For over a decade, Ibrahem Almorisi contemplated a move from his home in Yemen to far-away America. But that would mean giving up the life that he had worked so hard to build—not just a bachelor’s degree in dentistry, a master’s degree in oral surgery and his own dental practice in Sana’a, but also a sense of familiarity and comfort for his wife and young children.
When the civil war in Yemen intensified in 2015, however, Almorisi recalls the Houthi rebels advancing their attacks and “destroying everything.” The father of five knew that the time had come. He sold all of his possessions and headed for the nearest United States embassy across the Red Sea in Djibouti.
It took the family six long months in Djibouti to finalize all of the necessary paperwork in what Almorisi considers the last leg of his 15-year American visa application process. Finally, in January, 2017, their journey began: from Djibouti to Ethiopia to Virginia to California and ultimately to the East Bay, where they were expected to reunite with relatives. But what should have been a day’s worth of traveling resulted in two excruciating weeks of canceled visas and living in airports.
That’s because on January 27, as the family neared Washington Dulles International Airport aboard an Ethiopian Airlines flight, President Donald Trump signed into action an executive order temporarily barring citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Yemen was on the list.
Dahan Fadel, Almorisi’s relative who has been resettled in the U.S. for several years, was scheduled to pick them up once they’d made their connecting flight from Dulles to San Francisco. “I heard the same day about the travel ban, but I didn’t expect it to affect him because he was already in the air,” said Fadel—the ban had gone into effect just four hours after the family’s plane departed for the U.S.
While their plane was allowed to land at Dulles, the family was not allowed to leave the airport. Instead, they received stamps that read “canceled” on each of their visas. Almorisi watched officials throw away their visa applications. They were also forbidden from coming into contact with anyone. Years of persistence, all for nothing, he thought.
“I was trying so hard to show them I am a legal guy, and I have all my paperwork done correctly from the U.S. embassy in Djibouti,” said Almorisi. “I said, ‘I am a doctor. I have small children and a wife.’”
But to no avail. The family was sent back to Addis Ababa, where they spent nearly a week living in the airport. Almorisi says he’ll never forget the sight of his children as they slept on the floors.
“The worst thing was that the Ethiopian Airlines expected the family to pay for all 7 flights from Virginia back to Ethiopia,” said Fadel. “But they had no money left.”
Meanwhile, throughout the U.S. and the East Bay, news of the travel ban had prompted outrage: activists took to the airports in protest, immigration attorneys prepared to take on an influx of cases, and judges began brainstorming temporary blocks against the ban. In cities like Oakland and Richmond, people from countries named in the ban began to worry about difficulties with travel and their own residency statuses.
One year later, although the ban has been through three revisions, not much has changed. It is partially in effect, and the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer on whether its third version violates federal immigration law or the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against religious discrimination. The current version of the ban now affects people from eight countries—six of them with a Muslim majority. Should the Court uphold the ban, it will go fully into effect. And this time, the ban would last indefinitely.
Trump’s initial version of the travel ban, Executive Order 13769, was the first of its kind. It aimed to bar entry to the U.S. by people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen—all countries with a Muslim majority population—for 90 days “to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals,” according to the official statement. Because the ban left a backdoor open for minority religions from those Muslim-majority countries, opponents claimed it appeared to be more of a “Muslim ban” than a travel ban. The order also enjoined the suspension of the U.S. Refugee Admission Program for 120 days, and the entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely.
Spojmie Nasiri is an immigration lawyer who served as the head of the board of the Council of the American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) when the first version of the ban went into effect last year. She said that not only tourists and refugees, but people with green cards, a document that gives foreign nationals permanent legal status in the US, were being denied entry at first.
“Believe it or not, even green card holders were turned away,” Nasiri recalls. “I was part of seeing what was happening. But there wasn’t really much to do than to argue that green card holders have a right to get in.” Within a couple of days, green card holders were allowed to enter the country; only visas were revoked.
It only took hours before state attorneys and organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and CAIR started to take legal action against the ban. Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson was the first to sue the White House on behalf of his state. The lawsuit requested that the president’s order be halted until a federal judge could determine its constitutionality.
The ACLU, among other groups, filed a lawsuit on behalf of two Iraqi men who were on their way to the U.S. on immigrant visas when the travel ban was implemented. The ACLU argued that one man had a valid special immigrant visa to enter the U.S. based on his work for U.S. contractors and the U.S. consulate general in Erbil, Iraq; the other had an approved application to join his wife, who is a legal permanent resident. Both men feared returning to their countries and planned to pursue asylum under the convention against torture. Furthermore, the short notice of detention denied them access to a counsel, a translator and other resources, ACLU lawyers claimed.
