Community organizer Meron Semedar speaks on a panel as Hermon Kifleyesus and Aron Oqubamichael watch at the Temescal branch of the Oakland public library on Feb. 15, 2020. The event offered information for Eritrean immigrants about the new travel restrictions. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)
Robel Sletsion, an asylee from Eritrea who’s now a U.S. citizen, applied months ago for an immigrant visa for his wife, Tehaguas, who’s also Eritrean. The couple planned to live in Oakland together, where Sletsion works as a plumber and pipe fitter.
But the couple’s plans to reunite are now in shambles after President Trump expanded his travel ban to cover six more countries, including Eritrea. The new restrictions went into effect Friday.
“It’s very hard. I don’t know how long it’s going to be,” said Sletsion, 34. “I don’t know if she can come. I don’t know if I’m allowed to get her here and live a happy life.”
California is home to thousands of immigrants from countries targeted by the Trump administration’s new travel restrictions. The policy makes it difficult for American citizens to bring spouses, children and other relatives from the affected nations to live in the U.S.
The Trump administration is banning new immigrant visas to permanently move here for nationals of Eritrea, Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan and Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa. Citizens of Sudan and Tanzania will no longer be able to gain residency in the U.S through a diversity visa lottery.
The new policy widens the controversial travel ban that has been in place since 2017 on five Muslim-majority nations — Libya, Somalia, Iran, Syria and Yemen — as well as for certain citizens of North Korea and Venezuela.
Refugees and asylees are exempted from the restrictions. And those with green cards or visas in hand will not be affected.
But Sletsion’s wife does not yet have a U.S. visa, since her application is pending. Because of the new restrictions, Tehaguas may not be able to come live with him here.
Meanwhile, Sletsion can’t return safely to Eritrea, he said, because he fled political persecution in that country after the army forcibly conscripted him when he was a teen.
“It was a dictatorial government and it was very dangerous for me to live there. So I left,” said Sletsion, who arrived in the U.S. 11 years ago. “I'm very grateful to have a peaceful life here in this country. But this [order by the president] is very unfortunate. If somebody can help, please help us.”
Now, the couple’s only hope to reunite is to get a waiver of the travel ban.
But those exceptions are very hard to get, Sletsion learned at an event attended by dozens of other Eritrean immigrants at an Oakland library in the Temescal neighborhood last Saturday.
There is no formal application to request a waiver, attorneys at the event said. And U.S. citizens must show they’ll suffer undue hardship if their relative is denied a visa.
“It’s horrifying, people are scared that they will not be able to reunite with their family members,” said immigration attorney Haregu Gaime.
The new restrictions will impact Eritreans particularly hard, she said, as the Trump administration has already discontinued visas for students, tourists and business purposes. Those previous limitations are due to that country’s “lack of cooperation” in accepting their nationals who were ordered deported from the U.S., according to the Department of State.
Now “Eritreans are not allowed to enter the United States, is essentially what this government is saying,” said Gaime, who initially arrived in the U.S. as a 5-year-old Eritrean refugee.
About 8,100 Eritreans live in California, with a third of them residing in Alameda County alone, according to census figures.
Trump said the travel restrictions were imposed because the countries did not meet U.S. security criteria and have deficiencies in sharing terrorist, criminal or identity information. As a result, American officials can’t verify the true identity of all applicants from those nations, he said.
“As President, I must continue to act to protect the security and interests of the United States and its people,” said Trump in his Jan. 31 proclamation.
The travel ban expansion comes as African immigrants have surged in numbers in recent decades to more than 2 million nationwide, with the largest share of that population being born in Nigeria.
Ismael Okunade, co-owner of Miliki Restaurant in Oakland’s Laurel neighborhood, is one of the estimated 36,000 Nigerian immigrants living in California.
Many of Okunade’s customers were shocked by the new travel restrictions, he said, because Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, is a business partner to the U.S. And culturally, Nigerians are very influenced by America, he added.
“If you go to Nigeria, the kids, everybody is Americanized,” said Okunade, who immigrated nearly 40 years ago and became a U.S. citizen. “Nigeria is actually like, you put New York in Lagos. It's the same thing.”
Okunade believes a blanket ban on immigrant visas is unnecessary, because every Nigerian approved to come live in the U.S. already goes through extensive screening by American officials.
“It's not that easy to get a visa. So they must have vetted people very well before they can get one,” he said. “So to me, it doesn't make any sense.”
In his proclamation, President Trump said he decided to continue allowing temporary travelers — such as tourists and students — to reduce the number of people impacted. Immigrant visas were prioritized, he said, because it’s more difficult to deport an individual from the U.S. if they already have permanent legal residence.
But critics of the restrictions questioned why the U.S. would ban new immigrant visas in the name of national security but then allow temporary visitors from the targeted countries.
“That doesn't seem to fit the rationale that we are being fed, that this is because of security threats or because we can't authenticate documents,” said Babak Yousefzadeh, president emeritus of the Iranian American Bar Association.
“This is clearly a discriminatory policy on the basis of ethnicity or national origin or religion,” said Yousefzadeh, a San Francisco attorney representing plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit which argues that the government’s promise to implement a “robust” waiver process is hollow.
After the initial travel restrictions went into effect, there were mass denials of waivers and only two people were able to obtain the exceptions, according to the lawsuit. But the government has granted more waivers since: A third of the 60,000 petitions considered were approved between December 2017 and 2019, according to the State Department.
Still, the government has not provided clear criteria or guidelines to apply for waivers, and the process remains “opaque and arbitrary,” said Yousefzadeh.
In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a version of the original travel ban to go into effect while lower courts consider whether it is constitutional. Last month, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia heard arguments from the ACLU and other organizations challenging the ban.
Given the pending lawsuits, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and other advocacy organizations “are exploring all the options available to them” on the expanded travel restrictions, said Zahra Billoo, who directs CAIR’s San Francisco Bay Area office.
“To the extent that more countries are being added, that means that more people will be targeted. And so my colleagues are exploring whether or not additional legal challenges are possible,” said Billoo.
U.S. citizens and green card holders ordinarily have a right to sponsor their family members abroad to come live with them. At the information session for Eritreans in Oakland, immigration lawyer Gaime said the travel restrictions interfere with that. But she asked those affected to be persistent.
“Do not lose hope. Keep filing those applications and apply for those waivers ... do what you need to do, because this country belongs to all of us,” she said.
Community organizer Meron Semedar, also an Eritrean asylee, had another recommendation for naturalized U.S. citizens at the event hoping to roll back the travel restrictions: register and vote.
“When issues like today, like the [travel] ban come, how do you address it? If you are a citizen you can address it at the ballot, too,” said Semedar, who recently became an American citizen. “Who knows? By voting against Trump, we might have him out of office by November. And that has an impact.”