‘I lost trust in the system,’ says US citizen now unable to reunite with his Yemeni family

Family or four, two girls, man and woman sit together on boardwalk at sunset

Abdo Elfgeeh, a naturalized US citizen, hoped his Yemeni wife and four children would be allowed to join him in the United States. And soon.

Now, after the US Supreme Court’s Tuesday decision in favor of President Donald Trump’s travel ban, he’s about given up.

In the past seven months, he paid $40,000 for them to embark on a dangerous trek from their home in war-torn Yemen’s capital to the US embassy in Djibouti for a visa interview, and to cover their living expenses in Jordan, where they’ve stayed since their applications were denied, anxiously awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision. Another $10,000 has gone to attorney fees since they began the US immigration process in June 2015, near the start of Yemen’s war.

Elfgeeh, who lives in Westchester County, New York, says he maintained faith in his adopted home country through it all.

“Honestly — and this is the first time I’m saying this — with this decision I lost trust in the whole system,” Elfgeeh says. “We live in a broken system. I don’t think anything can justify what is happening to us.”

“We are shocked. Devastated,” he adds. “Being in that position where you cannot reunite with them, it’s been hard. It hurts us a lot.”

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision upholds Trump’s ban on travel to the US for citizens of five Muslim-majority countries — Yemen as well as Iran, Libya, Somalia and Syria — and rejects claims the ban was motivated by religious hostility. (North Korea and government officials from Venezuela were also added to the third version of the ban, but those two countries were not considered in the case.)

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the third and latest version of Trump’s executive order, also called a presidential proclamation, fell “squarely within the scope of Presidential authority” under US immigration law and has “has set forth a sufficient national security justification” to prevail.

“We express no view on the soundness of the policy,” Roberts added.

The ruling ended a fierce fight in the courts over legal challenges brought by the state of Hawaii and others, seeking to determine whether the policy amounted to a Muslim ban that violated the constitutional right to freedom of religion.

For thousands of US citizens and permanent residents like Elfgeeh, who have tried to bring family members into the US from the banned countries, the decision makes the legal obstacles that began in the first days of Trump’s presidency feel permanent.

The Elfgeeh family met in Djibouti in January for their visa interviews. Abdo Elfgeeh, left, a US citizen, does not know how to reunite them in the same country after President Trump's travel ban.
The Elfgeeh family met in Djibouti in January for their visa interviews. Abdo Elfgeeh, left, a US citizen, does not know how to reunite them in the same country after President Trump’s travel ban.Courtesy of Abdo Elfgeeh

Elfgeeh, 43, arrived in the US in 2001 and became a citizen four years later. Because he cannot bring his family to join him, he says he feels relegated to second-class status, without access to the same rights as other Americans.

“I feel discriminated at,” he says. “It’s discrimination based on the place I came from, and from being an American Muslim. It doesn’t change that I’m proud being an American. That was my life’s dream that I achieved, but at the same time, now I lost my trust.”

Adding insult to Elfgeeh’s injury is Yemen’s raging war, where the US supports the Saudi-led bombing campaign.

Elfgeeh works in sales for an ATM company in New York, and he used to send money and frequently visit his wife and children at their family home in Sanaa, Yemen. All that changed more than three years ago, when Houthi rebels took over Sanaa. The Saudi-led coalition began bombing the capital, and the airport was shut down. Elfgeeh felt Sanaa wasn’t safe for his family due to both Saudi bombs and increasingly repressive rule under the Houthis.  

That began the arduous, yearslong US immigration process. If all had gone as planned, Elfgeeh’s wife, Afrah, and three eldest children would have been granted family-based immigrant visas, which would have put them on a path to citizenship after they entered the US. (His youngest daughter, 9-year-old Wala, is a US citizen because she was born after Elfgeeh became one himself. The family decided to keep her with her mother and other siblings for now.)

The immigration process slowed down with Trump’s first travel ban, issued his first week as president. Finally, the Elfgeeh family was granted an appointment this January at the US embassy in the tiny east African nation of Djibouti, where Yemeni visa applications have been processed since the US closed its embassy in Yemen in 2015.  

“It was very dangerous and costly to get them from Yemen to Djibouti because Yemen is a war zone,” Elfgeeh says. “They passed more than 30 checkpoints to get from Sanaa to Aden, which is the only [open] airport in Yemen.” The Saudi-led coalition bombed and destroyed the country’s main international airport in Sanaa last year.

At each checkpoint, they had to pay “fees,” or bribes. Elfgeeh coordinated their journey from New York. He sold the family’s two cars and borrowed $16,000 from relatives to fund it. His wife and children then flew to Sudan, where they stayed for two weeks awaiting visas to enter Djibouti for their US visa interviews. Elfgeeh met them for a week in Djibouti. After their rejection, his wife and children moved to Jordan, where they can obtain a higher quality of life. By now, all four children have missed a year of schooling.

This is the process many Yemenis must undergo to obtain US visas, explains Diala Shamas, a staff attorney at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. The center oversees the Yemeni American Justice Initiative, which studies systemic discrimination faced by Yemeni Americans and their families, particularly in light of Trump’s travel ban.

