Just recently, Fatima,* a U.S. permanent resident originally from Yemen, received a letter from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asking for more information on her application for an immigrant visa for her husband of four years. Obtaining official paperwork from Yemen right now is not easy given the state of war, but she will proceed under the guidance of a U.S.-based attorney—a resource Yemenis almost always need to navigate the special requirements of U.S. immigration they face, which existed long before the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban” took effect. For more than a decade, Yemenis seeking to reunite their families have been subject to added burdens, such as providing years of financial data proving family support, DNA tests to prove paternity and maternity, and having to sue the U.S. government to move a file forward from a stalled position. Indeed, an immigration attorney told me seven years ago that “you almost have to sue the American government to get a Yemeni case processed.”
At the time, the costs of complying with these extra measures ran $8,000 to $10,000, on average, in addition to a few thousand dollars for the upfront filing fees and transportation costs once a visa was issued. But that was before the U.S. embassy closed its facility in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in February of 2015 after the Houthi takeover, followed closely by the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led bombing campaign that’s still in place. Since then, Yemeni visa processing has largely moved to the U.S. embassy in the nearby country of Djibouti, substantially increasing the costs and risks required to reunify Yemeni families. The risks include a precarious 17-hour, over-land journey from Sana’a to Aden (which used to take three hours) that includes multiple checkpoints, inspections, and bribes, followed by a 13-hour rugged crossing of the Red Sea by boat. The costs include leaving one’s employment, packing up the family, and investing up to tens of thousands of dollars to pay for rent, food, and utilities during the long wait (in some cases more than a year) in Djibouti for a consulate interview and then a visa stamp on the passports. Yet from today’s perspective, those were better times, because prior to the Trump Administration at least the investment paid off by ending family separation.
President Trump’s executive orders and proclamation commonly known as the “Muslim ban” have considerably worsened this already harsh scenario. Within a week of taking office, Trump issued an executive order prohibiting for 90 days the U.S. entry of most nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. It also halted most refugee admissions for 120 days, and indefinitely banned the entry of Syrian refugees. The ban immediately created mass chaos for persons in transit at airports across the globe and at U.S. ports of entry. Though variations of the ban were challenged in court, an updated version was ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June of 2018. The latest iteration—known as Proclamation 9645—bans most nationals of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea, and Chad (which has since been removed), as well as certain Venezuelan diplomats. These measures by President Trump were interpreted by many as an effort to fulfill his campaign promise to implement a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” For its part, the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals wrote that the ban “speaks with vague words of national security, but in context drips with religious intolerance, animus and discrimination.”
With the ban in place, family reunification visa applications for Yemenis are still being processed by USCIS and the National Visa Center (NVC), and potential beneficiaries are still being asked for further information, to continue paying fees, and to wait in Djibouti for interviews, yet available data show that nearly all (if not all) interviewees are being denied, per executive order. At the consular official’s discretion, applicants denied may be considered for a “waiver,” a lengthy process characterized by a 2018 Center for Constitutional Rights and Yale Law School report as “harsh and opaque” and by a former consulate official as a “sham,” for which applicants will encumber additional thousands of dollars in waiting costs. (The availability of waivers, however scarce, helped convince the Supreme Court to uphold the ban.) Successful waivers require demonstrating that denying entry would cause undue hardship, that entry would not pose a threat to national security, and that entry would be in the national interest, all of which are subject to official review in Washington. A 2019 report by Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative detailed the staggering costs of this process for Yemenis—for some families nearly $70,000—which posted a 5 percent approval rate during the 16-month period between December 2017 and March 2019, according to a State Department report. In the meantime, family resources are drained and those in need of urgent medical care are denied. Furthermore, there is evidence of practices that smack of mean spirit, such as numerous reported instances where waivers were finally issued to children but not their parents, or to parents but not their children, or to some children and not others, resulting in further separations, longer stays in Djibouti, and greater exhaustion of family financial resources.
