Shaima Swileh holds her ailing son, Abdullah. Swileh was granted a waiver of the Trump administration's travel ban to visit her son in Oakland. (Council on American-Islamic Relations, Sacramento Valley)
A Stockton man who struggled under President Trump’s travel ban to bring his wife to the U.S. to see their dying toddler, will attend tonight’s State of the Union address. His wife, a citizen from Yemen, will also be in the audience at the U.S. Capitol.
The couple are attending as guests of two members of Congress from the San Francisco Bay Area.
Beginning in 2017, Ali Hassan, 23, pleaded with U.S. authorities to obtain a visa for his wife, Shaima Swileh, so that the couple could accompany their son to get medical treatment at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland. At the time, the family was residing in Cairo, Egypt, after fleeing the devastating civil war in Yemen. The boy, Abdullah, suffered from a rare degenerative brain condition called hypomyelination.
The travel ban blocks entry to the U.S. for citizens of Yemen and six other countries. Hassan said that because U.S. officials repeatedly refused to grant Swileh a waiver to the travel ban, the family lost precious time for medical care that could have saved Abdullah’s life. The boy was also a U.S. citizen.
“It hurt my family. I lost my son because of the Muslim ban,” said Hassan, an independent delivery contractor for FedEx.
Hassan said he hopes that his and Swileh’s presence at the State of the Union will remind the president and lawmakers of the impact the travel ban is having on Americans with relatives in affected countries.
“I just hope other families don’t have to go through this,” he said. “It’s important to keep families together.”
In January 2017, Trump signed an executive order forbidding travel into the U.S. by most nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations, saying that it would make Americans safer. The administration twice revised the controversial order after it was challenged in the courts. Last summer, a divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld travel restrictions for five Muslim-majority nations — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen — as well as North Korea and some officials from Venezuela.
The government said waivers can be granted in exceptional circumstances, but critics argue that very few people have been granted waivers and the process has not been working as announced. A class-action lawsuit is challenging the administration’s waiver process.
Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, said he wants to send a message to Trump by bringing his constituent Hassan to the State of the Union.
“What we need to do is show the president that these are human beings, that our country has to have a more humane approach to immigration,” McNerney said.
Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, who introduced a bill in 2017 to block the travel ban, said she was “proud” to invite Hassan’s wife Shaima Swileh to the president’s address, to bring attention to the family’s experience.
“The Muslim ban separates families from their loved ones, harms businesses and creates a false notion that people are bad actors by virtue of their birthplace,” Lofgren said in a statement. “I am proud to invite Shaima to bring attention to this issue and begin holding the Administration accountable for its un-American policies.”
Several other Democratic representatives from California are also bringing immigrants to the State of the Union, including a deported Mexican nurse who recently returned on a work visa, an African asylum seeker who was detained for months by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status.
McNerney said that while lawmakers didn’t coordinate in advance, their choice of guests made sense given Trump’s emphasis on restricting immigration.
“We have a large population from around the world in California, and it's given our state strength,” McNerney said. “So I think it's obvious that members of California would want to showcase our strength. And I think this does a good job of that.”
More than 10 million immigrants live in California, more than in any other state.
McNerney and Lofgren are both co-sponsors of a bill introduced in Congress last month by Rep. Judy Chu, D-Pasadena, that would prohibit the use of any funds for the implementation of the travel ban. U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, introduced a counterpart bill to block the travel ban’s implementation.
Hassan said that since their son died in late December, he and his wife have struggled. Swileh has since been granted a green card, and the couple is not planning to return to Yemen any time soon.
“In Yemen, it’s a war over there with bombings every day,” he said. “Families want to come over here and live a better life.”