“The travel ban, at least for Yemenis, was the latest and the most harsh in a series of obstacles within the immigration system,” Shamas says. Her organization joined a group from Yale Law School in Djibouti this spring to interview stranded Yemeni nationals applying for immigrant visas to rejoin their immediate relatives in the United States.

Their resulting report, released last week, found that the US visa process for Yemenis is often “inaccessible, invisible, and opaque,” with en-masse denials that “call into question any neutral, security-based interpretation” of the travel ban.

There are some exceptions in the most recent iteration of the ban. Some people from each targeted country can apply for an individual visa waiver if they can show denial would cause undue hardship and that their entry would not pose a threat to US national security. In arguing for the ban’s legality before the Supreme Court, the government’s attorney pointed to the waiver process to show people would still be allowed in on a case-by-case basis.

Related: Five takeaways from the Supreme Court’s oral argument on Trump’s travel ban

But getting one is nearly impossible, immigrant advocates and affected people tell PRI. Shamas’ group’s report confirmed this as well.

According to a letter from the State Department, obtained by the Associated Press, as of the end of April, 33,176 people from banned countries have applied for visa waivers. Just 579 were granted.

Elfgeeh says his family knew their chances at getting a visa were slim before they arrived in Djibouti.

“We knew, 90 percent, they were going to get rejected,” Elfgeeh says. “But we put forward everything, and we decided since they gave us an appointment they would have to go.”

The US consular officer who handed them the notice explained Trump’s travel ban was the reason for the denial, Elfgeeh says, and they were not given the option to seek a waiver.

Asked if he knows other Yemeni Americans in similar situations, Elfgeeh rattled off his brother, cousin, friends and neighbors. They have spent tens of thousands of dollars each trying to reunite with wives and children.

“It’s difficult for a lot of families,” he says. “We’re just one family out of so many.”

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Yemeni relatives of US citizens and permanent residents are stranded in Djibouti due to visa rejections, Shamas says. Her group was inundated with requests for help when they held an informational meeting there earlier this year.

“We had more than 200 people show up, and it was announced just 24 hours earlier,” Shamas says. “They were hungry for information, and we were the first group of lawyers to arrive from the US. There was very little clarity we could provide. There has been a deliberate obfuscation of the waiver process by the government.”

Many had been counting on the Supreme Court’s decision as their “last remaining avenue” to be reunited, she says.

During the oral argument in April, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer asked whether the waiver process was merely “window dressing” for the travel ban. The justices also asked about a US citizen, Nageeb Alomari, whose 10-year-old Yemeni citizen child with cerebral palsy was denied a waiver. Attorneys for the family wrote to the Supreme Court about their experience in May, and the girl was granted granted a waiver shortly afterward and arrived in the US.

In his dissent Tuesday, Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Elena Kagan in questioning whether, given the miniscule number of waivers granted, they were truly being given to people who do not pose security threats to the United States.

In some ways, the decision was not surprising. Courts have generally deferred to the president and Congress on matters of national security and foreign affairs.

Josh Blackman, an associate professor of law at the South Texas College of Law in Houston, is a longtime critic of the Trump administration’s travel ban, but says Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision is “a correct application of long-standing precedent.”

“The court acknowledged various statements made by candidate Trump and President Trump over the past few years about Islam and about Muslims. But they said on the whole we should defer to the executive branch. After all, the case is about not just this president but the presidency, which is an institution that spans far beyond our years,” says Blackman. “The question of whether there is or is not a national security threat is not a question that the court should be deciding. And because there was a facially neutral policy, there were adequate reasons given, that’s the end of the for the court’s review.”

Houston-based immigration attorney Mana Yegani, however, says giving this kind of discretion to the president is dangerous.

“The decision allows the president to make any remarks, racist remarks during the campaign or thereafter, and not be held accountable for that,” she says.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts took the opportunity to reject the court’s 1944 Korematsu decision, which upheld President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mass incarceration of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

It has been widely criticized as one of the Supreme Court’s worst decisions. Roberts wrote that Korematsu “has nothing to do with this case,” but said the forcible relocation of US citizens to concentration camps solely on the basis of race “is objectively unlawful and outside the scope of Presidential authority.”

Related: As Supreme Court considers Trump’s travel ban, some want justices to remember a case they decided 74 years ago

In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, disagreed, drawing parallels between Korematsu and the travel ban case.

“By blindly accepting the Government’s misguided invitation to sanction a discriminatory policy motivated by animosity toward a disfavored group, all in the name of a superficial claim of national security, the Court redeploys the same dangerous logic underlying Korematsu and merely replaces one “gravely wrong” decision with another,” she wrote. New “window dressing … cannot conceal an unassailable fact: the words of the President and his advisers create the strong perception that the Proclamation is contaminated by impermissible discriminatory animus against Islam and its followers.”

Megani says lawsuits could continue.

“I think the next step that we will see is probably a class-action lawsuit by US citizen family members who are damaged or hurt as a result of their family members not being able to be granted a waiver to come visit the United States,” she says.

As for Elfgeeh, he no longer sees the US as a place where they can all be together — at least, not anytime soon. His oldest daughter has returned to Sanaa, despite the danger, to resume her college studies. As for his youngest, the US citizen, he’s considering bringing her to New York. His wife and other three children will remain in Jordan unless they can get a visa to go somewhere else.

He says: “We are looking for the least bad option so we can have a normal life.”

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