The full weight of these risks and resource-depleting financial burdens must be understood in its local and global context. Yemen is a poor country, the poorest of all Arab countries. In 2014, before the current war, an estimated 54 percent of its population lived below the poverty level, according to the CIA World Factbook. Its GDP per capita was $2,500 in 2017, as compared to $59,800 for the U.S., placing it among the 15 poorest countries globally. A substantial proportion of Yemeni families have relied on remittances from multiple family members working outside of Yemen to survive. Since the war, Yemen has been in a state of humanitarian crisis, thousands have been killed, millions have been displaced, millions risk starvation, and medical supplies have been depleted. Remittance money, as well as the sale of assets, sometimes including the family home, has become the source of the tens of thousands of dollars required for a U.S. family reunification visa; that portion which does not emanate from immediate family often comes from cash lent on trust by other hard-working Yemenis.
Yemenis have a very long tradition of migrating to meet the demands of supporting their families. I recall reading once the claim that there was no country on earth without a Yemeni. For centuries Yemenis have headed east to Malaysia, Indonesia, India, and south to east Africa. In the past century they have also headed west, in particular to Great Britain and the United States, and north to Saudi Arabia (a more welcoming place before 3 million Yemenis were expelled in the early 1990s). Over the past 100 years, Yemeni Americans have been farmworkers in California, ship captains on the Great Lakes, auto industry workers in Detroit and Buffalo, and shopkeepers in New York. Known to scholars as both hard-working and reserved, Yemeni Americans have nonetheless died among striking United Farm Workers in California, rebuilt a Dearborn community slated for demolition, and organized a New York bodega strike to oppose the so-called “Muslim ban.” The dominant Yemeni American migration pattern has been one in which men migrate to work, save money by sharing housing with other Yemeni workers, and send their earnings back to family in Yemen. This family management scenario has been smart, given the low wages of most Yemenis. In a pattern largely distinct from other Arab Americans, more than half of all U.S. Yemenis live at or below 125 percent of the poverty line and only 13.5 percent have a college education, according to an analysis of American Community Survey data by sociologists Kristine Ajrouch and Jen’nan Read. Now, with war raging in Yemen, it makes sense that Yemeni Americans want to reunite their families in a place where they are safe from bombings and have access to life’s fundamentals: food, safe housing, and medicine. The “Muslim ban” not only prevents them from doing so, it undercuts the very economic survival of Yemeni families by draining them of their financial resources.
Yemenis are not a population well known to Americans, making it important to highlight the stories of the thousands denied family reunification immigrant visas and to contextualize their plight within their long history in the U.S. They are not strangers to the U.S., yet their relative obscurity makes it easy to cast them off as undeserving of living here and to demonize them as terrorists. Whichever version of the “Muslim ban” one considers, the terms “terrorist” and “entry detrimental to the interests of the United States” are front and center. Yet according to The New York Times, a 2017 report analyzing government data since 2001 by sociologist Charles Kurzman found that “no one has been killed in the United States in a terrorist attack by anyone who emigrated from or whose parents emigrated from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, the seven countries targeted in the order’s 90-day visa ban.” The administration’s defense of the president’s executive orders and attendant proclamation claim that logic and a studied process explain the ban, not the religious animus reflected in President Trump’s campaign promise of a “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” But the data are revealing.
Yemenis had a fairly consistent and low-level pattern of migration from 2000 through 2015, when U.S. Department of Homeland Security data show Yemenis obtaining lawful permanent resident (LPR) status as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens and family-sponsored immigrants ranging on average between 1,500 and 3,500 per year. Those numbers jumped in a single fiscal year (from October 2015 through September 2016) to more than 13,000, clearly in response to the war. Then, with the war raging and humanitarian conditions declining, new Yemeni LPRs plummeted in 2017 to less than half that number. There is little doubt in my mind that this sharp decline, which occurred in the federal fiscal year that included the last quarter of the Obama administration and the first three quarters of the new Trump administration, from October 2016 through September 2017, is due to implementation of the spirit of the Muslim ban. This implementation occurred despite its being enjoined by appellate courts for most of the year and despite a June 2017 Supreme Court ruling specifically granting exemptions for persons with a “bona fide relationship” wishing to “live with or visit a family member” in the U.S. In other words, the data clearly demonstrate that although the ban was yet to be fully legally implemented and was still being challenged in the courts, it was enacted nonetheless.
