Abdo Elfgeeh got a text message on his way to work Tuesday morning – it was a link to an article reporting the travel ban ruling.
“I couldn’t bring myself to read it,” said Elfgeeh.
His petition to sponsor his wife and four children, who are currently in Amman, Jordan, was rejected earlier this year because of President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which prevents citizens of Yemen and several other nations from entering the U.S. He and has family have been patiently waiting on a decision from the Supreme Court to find out if they would be reunited.
After a while, he opened the article. His worst fears were realized: The Supreme Court had sided with Trump administration in a 5-4 decision
“I am in shock,” Elfgeeh told Documented shortly after reading the decision. “I was not prepared for this.”
Yemeni New Yorkers are now grappling with whatever options remain to bring their families who are fleeing the war in Yemen to the U.S. Few legal avenues remain to reunite with their families besides an elusive waiver process.
Hundreds gathered in Foley Square in Manhattan on Tuesday to protest the Supreme Court’s decision. Speakers from a variety of advocacy and faith groups, as well as politicians, railed against the Trump administration.
Debbie Almontaser, the secretary of the Yemeni American Merchants Association and a leading Yemeni-American activist, told the crowd that she had been inundated with text messages from Yemenis after the ruling came down.
“‘What does this mean for us? Will our family members come?’” Almontaser said, recollecting the messages to the crowd as she held her granddaughter Sophie. “’Does this mean that I will never be reunited with them? Does this mean that I have to leave the United States?’”
Roughly 26,000 New Yorkers have been impacted by the travel ban, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs estimates. New York also accounts for roughly half of America’s 44,000 Yemenis, according to The Arab American Association.
Among them is Mohamed Taaher Hamza. His wife, oldest daughter, and youngest son are stranded in Djibouti due to the travel ban. After fleeing the war in Yemen, Hamza’s petition to bring them over was denied due to the travel ban in April.
He could not believe the ruling when he heard it.
“We were not expecting this,” Hamza told Documented. “I thought this country was a nation of laws with a Constitution. How could this happen?”
Hamza’s family had heard about the decision but he could not bring himself to call them. “I don’t know what I will say.”
Very few legal options remain for those the travel ban rejected. The ban was created a week into the Trump administration as the president signed an executive order that barred citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from coming to the U.S. The order was met with a nationwide rebuke and sparked several legal challenges.
Since then, the order has zig-zagged through the courts. It was updated twice to acquiesce to some of the courts’ concerns, as federal judges blocked implementation of the order multiple times. Then it reached the Supreme Court, where the third iteration of the order – which blocks access to most visas for nationals of Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, North Korea, and some Venezuelans – was allowed to go into effect on Dec. 8.
The one option that remains for people like Elfgeeh and Hamza is a waiver to the travel ban. The executive order allows consular officials to waive the ban on a case-by-case basis, a central pillar of the government’s defense of the ban. Lawyers and advocates have found that the process is opaque and seemingly random.
According to State Department figures, buried at the bottom of this page, “at least 809 applications were cleared for waivers” as of June 15. Reuters reported on Tuesday that there were 27,129 visa applications from people who were covered by the
ban between Dec. 8 and April 30.
The Center for Constitutional Rights studied the waiver process in a recent report, “Window Dressing the Muslim Ban.” The authors found that the process was almost entirely random with consular officials having little guidance. Following oral arguments at the Supreme Court, there was a spike in the number of waivers grant.
“This abrupt change, without any corresponding amendments to the publicly released standards for granting waivers, only confirms the arbitrariness and opacity of the waiver process,” the report’s authors wrote.
In a separate case on visa waivers, Slate obtained sworn testimonies from consular officers who said that the waiver process was “fraud” and that consular officers were directed to deny a waiver at all costs. One officer said the process was “one step away from [the] Soviet Politburo.”
The Supreme Court decision was met with jubilation from the president, who tweeted, “SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS TRUMP TRAVEL BAN. Wow!”
Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement, “This ban is institutionalized Islamophobia, promoted under the guise of national security.”
That message was heard from the speakers at the rally in Foley Square on Tuesday, where people held up signs that said “No to racism” in Arabic and “No Nazis in our White House.”
At a seemingly out of place moment, Almontaser, the Yemeni-American activist, led a chant of “U S A, U S A.” It was a throwback to the bodega strike that took place shortly after the first version of the ban last year. “They are reclaiming this land [with this chant],” Almontaser explained to the confused crowd. “They are part of the American fabric … and Trump will not dictate who this America is.”
Protests against the first travel ban accelerated after New York’s taxi drivers went on strike in January 2017 in protest of the ban and in support of their largely Muslim workforce. Days later Yemeni bodega shut down their stores in protest and rallied at Borough Hall.
The travel ban prompted protests from a New York population that was previously averse to political activism. It’s been a learning curve ever since.
“It’s new to our community,” Zaid Nagi, vice-president of the Yemeni American Merchants Association, told Documented in reference to organizing. “Therefore we don’t know [how it will be received].”
Today’s ruling may reverse those efforts.
Protesting is not at the front of Elfgeeh’s mind. He now has to decide where he will take his family – Egypt, Malaysia, where the costs are cheaper, or back to Yemen where the war is getting worse.
“I just want to go lock myself in a room right now,” he said.