The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Coveted exemptions from Trump’s travel ban remain elusive for citizens of Muslim-majority countries

Mohammed Al-Awadhi, 39, sits in his apartment decorated with items from places he’s lived in the U.S. Al-Awadhi, who immigrated from Yemen in 2007, is an internal medicine physician at Tacoma General Hospital and an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas Medical Center in Little Rock.
Mohammed Al-Awadhi, 39, sits in his apartment decorated with items from places he’s lived in the U.S. Al-Awadhi, who immigrated from Yemen in 2007, is an internal medicine physician at Tacoma General Hospital and an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas Medical Center in Little Rock. (Jovelle Tamayo/For The Washington Post)

President Trump’s travel ban prevented Mohammed Al-Awadhi’s Yemeni wife from joining him in Arkansas, but he was certain she would qualify for a waiver: She has a serious heart condition, she’s married to a law-abiding U.S. citizen and the rejection of her visa would tear apart their marriage and leave her in a nation ravaged by war and famine.

But Al-Awadhi has become increasingly skeptical that the Trump administration is applying its waiver standards to those who qualify. Five months after the travel ban went into effect, immigration advocates say the waivers — golden tickets provided by the State Department that allow certain citizens from the prohibited countries to immigrate to the U.S. based on special circumstances — have been nearly impossible to get.

The State Department says it has granted hundreds of waivers, but declined to say who received them and how. The administration has touted the existence of such waivers in defense of the travel ban — which critics have labeled a “Muslim ban” — saying they allow the neediest to come to the United States and prove the policy is not racist or discriminatory.

If the Supreme Court upholds the ban, which legal analysts expect it to do in a ruling next month, the waivers and certain exceptions will be solidified as the sole route into the United States for the 150 million citizens of five Muslim-majority countries — Syria, Iran, Somalia, Libya and Al-Awadhi’s native Yemen — as well as North Korea. Certain Venezuelan government officials are also banned.

During a hearing last month, the government told the Supreme Court that more than 400 people had been cleared for waiverssince the ban went into effect in December.That number has climbed to 655.

But advocates believe the number of people who actually have received visas through waivers is much lower.

The government has provided little guidance on how to get a waiver, they say, and many visa applicants are still unaware the waiver option exists.

The State Department says that it automatically considers whether a visa applicant from a banned country is eligible for a waiver.

But the department also acknowledged that a “cleared” or “granted” waiver does not mean the applicant actually has received a visa. A State Department official said many waiver recipients have received visas, but declined to give specifics.

The travel ban stipulates that waivers can be granted to certain visa applicants deemed not to pose a national security threat, including people seeking to reunite with spouses, children or parents in the United States and those in need of urgent medical care, among others.

Attorneys say hundreds or thousands of people who meet those descriptions are being denied. And during the Supreme Court hearing last month, Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned whether the waiver system is “window dressing” rather than an actual process.

“The waiver process is a sham,” said Gadeir Abbas, a senior litigation attorney in Ohio for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group that has fielded hundreds of requests for help from people affected by the ban. Abbas said he knew of just three people who have received waivers.

Queries to more than 30 immigration attorneys and major immigrant legal and advocacy groups across the country turned up fewer than 25 known waiver recipients from the Muslim-majority ban countries.

They included a Yemeni woman who made it to Mississippi to be reunited with her husband and her critically ill child; an Iranian man who arrived on an EB-5 visa, reserved for people who invest at least a million dollars in a U.S. commercial venture; and a Syrian man and his wife who came to Georgia to seek medical treatment for his eye cancer.

The stories of rejection — of people separated from spouses and children, of the elderly and the sick — were far more plentiful, and bear no distinguishable differences from those who received waivers, attorneys said.

They included a U.S. citizen’s 11-year-old Yemeni daughter who suffers from cerebral palsy and whose access to lifesaving medication has been hindered by the war in Yemen; an Iranian man whose mother was dying of metastatic breast cancer in Texas; and an 80-year-old Iranian man, whose American daughter wanted to bring him to the United States to live with her after his wife and son died.

