The first Muslim travel ban went into effect on Jan. 28, 2017. Nationwide, the ban continues to affect numerous families, who are asking: If this is separating loved ones and making communities weaker, why are we doing this?
SAN DIEGO – Dhaha Nur is 27 years old and thin, wearing an embroidered shirt, a black jacket, jeans, a skullcap and large, almost Andy Warholesque black-framed glasses. He has a trim beard and an expressive face that’s quick to smile but also quick to furrow with sadness.
Dhaha is sitting in the offices of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA), on Fairmount Avenue in San Diego. It’s late in the afternoon, and after he says his evening prayers, he joins me at a round table in one of PANA’s conference rooms, and starts to tell his story.
During the Somali civil wars of the 1990s, Dhaha’s parents became separated – how, he was never quite sure. During a war as brutal as the Somali conflict, such events were a dime a dozen. When Dhaha was an infant, in the early part of the decade, his father fled to Kenya with him and an uncle. A few years later, Nur senior managed to get a visa to enter the United States. He moved to Salt Lake City alone and began driving a cab. A year or so later, Dhaha’s uncle brought him to the U.S. to join his father.
Dhaha’s mother was left behind amidst the strife.
More than a decade later, when Dhaha was in high school, he got curious about what had happened to his mother, and began using social media and family networks to try to track her down. It took years, but he eventually discovered she was living in Mogadishu and working as a perfumer.
Via email and FaceTime, Dhaha – who was studying information systems technology at San Diego State University at the time – and his mother gradually re-established a relationship. When he became a U.S. citizen in 2015, Dhaha decided to sponsor her immigration to America. They began the time-consuming and expensive visa application process, including a series of DNA tests to prove their relationship and a number of medical exams to make sure she wasn’t a health risk.
Then, “Trump gets into office, and he’s like, ‘Muslim ban,’” Dhaha says. Still, he remained optimistic. A federal judge in Hawaii overturned the first version of the travel ban, and U.S. embassy staff in Kenya, the nearest functioning American diplomatic post to Somalia, continued to process his mother’s paperwork. Slowly but surely, Dhaha’s goal of bringing his mother to the United States seemed closer to being realized.
In mid-2018, after her medical tests came back, she was called into the embassy in Kenya for her interview. The family thought that, now, they just had to wait for the precious visa to materialize.
It didn’t happen. Instead, Dhaha received a terse email from the embassy staff in October. It said that in the wake of the latest version of Trump’s travel ban, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in late June 2018, his mother was no longer eligible for a visa because she was a Somali national. Dhaha Nur and his mother had become pawns in the Trump administration’s anti-Muslim-immigrant game, as it struggled to implement then-candidate-Trump’s campaign promise to end all Muslim immigration and visitation to the United States. Their dream had fallen afoul of a shift in policy that put the weight of the U.S. government behind efforts to make it so difficult for Muslims to enter America that they would simply stay home – wherever that home might be, and however unsafe it might be.
“That’s where our entire process abruptly ended,” says Dhaha, in bemusement. “I haven’t got the courage to tell her the truth. She’s invested so much emotional energy in this. We haven’t seen each other in more than two decades. One executive order, ratified by the Supreme Court, has completely destroyed this dream of ours.”
According to PANA, there are roughly 30,000 Somalis in San Diego, a number second in the U.S. only to the Somali population in Minneapolis. Many have stories similar to Dhaha’s. There’s the couple who recently married, but the husband, a U.S. citizen, can’t bring his Somali wife into the country. And there’s the American woman who can’t bring her Somali husband in. “Real lives are being affected,” Dhaha says. “The executive order spares no one. It’s a one-size-fits-all deal.”
There is a Kafkaesque quality to these stories, a sense of victims – people who make contributions to communities and who want good lives – being caught in bureaucratic webs designed to be as opaque and as unchallengeable as possible. Around the country, hundreds of thousands of people have been affected by the barring of non-U.S. citizen and non-green-card-holding Somalis, Yemenis, Syrians and Iranians – and, so it could be dressed up before the courts as something other than a Muslim travel ban, a few North Korean and Venezuelan would-be visitors or immigrants.