One month before the first ban was to expire, Trump signed a revised version. (The first remained stalled by several court orders and pending lawsuits.) With Iraq removed from the list, the second ban would suspend immigration from Sudan, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia and Yemen for 90 days following the order’s implementation. But one day before the ban should have taken effect, U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson in Hawaii blocked it on the grounds that it violated the Constitution because it allows religious discrimination and could cause irreparable harm.
The next day, a lawsuit filed by the International Refugee Assistance Project led to another nationwide preliminary injunction. These two lawsuits have since framed the legal debate over the travel ban, arguing it is unconstitutional, brings harm to people and that, in signing it, Trump had exceeded the scope of his authority. These lawsuits, with the White House, Homeland Security and the State Department listed as the defendants, have been brought to the Fourth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals. They ended up in front of the Supreme Court in June and again in December.
The third version of the travel ban—issued in September, 2017—no longer restricts travel from Sudan, but Syria, Iran, Libya and Somalia remain on the list. Chad, Venezuela and North Korea were added. Judge Watson in Hawaii once again partially blocked the ban from going into effect, arguing it violates the Immigration and Nationality Act and writing, “It is hard to imagine a more straightforward example of nationality discrimination.” However, Watson’s block only applies to people from Muslim-majority nations. In October, the ban took effect against certain people—namely government officials—from Venezuela and North Korea.
Fewer than two months later, on December 4, the Supreme Court ruled that the third version of the ban can be applied to people from the Muslim-majority countries if they cannot prove that they have a “bona fide” relationship with someone in the U.S. Such a relationship includes having a job, going to school or university, or having close family members like parents, children or siblings who are citizens. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the final legality of the ban by this summer.
The newest version of the ban has already led to between 200 and 400 Yemenis who wanted to enter the U.S. receiving notification that their visas were revoked, according to immigration lawyer Nasiri.
“People are devastated. They were all excited to join their families, their parents, their siblings. They waited for years. And now their dreams are destroyed,” said Nasiri. According to her, even people who have close family members in the U.S. are getting rejected, even though these should be considered “bona fide” relationships. “Despite all that, entries are still denied,” said Nasiri. She herself has a few clients from Yemen who have tried to enter the U.S. So far, she hasn’t been told about the status of their visas by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). “We are not getting anything from them,” she said.
As the Almorisi family slept on the airport floor after being sent back to Ethiopia, their fate uncertain, Fadel began working to help bring them back. He remembers scrolling through Facebook and reading a message shared by an attorney named Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, a legal director for the Legal Aid Justice Center’s (LAJC) immigrant advocacy program, who vowed to support those affected by the travel ban. Immediately, Fadel called and gave him Almorisi’s contact information.
The lawyer worked with others at LAJC including Becky Wolozin, an Equal Justice Works Fellow, and attorneys from Mayer Brown LLP, and a team of pro bono attorneys, to help bring relief to the Almorisi family.
The attorneys notified Ethiopian media about the family’s situation and arranged to send reporters to the airport to put pressure on the airlines for demanding money from the family. According to Wozolin, they also helped raise the money for the tickets and facilitated their purchase while the family was stuck in the airport. Finally, the Almorisis were allowed to leave the airport. From there, they returned to Djibouti to stay with friends and wait for the dust to settle.
Meanwhile, the attorneys continued negotiating the family’s return to the U.S. with government lawyers. Both Fadel and Almorisi praised the work of of Sandoval-Moshenberg and Wolozin’s team, which guided the family through joining a class action suit with nearly 60 other petitioners who were also held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers in the arrival terminal of the Dulles airport in the days after the first ban went into effect.
The suit, which was filed in a Virginia court, named Trump, the Department of Homeland Security and CBP as defendants and listed six different causes of action, including violations of the First Amendment. According to the complaint, the executive order “exhibits hostility to a specific religious faith, Islam, and gives preference to other religious faiths, principally Christianity, therefore violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by not pursuing a course of neutrality with regard to religious faiths.”
Sandoval-Moshenberg said that that the Department of Justice was “extraordinarily interested in making this particular case go away,” adding that “they bent over backwards to bring the families back.” Ultimately, the Almorisi family was allowed back into the country with valid visas. Their settlement agreement, however, involved Almorisi waiving his right to continue suing.