A State Department official said the government is unable to comment on specific visa application cases.

Diala Shamas, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said she had yet to find a successful waiver, despite meeting with dozens of Yemenis in dire circumstances. “Which begs the question of: How are you even considering the waivers?” she said. “It’s hard to figure out whether there’s any rhyme or reason to who’s getting what and why.”

'They have no answers'

Al-Awadhi, 39, came to the United States from Yemen in 2007 on a student visa to study English and finish his medical residency. He soon became an internal medicine physician at a university hospital in Little Rock and recently started seeing patients at Tacoma General Hospital in Washington state. In 2013, he became a U.S. citizen.

A few years ago, Al-Awadhi went back to Yemen to marry Rasha Al-Zubaidi. As per tradition, Al-Awadhi’s parents had introduced the couple from afar, and they had carried on a year of phone conversations — often discussing medicine because Al-Zubaidi wanted to become a nurse — before they met in person. When that moment came, Al-Awadhi said: “I fell in love at first sight.”

In the fall of 2017, nearly a year after filing the application for Al-Zubaidi’s visa, she received notice of a consular interview in Djibouti.

By that point, the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, where Al-Zubaidi lived, was besieged by airstrikes and famine. The airport was no longer functioning. And Al-Zubaidi, who suffers from rheumatic heart disease, was struggling to obtain her heart medicine.

It took hera month of risky travel across desert borders, with stops at international airports in three different countries, to get to Djibouti. But Al-Zubaidi thought the interview in December went well; U.S. consular officials told her the visa would be approved, Al-Awadhi said.

When she returned to pick up the visa a few weeks later, it was a different story.

“The consular official said, ‘I am so sorry, I know you are sick, and I know we told you we were going to give you your visa. But because of the proclamation, we have to reject it,’ ” Al-Awadhi said. “This shattered her.”

Al-Awadhi contacted his congressman, Rep. French Hill (R-Ark.), for help. Hill, he said, called back in March to say he had spoken to the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti and that a waiver had been approved.

But when Al-Awadhi tried to follow up with the embassy himself, he received no response.

“I have tried to call them many times. I have sent them many emails. I have sent them many letters. Nothing,” he said. He tried to contact the State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) too, he added. “They have no answers for any of my questions.”

Waivers granted, but not received

A State Department official said that a visa applicant typically would be notified by phone or email if a waiver was granted. Even then, some applicants have found, the visa might not exist.

The attorney for Nageeb Alomari, the father of the Yemeni girl with cerebral palsy, filed a notice to the Supreme Court this month, saying that the family recently received an email from a U.S. consular official to inform them that a waiver had been cleared in January, but that the case was in administrative processing. The family still has not received visas.

Visa issuance data shows that some people from the banned countries are getting visas. Between January and March, Yemenis received 26 immigration visas; Libyans received 22; Somalis received 60; and Iranians received 109. But it’s unclear how many, if any, of those were granted through waivers.

A large but unknown proportion of those who received visas are exempt from the ban to begin with, either because they applied under certain visa categories, such as those reserved for diplomats, or because they hold citizenship in a different country.

For example, a Yemeni-born Swedish national seeking to immigrate to the United States could obtain a visa — using a Swedish passport — from the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm, but would be counted under the State Department’s tally of visa issuances for Yemen.

Over the phone, Al-Awadhi tries to stay positive for his wife, who he said has grown increasingly despondent. Maybe the Supreme Court will put an end to this, he says. Maybe she’ll suddenly receive a waiver. Maybe this will be nothing more than a story that they’ll tell their children one day.

But he’s not sure he believes it.

“I wake up every day, go into the hospital, treat people, take care of people, relieve people’s suffering and illness and take care of their loved ones, and I’m remembering how my wife is suffering,” Al-Awadhi said. “It’s heartbreaking. I honestly feel like I failed her.”