Imagine what it would be like to be desperately poor, untrained and thereby unskilled, unable to earn, separated from your husband, and stuck with your young children in a war zone or refugee camp. That’s the situation affecting 300,000 Yemeni mothers and their children today (1).
Maryam and her five children are a prime example. Her husband Majed travelled to work in the States, earning his American citizenship over time, and when the war escalated, he applied for visas for his family to join him. Majed thought he was working for his family’s future in a country he considers a second home. Yet today, Maryam and their children are living in a corner of a temporary shelter created by UNICEF, in a classroom converted for her and five other families. When the children go outside of the makeshift shelter, Maryam panics about airstrikes. When it’s time to feed everyone, she dreads not having enough. And now, because of the Trump administration travel ban, just upheld last month by the U.S. Supreme Court, there’s absolutely nothing Majed can do about it.
It’s worth stepping back to understand how at-risk mothers and children like Maryam came to this vulnerable moment in their beleaguered nation’s history.
The people of Yemen were always among the poorest in the Levant, but they lived securely in mountaintop villages. In 2004, life changed for the Yemeni people when a small group of rebels called Houthis started to demand economic and political resources from the government, or else, threatening war. The government, as one would expect, did not step down. A war broke out and continuously intensified until, in 2014, the rebels took over the country’s capital. The politics in this story are complex, but Iran has allegedly decided to support the Houthis, while Saudi Arabia, Iran’s devout enemy, and a coalition of nations that includes the United States, backed the Yemeni government. The U.S. government, along with other western powers such as the United Kingdom and France, started supplying almost all the weapons used in the fighting: missiles, war planes, tanks, bombs, as well as human intelligence (to assist in targeting the airstrikes). Moreover, the Pentagon recently admitted to having deployed a “small” number of troops on the ground in Yemen (2).
The pro-government coalition failed to subdue the rebels but is directly responsible for the deaths of 6,600 civilians, including more than half of all child casualties from the fighting. But the total number of child fatalities, including from hunger and war-related disease outbreaks, runs much higher: in the year 2017 alone, Save the Children estimated that at least 50,000 Yemeni children had died, at an average of 130 every day. In addition, three million Yemenis have become internally displaced, and approximately 280,000 have attempted to flee by seeking asylum outside of the country, in Africa, Europe, of course, the United States (3).
On December 7, 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” In line with that thinking, the travel ban proclaimed by President Trump in September 2017 and upheld last month by the U.S. Supreme Court is now a seven-country ban that does not affect all listed countries equally. According to a report out of Yale Law School, “With respect to North Korea, the Proclamation largely emulates pre-existing sanctions on the country… Regarding Venezuela, the Proclamation only prohibits a select group of Venezuelan government officials from entering the United States on certain non-immigrant business and tourist visas.” In contrast, all Yemeni civilian requests for refugee, asylum or family reunification were banned, with the exception of student visas.
The Trump administration claims that the ban is necessary because the Yemeni government, which they support with weapons and intelligence, cannot provide the information required to prove that its citizens are honest refugees, rather than terrorists. However, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled last year that the administration introduced zero findings that the screening process for Yemen was inadequate. In fact, a report by Yale Law School Rule of Law Clinic and The Center for Constitutional Rights makes clear how rigorous this extreme vetting process really is, and how difficult it is to secure approval. Yet Yemenis, who are more than willing to comply, have essentially been prohibited even from trying.
The effect of this policy, it seems, is to keep would-be asylum seekers stuck in a war zone, ensuring a disproportionate burden and stress on mothers and children. Given that family-reunification visas are the most common form sought by Yemenis, and the majority of reported cases are of women separated from their husbands and stranded abroad, the U.S. is effectively trapping women and children. Normally, a U.S. citizen can transfer citizenship to his spouse and children. But now, embassies and consulates are only erratically awarding green cards to those children born after the parent has become a citizen and are refusing them all together for the citizens’ spouses and elder children (4).
Although the ban claims that every family still gets a chance to file for a waiver given under extenuating circumstances, according to many reports, before the waiver was ever applied for, families are receiving letters of rejection, along with a notice that they have been automatically denied a waiver (1). According to State Department data provided to Congress, of the 8,406 applications processed in the first month of the ban, only two waivers have been approved (4).
It seems that family separation and putting Muslim women and children at risk is a desired outcome, if not an actual political strategy of this administration, in line with its anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies. When even U.S. citizens are targeted, we are left to ask how far this president, Congress, and their supporters are willing to go, to create the “great” America they envision. Furthermore, how can we stop the cruel, lethal, and illegal violence and human rights violations against families and children? These are not only arguably crimes against humanity; they threaten the very principles that led to our success as a nation of hard-working immigrants.
(1) “Yemen’s Displaced Women and Girls.” BBC News, December 19, 2016, sec. In Pictures. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-38305875.
(2) “US Special Forces Secretly Deployed to Assist Saudi Arabia in Yemen Conflict” The Independent. May 3, 2018 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/us-special-forces-saudi-arabia-yemen-war-green-berets-houthi-rebels-mohammed-bin-salman-a8335481.html.
(3) “Key Facts about the War in Yemen” Al Jazeera, March 25, 2018. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/06/key-facts-war-yemen-160607112342462.html.
(4) “Window Dressing the Muslim Ban: Reports of Waivers and Mass Denials from Many Yemeni Americans Stuck in Limbo.” ccrjustice.org, Center for Constitutional Rights and the Rule of Law Clinic, Yale Law School, June 2018. https://ccrjustice.org/sites/default/files/attach/2018/06/CCR_YLS_Report-Window-Dressing-Muslim-Ban_June2018.pdf