After that, it only gets worse. According to the most recent publicly available data, the first three quarters of fiscal year 2018 (from October 2017 through June 2018) show further steep declines with a total of 2,028 new U.S. permanent residents from Yemen, most of which (1,545 persons) were approved in the first quarter, only near the end of which did the Supreme Court temporarily approve the ban, while permitting access to waivers. In the second and third quarters, 258 and 225 applicants were approved, respectively, but only 274 (57 percent) of them were new Yemeni arrivals; the rest were adjustments of status for persons already in the U.S. In sum, in the midst of war and severe humanitarian crisis, Yemeni family reunification has been reduced to a trickle.
These numbers are astounding. Assume for a minute the unlikely: that Yemeni applications for family reunification had declined and were equal to the numbers actually approved in 2016 (including the family sponsored applicants already in the queue); on that basis one may conclude that the proportion of those technically eligible for family reunification visas who actually received them was less than 15 percent overall, and less than 5 percent in the second and third quarters. This finding parallels the State Department’s report to Senator Chris Van Hollen, about the 16-month period ending in March of 2019, which stated that “the processing of waivers continues apace with approximately 5.1 percent of subject applicants having been issued a visa pursuant to the waiver process.” It also parallels a Cato Institute analysis revealing an overall 91 percent reduction in Muslim refugees as compared to 2016 and an overall 30 percent cut in immigrant visas for persons from Muslim-majority countries, extending beyond the banned countries and occurring mostly in family reunification cases.
Recently, on September 24, Congress convened a joint hearing on Proclamation 9645. It was the first such oversight hearing on the “Muslim ban.” A State Department representative reported that the waiver process had been considerably sped up by automation, but by last month, only 7,679 waivers had been issued, most of them in the past two months, out of more than 72,000 applications. Of these, 4,031 had been issued to Yemenis (the time frame covered was not specified).
The State Department’s website offers an encouraging message to visa applicants covered by the “Muslim ban,” instructing them to continue paying fees, completing forms, and submitting documents. These messages convey hope and ensure that more families will quit their jobs, sell their assets, go into debt, and make the risky trip across war-torn Yemen and the Red Sea, only to wait in Djibouti for months on end. A recent Facebook post from a Yemeni American expressed the anguish and notes the collateral damage of the U.S. Muslim ban and U.S.-supported, Saudi-led war, as Yemenis are forced to flee to any place that will take them. It is translated here from Arabic:
As I listen to a Yemeni that has just arrived in NYC through Djibouti recounting his suffering with a family of 7, as I know all of us Yemenis that are immigrants all over the world have a story of our own, a painful story with lessons that’ll fill a country for centuries, we have a question for you: Dear members, talk in any way you deem appropriate about your journey until you arrived to the country where you are today. Through Djibouti, and other pathways, to America, and any other country, this world, these tribulations, this decade, this century, a story, a tale, the wisdom, the lessons, the suffering, the injustice by them, anything else that is related to your struggle as an immigrant.
The message from the U.S. government is this: We will gladly take your money and give you hope, but in the end, we may not take you. We can only hope that Fatima’s husband will one day be permitted to exit precarity, enter the U.S. and be able to work 80 hours a week to repay the thousands of dollars he will owe to other Yemeni Americans, and that his family will not suffer from the deprivations imposed by this debt. To the criticism of the “Muslim ban” as an objectively questionable and morally offensive policy, let us add that it is also shameful for the ways in which it has both traumatized and devastated Yemeni families and their economic survival.
Louise Cainkar is associate professor of sociology and social justice at Marquette University, where she is also the director of peace studies. She is the author of Homeland Insecurity: The Arab and Muslim American Experience after 9/11 and numerous articles on Arab and Muslim Americans and on global Arab migration. She is past president of the Arab American Studies Association and a board member of the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies.
*Fatima is a pseudonym.