As Supreme Court Backs Travel Ban, Yemeni-Americans Grapple With Next Steps

2 min
Mohammed Albarak, 23, and father Ahmed finish lunch at a Yemeni restaurant near downtown San Francisco on June 26, 2018. Mohammed said the Supreme Court's ruling upholding President Trump's travel ban thwarts his plans to live with his future wife in the U.S. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

Majed Balawi has spent months and nearly $25,000 in his quest to apply for a visa for his wife, who lives in war-torn Yemen. Balawi, is a naturalized U.S. citizen and he worries his wife might not survive the ongoing bloodshed and famine faced by millions of people in that country.

"Yemen is not safe. I want to bring my wife here," said Balawi, 38, an Uber driver who has lived in San Francisco since 2009. "I can't go back to Yemen because there's a war."

After a divided Supreme Court upheld the federal government's ban preventing the entry of most citizens from Yemen and six other nations, Balawi and other Yemeni-Americans said their only hope of bringing relatives to safety here had evaporated.

"I am very, very sad," Balawi said.

Writing for the 5-4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that under immigration law, the president has broad authority to suspend the entry of any foreigners if he believes that move is in the nation's interest.

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The federal government maintains the travel restrictions are needed for national security because the countries targeted -- Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, as well as North Korea and Venezuela -- are unable or unwilling to provide sufficient information to verify the identity of visa applicants.

President Trump celebrated the court's ruling as a victory.

Since the current travel ban went into effect last December, it has become nearly impossible for people from the impacted countries to obtain new visas, according to immigration lawyers.

Consular officers may grant waivers on a case-by-case basis, if applicants meet certain criteria, including "undue hardship," if the visa is denied.

In the last six months, the U.S. has issued only about 809 waivers to citizens of the countries covered by the policy, according to an official with the U.S. Department of State.

That's a tiny number compared to the number of people who are waiting for a visa, said Elica Vafaie, an attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco.

"We've seen families being separated from their loved ones, people who can't get medical attention and people who are trying to come here to study," she said.

Vafaie expects more legal challenges to the administration's travel ban, as the Supreme Court remanded the issue to the lower courts.

"We'll fight not just in the courts but through rallies," Vafaie said. "There's elections coming up. There's different policy advocacy so the fight will really be inside and outside of the courtroom."

Just hours after the court's ruling, San Francisco Supervisor Ahsha Safaí was the first speaker blasting the court's ruling at a gathering of immigrant advocates and their supporters.

"I'm here to say President Trump, we will not back down. We will continue to fight!" Safai said.

He told the small crowd by the steps of City Hall that his father is from Iran, one of the countries listed in the ban.

"I would not be standing here today if the shameful decision that was handed down by the Supreme Court had been handed down and had been in place decades ago," Safai said.

At a Yemeni restaurant in the city's Tenderloin neighborhood, Mohammed Albarak talked about next steps with his father, Ahmed, over a lunch of hummus, pita bread and fried beans.

Mohammed, 23, is a University of California graduate. He's getting married next month in Yemen. He said he had been waiting for the court's ruling before submitting a visa application for his fiancee.

"I've been working on it, I have everything set," he said. "But now I don't see any reason to start any processing or going through any application, because it's useless," he said. "I'm disappointed. I'm frustrated."

Mohammed said he took the step of becoming a U.S. citizen two months ago, believing he would have a better chance of sponsoring his future wife to live in this country.

"I thought I'd have more privileges and I would be able to do more. But it sounds like it doesn't matter," Mohammed said. "My only option now is to spend time back home in Yemen, then return and work here as much as I can, and wait until Trump's presidency ends."

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