While Almorisi dropped out of the class action suit, it did not in fact go away, because in the meantime the Commonwealth of Virginia intervened as a plaintiff. In an email, Wolozin wrote: “The case continued as a class action and through other plaintiffs, including the Virginia Attorney General representing the interests of many Virginians.”
After two weeks—though Almorisi remembers it feeling much longer—the family received the welcome they deserved when Sandoval-Moshenberg greeted them at the Washington Dulles airport. “It was extremely emotional seeing the family,” said Sandoval-Moshenberg. “There were tears all over the place, including my own.”
From there, the family continued on to California to reunite with relatives, including Fadel. Upon arrival, they were taken to an Airbnb in El Sobrante, where they stayed for free as part of the company’s Open Homes program for refugees.
Right from the start, opponents argued that the travel ban discriminates against Muslims.
Two days before the first ban was signed, the ACLU of Northern California released a press release stating that the immigration policies being considered by the White House “not only signal widespread violation of the rights of immigrants and citizens, but will waste resources, drive fear into our communities, foster bigotry, and make us all less safe.”
But the White House defended the executive order in a statement two days after its release. In it, Trump stated that the ban is “not about religion,” but “about terror and keeping our country safe.” The president argued that over 40 different countries with a Muslim majority are not affected by the order, adding that the former Obama administration also identified those seven countries as sources of terrorist groups. “I have tremendous feeling for the people involved in this horrific humanitarian crisis in Syria,“ he concluded. “My first priority will always be to protect and serve our country, but as President I will find ways to help all those who are suffering.”
William Fernholz, a lecturer-in-residence at the UC Berkeley School of Law and a former civil rights lawyer, said that the first travel ban had clear legal problems, because it seemed to allow discrimination based on nationality, and therefore violated the Constitution. But, he said, it has become more constitutionally defensible with each revision. “We have moved from a clearly unconstitutional ban in version 1.0 to a probably unconstitutional one in 2.0 to an arguably unconstitutional one with the latest version,” said Fernholz.
The third version of the travel ban includes non-Muslim nations like North Korea and Venezuela, and the scope of the ban varies depending on each nation. For Venezuela, only government officials are forbidden from traveling to the U.S. For Somalia, the current version of the ban suspends immigration, but Somalis may still visit the U.S. In addition, the ban explicitly allows travel for persons who already have a green card and individuals with dual nationality, traveling under the passport of a non-excluded nation.
Immigration lawyer Nasiri feels the same way about the changes in the third version: “With Venezuela and North Korea on the list, they try to shade it as a non-Muslim ban. They are tweaking it,” she said.
Fernholz pointed out that courts can take into evidence the president’s own speech when considering whether the ban is motivated by a religious bias. He mentioned that a February decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the travel ban violates the law, and that this decision was based on an analysis of Trump’s statements and Tweets since he became president. In November, 2017, for example, the internet was up in arms when Trump retweeted three inflammatory—and unverified—anti-Muslim videos posted by Britain First, a far-right political group that has previously been under scrutiny for posting anti-immigrant and Islamophobic content.
Fernholz believes that in the end, Trump himself will be the worst enemy of his own ban. “He wants it, but he says all these discriminatory things. His justification seems unconstitutional,” said Fernholz.
Sandoval-Moshenberg, the attorney who represented the Almorisi family, agrees. “The recent Fourth Circuit decision makes it quite clear that it is still a Muslim ban. They’ve changed details around the sides and edge, but it still represents the ugliest part of the Trumpian, nativist, white supremacist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim agenda,” he said. He added that even if the Supreme Court doesn’t strike it down on religious discrimination reasons, he would like them to consider that nationality-based bans are still unconstitutional.
Even though the ban is awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court, Nasiri says it is already having an effect on people in the Bay Area. Her job as an immigration lawyer is to file petitions for fiancé or spousal visas and support applications for citizenship, predominantly for people from Muslim-majority countries. During the last year she has seen a lot of delays and denials—even for people from countries like Bangladesh and Afghanistan, which are not on the travel ban list.
“Does it have to do with the Muslim ban? I definitely think so,” she said. She emphasizes a lot of her colleagues have seen delays in cases “much more than we have seen before,” adding that cases are being more scrutinized and immigration officials are asking for more information, even after the visa application interview.
The ban also psychologically affects U.S. citizens who identify as Muslim. According to Nasiri, people are more afraid and are taking more precautions about international travel. “I get calls from [citizens] all the time, asking if they can travel outside the country,” she said. Though she tries to reassure them, she said, she understands that they are still afraid.