As of 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated there were more than 476,900 Iranian-Americans in the country. Some estimates say the number is much higher. Hundreds of thousands of additional people make up the other groups.
“The impact has been unbelievably far-reaching,” says Sirine Shebaya, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney with Muslim Advocates, one of the organizations that has launched repeated legal actions against the various iterations of the travel ban. “These are communities that are used to going back and forth between countries. Now they are stuck. It’s breaking up large networks of families that had been able previously to visit each other. We’ve had people losing support networks and not having relatives look after children. They have to pay for day care instead. It has a micro-level economic impact.”
Shebaya tells of clients who can’t enter the country to see their newborn children, of others who can neither return to their homelands nor enter the U.S., now stuck in limbo in third countries.
In Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, 25-year-old Ismail Alghazali works in his older brother’s deli-cum-grocery-store. Ismail came from the Yemeni town of Ibb as a child, and he grew up in Sacramento, California. He has been a U.S. citizen since 2000.
Wearing designer jeans and an expensive-looking cream-colored sweater, zipped up the neck against the late-autumn chill, Ismail looks more like a New York City hipster than someone ensnared in a travel ban against purportedly dangerous people from the Middle East. Yet, ensnared he is.
In 2013, Ismail returned to Yemen to fulfill his parents’ wish that he enter an arranged marriage. His bride, Hend, was living in Sanaa at the time. They got married and began the long, convoluted process of securing Hend a visa to join him in America. He returned to the U.S., she stayed in Yemen, and they saw each other during his episodic visits back to Yemen. But the visits became less frequent as civil war intensified.
After years of filling in one form after another, providing copies of one document after another, undergoing one interview and one medical test after the next, a heavily pregnant Hend was finally told to report to the U.S. embassy in Djibouti for one more interview. It was during the interlude period, when the three versions of the ban had been enacted but successfully appealed – before the U.S. Supreme Court had weighed in. Begrudgingly, the U.S. was still processing visas.
In December 2017, Hend flew to Djibouti from Yemen; Ismail flew there from New York. It was desperately hot in Djibouti, the mosquitoes were swarming, and the rooms they rented were ludicrously expensive. But they had hope: Finally, in early January 2018, they were to be interviewed.
It turned out to be a shattering experience. A few days earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed the ban to go into effect while the appeals process played out.
“It was five minutes,” Ismail says “That quick. They gave her passport back, and they gave her a refusal paper saying her visa is refused under Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, pursuant to Presidential Proclamation 9645. Today’s decision cannot be appealed.”
Hend broke down crying. A few days later, she gave birth to their son, Khaled Ismail Ahmed Alghazali, in the back seat of a cab while trying to get to the nearest hospital.
Despite the fact that Khaled is a U.S. citizen with a U.S. passport, the government still wouldn’t grant Hend a waiver to enter the country. Months later, after spending through his life savings in Djibouti, a dejected Ismail returned to New York to live with his brother’s family in their apartment in East Brooklyn. His wife and infant son flew back to Yemen. There, living with relatives just outside of Ibb, their life is a daily struggle: to find baby food in empty stores, to avoid cholera, to stay clear of the militias and bandits that roam the streets at night.
Using a calling card, Ismail phones Hend twice a day. Occasionally, when the internet is functioning in Yemen, he manages to get in a few minutes of FaceTime. He wires her a few hundred dollars via Western Union whenever he can. “I don’t know how you can live without your wife and son,” he says softly over a cup of coffee at a local Starbucks. “I hear my baby crying – it breaks my heart.”
In the Rancho Peñasquitos neighborhood of northern San Diego, hundreds of Iranian-American children attend Sunday school in Farsi and Iranian culture. As the morning classes proceed, the parents mill around the grounds of the sprawling, adobe-and-stucco high school.
