe to support the Ali family.
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