For other families, the travel ban has kept them apart from loved ones who live abroad. Mahsa Esfandiari and her husband Mehran Nekuii, who live in San Jose, spent over a year assisting her 67-year-old mother with her visa application from Iran—not for her to resettle permanently in the U.S., but simply to visit. But preparing for even just a visit proved to be taxing: Esfandiari’s mother began her application process in December, 2016, and was unable to complete it before the travel ban was introduced.
In addition to an international trip to the nearest U.S. Consulate in Dubai for an interview (Iran does not have a U.S. embassy), she also underwent administrative processing under section 221(g) of the United States Immigration and Nationality Act—something Nekuii describes as an extremely lengthy set of prolonged background checks. He said it took about one year, adding that “almost all Iranian applicants were going through this” at the time.
On December 18, 2017, just weeks before the travel ban went into effect, Esfandiari’s mother received an email from the U.S. Consulate in Dubai stating that her application was found ineligible for a visa, pursuant to the third version of the ban, which focused on “vetting capability and processes for detecting attempted entry in to the U.S.”
Though near the very end of the visa application process, her entire application was rendered obsolete. Nekuii said the email even stated that a waiver would not be considered. For the family, it confirmed that the trip would be impossible.
“I have been married for 11 years, and my mother still has never seen my home,” said Esfandiari, who is expecting her first child in June. “We are trying really hard to make America our home, but it is becoming more and more difficult to do this.”
Esfandiari said that although she heard rumors of the travel ban, she never thought it would affect parents and immediate relatives. Now, as the couple anticipates the birth of their first child, she longs for her mother more than ever. “I still don’t have the heart to tell my mom about her visa,” she said. “She still thinks it’s processing.”
In theory, Nasiri said, people with a “bona fide” relationship in the U.S. should be excluded from the ban and should be able to enter the U.S. more easily. But this seems much more difficult in practice—immigration lawyers are cautious and worried about how these cases are going to be processed in the future. “We are seeing a lot more questioning when people apply for visas or citizenship, and we as petitioners make sure we are double, triple checking everything,” said Nasiri.
Because of her experiences during the last year, Nasiri foresees a lot more denials, delays and requests for evidence by immigration officers. “For my clients, I anticipate a lot more frustration and anger with the system,” she said.
Nasiri’s solution is for immigration advocates to fight the ban in courts and to educate people. In workshops, she explains to people their rights, specifically that green card holders don’t have to give detailed answers when they are asked by customs officers, returning from a trip home, whom they have visited outside of the U.S. If the customs officers cannot verify the given information or the required documents are incomplete, travelers must undergo an interview known as a “secondary inspection” which allow inspector to do additional research. In this case, Nasiri advises her clients to ask for the secondary inspection to be done in front of other travelers, to make their situation more visible.
The Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of the travel ban by the end of June, a decision that will finally provide the answers that many from the Bay Area’s immigrant community have been waiting for.
But for now, Nekuii and Esfandiari feel that the future seems bleak for travelers from Iran. “As long, as there is a ban, Iran will be on the list,” said a heavy-hearted Esfandiari. Instead, the couple has begun preparing for visits to Iran rather than waiting for Esfandiari’s mother to visit. They hope to take their child to their home country soon after the birth—something Esfandiari believes will help her mother cope with the separation.
But even though both have been green card holders for the past three years, they are fearful that difficulties may arise when trying to reenter the U.S. “After the first version of the travel ban, many green card holders had issues at the airports and some were detained or deported,” said Nekuii. “They introduce new laws overnight.”
“Unfortunately [there] is a big price to pay to be able to live in the U.S. and to pursue our dreams,” he added. “We hope one day we get treated as a normal human beings.”
While the couple continues waiting for good news, the Almorisi family has found solace in Richmond, where they have resettled. The five children are learning English in school and their father spends his days studying for the National Board Dental Examination in hopes of restarting his once-prosperous dental career.
The one year-anniversary of their arrival just passed, and the family celebrated becoming legal residents. “Four more years until citizenship,” said a hopeful Almorisi. He said he often thinks about how his family has been trying to acclimate to western society. “As long as my kids are safe, I do not have to worry,” he said, rubbing his hand over the tension lines on his forehead.
Almorisi also recently began his first job in his new country, working as a surgical assistant in Oakland. But for the majority of the past year, the family has been living without an income. With his new job, Almorisi says he is finally happy, but he added, “there is a long way to go.”
“America is like a dream for everyone,” he said, breathing a heavy sigh. “But I was expecting to see something better than what I see.”