Mohamed Alahiry is proud of the fact that he comes from a long line of Americans. His family first came to the United States from Yemen in 1928, and, like his great-grandfathers, grandfather and father before him, the 33-year-old calls the U.S. home.
And like the other men in his family, he had hoped to bring his wife from Yemen to the United States to raise their four daughters here together. For now, his wife and 12-year-old daughter remain in limbo abroad.
And with President Donald Trump’s travel ban still in effect, Alahiry isn’t sure if he will ever be able to reunite with his family.
Two years ago this week, Trump signed Executive Order 13769, which barred citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen, from entering the U.S. (It has been revised multiple times and challenged repeatedly in federal courts; last year the ban was upheld by the Supreme Court over lower court decisions calling it unconstitutional.) The effect of the ban was chaotic and traumatic. Travelers were stranded at airports, newlyweds were torn apart and civilians seeking medical attention were denied visas to enter the country for treatment. Some Americans were forced to make the difficult decision to leave the U.S. and move to war-torn countries just to be with their families.
Two years later — despite attempts by the courts to block the ban, and despite an amendment ostensibly created to give people suffering hardship a legal process for immigration — families like Alahiry’s are still struggling to reunite.
“The American people, including and most importantly Congress members, need to realize that this [ban is still] unconstitutional,” said Ayyad Algabyali, the director of advocacy at Yemeni American Merchants, an advocacy organization that was founded after the 2017 Yemeni bodega strike to support local merchants and businesses.
Alahiry and his wife met in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, and were married there in 2005. (The family asked to withhold her name.) For nearly a decade, Alahiry split his time between Sana’a and New York City, where he and his father owned a bodega in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn. When the Yemeni civil war broke out in 2014, Alahiry knew he needed to bring their four children to safety in America.
The violence quickly escalated, forcing the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a to close in early 2015 and refer all its Yemen cases to nearby Djibouti. The airports shut down, making Djibouti accessible only by a dangerous 18-hour boat ride from Yemen’s coast. Scores of migrants drowned in attempts to make the crossing. Alahiry’s wife was terrified to embark on the journey with their children, who were toddlers at the time.
Her visa application stuck in limbo in Djibouti, she and her kids remained in Yemen until 2017, when they fled to Egypt. Alahiry requested that his wife’s case be transferred to the U.S. Embassy there, but by then Trump’s ban was in place and Alahiry’s wife, unable to return to Yemen and barred from immigrating to the United States, was stranded.
Last October, things went from bad to worse. While driving with his now 8-year-old daughter on a visit to Cairo, Alahiry got into a severe car accident. He broke his leg, and she fractured her rib cage and foot.
Alahiry and his daughter were taken to New York City to be treated for their injuries. Two of her sisters, all U.S. citizens, came to New York, too. (The eldest remained with their mother in Cairo.) After seven surgeries, Alahiry was unable to work. He was eventually forced to send two of the girls to live with his brother in North Carolina.
His family became even more scattered.
“My daughters are always on the phone crying to each other ― this one wants to go here and the other one wants to go there. There’s nothing in my hands to do. I can’t even take care of myself these days,” Alahiry told HuffPost.
In another attempt to bring his wife to the U.S., he tried to take advantage of an exception to the travel ban that allows nationals from the banned countries to apply for a waiver if those citizens are able to prove hardship — a result of the June 2018 Supreme Court ruling.
The Yemeni American Merchants Association submitted a waiver letter on Alahiry’s behalf and requested that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo expedite his wife’s interview and subsequent visa application. The embassy refused.
“This waiver is a sham. Waivers aren’t being granted to anyone,” said Algabyali. Algabyali, who oversees Alahiry’s case, said his organization has come across hundreds of cases that would qualify for a waiver and hasn’t seen a single family receive one.
A waiver, the one and only legal clause meant to prove that the ban is not discriminatory, is notoriously hard to get.
In an op-ed published in The New York Times last week, Betsy Fisher, the policy director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, and Samantha Power, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, sharply criticized the waiver process and said the waivers appear to “be given reliably only when much publicity is brought to bear.”
Alahiry’s wife is scheduled for an interview at the embassy in Cairo on April 17. Back in the U.S., all Alahiry and three of his daughters can do is wait.