Kourosh Taghavi, his long black hair tied in a ponytail, his bushy goatee beard graying, is a Persian classical musician. He plays the sitar, a stringed instrument. Kourosh, whose children attend the Iranian Sunday school, has been in the U.S. for several decades after fleeing post-revolution Iran. His brother stayed behind. Until a couple years ago, his brother regularly came to California to visit. Now, since Kourosh is afraid to return to Iran and his brother can no longer enter the United States, they all have to journey to Turkey to see each other – at great expense. “I spend my money in Turkey instead of spending it here,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Kourosh talks about a friend, a Silicon Valley CEO, who was on a business trip in Germany when the ban kicked in. He couldn’t return to California. He talks of musician friends who don’t even bother applying for visas anymore.
Outside another room, I meet an obstetrician, a political asylee who wanted only her first name used. Raheleh works in a federally funded health clinic, and many of her patients are undocumented. With U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents now staking out medical facilities, many are scared to even seek treatment. Others’ lives have been affected by the travel ban. Raheleh mentions one patient, with breast cancer, whose husband is stuck in Iran and unable – because of financial sanctions against Iran – to even send her money to pay rent. The woman recently became homeless, and she can no longer afford her life-saving medications. Raheleh is trying to help her get medicine at no cost.
As the morning classes wound down and the children were gathered for an end-of-year holiday photo, a woman approached me to share her stories. She had an orthodontist friend in Iran who was denied a visa to attend a research seminar in the U.S. “She wants to further her knowledge, share her findings – because she’s also a researcher. She can’t, because of the travel ban. Young, bright, educated people that want to contribute to global welfare.”
Another woman, Marshia, her long brown hair falling over her shoulders, has two brothers trying to move to the United States. One of her brothers is an emergency room physician, now living in London; the other is still in Iran, where he is the CEO of a high-tech computer company specializing in neural networks and machine learning. Both want to join the rest of their family in the U.S., but neither has managed to get waivers to the travel ban. Scores of people who have applied for waivers report nothing but stonewalling from the U.S. State Department and the various agencies responsible for evaluating their applications. Few of the waivers are ever granted.
These are affluent, professional, educated people: doctors, dentists, lawyers, businessowners, musicians, teachers. They are creative minds and entrepreneurs, the sort of people who, in the past, the United States longed to admit – the sort of people that the Trump administration’s merit-based immigration proposals are ostensibly designed to attract. Instead, they and their families overseas have been labeled national security risks, not because of anything they have done, but because of the places they were born.
On the streets, they are increasingly subjected to racial and religious harassment. Many of the Iranian-Americans in San Diego spoke of their children being taunted at school and on sports teams because of their heritage. One woman told me that her sister, married to a neurologist, was recently approached at a Mercedes-Benz repair shop in the affluent Bel-Air enclave in Los Angeles, and screamed at to “go back home” by an angry young man.
That uncouth insult, that sense that longtime residents have of suddenly being treated as outsiders, is just another sign of how these families are caught in the currents of an increasingly distressing moment in American history.
“The presumption that my mother is a national security threat is outlandish,” says Dhaha Nur, as we continue to talk in the conference room at PANA, an organization that works with immigrant communities in San Diego. “She’s been vetted. She’s almost 50. My mom wanted to be here for my wedding. She couldn’t make it. I said, ‘We’ll do another one for you.’ Then, she wanted to be here for my first kid. My kid’s now walking. Who does it benefit? Who’s the winner from all of this? Trump’s not winning. America’s not winning. Nobody’s winning because my mother can’t come here.”
Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist and book author. In November 2018, he wrote the Equal Voice article, “Robots and Automation: Is There Space for Hourly Workers?” The United Nations cited his 2013 book, “The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives,” in its 2018 report about extreme poverty and human rights in the U.S. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.
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