Biden plan could reunite Bay Area families split by Trump’s travel ban

On a video call across 8,000 miles, Fathiya Saleh showed her youngest daughter Shatha a romper she’d bought for her 9th birthday.

She told Shatha this would be the last gift she bought before her daughter arrives, “God willing.”

Then she carried the gift to a closet in her Oakland home piled with presents she hasn’t been able to give her husband and five children in Saudi Arabia.

Four days later, a newly sworn-in President Biden signed an executive order overturning former President Donald Trump’s ban on citizens from half a dozen countries, including Yemen, where Saleh’s family comes from. Finally, four years after Trump’s ban had stalled Saleh and her family’s reunification, there was hope.

Saleh, a green card holder eligible to become a U.S. citizen this year, is now waiting for an interview for her family’s visa applications. It’s the last step before they could be granted visas, although there’s no guarantee or set timeline.

“We’re hoping for the best,” Saleh said on a recent video call with The Chronicle. “I would not want it for my enemies to be separated from their family like this. … Precious time has been stolen.”

Biden’s action on the first day of his presidency unraveled one of Trump’s earliest and most contentious policies, which triggered chaos at airports and legal challenges all the way to the Supreme Court. It nearly halted immigration from an evolving list of up to seven countries at a time for his entire term. Supporters argued that the ban protected the U.S. from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals, while its opponents argued it discriminated against Muslims and separated families trying to immigrate through a system that already requires extensive vetting.

Those banned included workers, students and family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. It’s unknown how many Bay Area residents were directly affected, but the region’s two largest communities from banned countries – Yemenis and Iranians – number in the thousands, according to census data. In the wake of the ban, 127 people reached out to the San Francisco Bay Area Council on American-Islamic Relations for help in 2017, immigration attorney Brittney Rezaei said.

Those families are now rejoicing. But lifting the ban is not a magic wand that opens borders, with an already arduous immigration system now backlogged with years of applications. For many, it’s still a waiting game.

“This is the hard part,” Rezaei said. “The ban has been repealed, but the effect is still there.”

The stated goal of the original order was to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals, citing 9/11 as an example. Critics questioned why the ban didn’t include the four countries from which the 9/11 attackers hailed, instead listing other Muslim-majority nations. On the 2016 campaign trail, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

“Islamophobia in the U.S. did not start with Donald Trump, but of course, Donald Trump gave a megaphone to put lives literally in jeopardy,” said Elsadig Elsheikh, the director of the Global Justice Program at the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley.

The Supreme Court in 2018 upheld the president’s power to ban citizens from certain countries, although some justices dissented, saying that the bans were motivated by religious animosity. A congressional bill called the No Ban Act, which passed the House last summer but never made it through the Senate, has sought to change the president’s power. With Democrats holding a majority in both bodies, the bill might have a better chance now.

In the meantime, Biden used his power to overturn Trump’s policy. The new president’s Jan. 20 executive order directed the secretary of state to resume visa processing and expedite cases considered for waivers. During the ban, waivers could be granted to applicants if the government decided denying them entry to the U.S. would cause undue hardship and wouldn’t pose a threat to national security.

The State Department reported in December that around 24,400 waivers were granted in the past three years, with just over 41,830 denied. Ongoing lawsuits allege the waiver process was opaque and arbitrary.

Biden’s order also directed the secretary of state to develop a plan in 45 days to consider whether applications denied under the ban should be reconsidered and ensure no future applications were prejudiced.

While the new president’s actions relieved Bay Area Muslims stuck in limbo for years, the harm from the ban continues. Many Yemenis affected by the ban have either been stuck in an ongoing war or waiting indefinitely for visas in countries much more expensive than Yemen because the conflict shuttered the U.S. embassy at home, said Horea Alroaini, the CEO of Yemen American Network, an Oakland-based radio station.

“That’s the impact we have, no more money to pay the rent, and we have to help them,” Alroaini said.

Alroaini, a U.S. citizen, and her green card holder mother worked for four years to bring her younger brother over. He arrived two months after the travel ban went into effect. He’s now in the Army National Guard and a U.S. citizen. Others, such as Saleh, are not yet so lucky.

Saleh spent her childhood in Michigan with her U.S. citizen father. She returned to Yemen to get married, then spent most of her adult life in Saudi Arabia, where her children were born. As they grew up, she worried for their future as Yemenis. Despite good grades, they couldn’t enroll in college because it was too expensive, she said. The only path she saw forward was the family emigrating to the U.S. to pursue higher education and good jobs – “the American dream,” she said.

Saleh landed in the U.S. a month before Trump became president. She hoped it would take a few months to process visas for her family, although her lawyer warned it could take up to two years.

The day that Trump signed the travel ban in January 2017 is a blur for Saleh. She said she’d been staying inside, fearing for her safety with Islamophobic rhetoric swirling, and vaguely remembers sitting in her brother’s home in Oakland when the news of the ban came on TV.

“I was frustrated, worried, so very worried,” Saleh, an Islamic Studies teacher at Granada Islamic School in Santa Clara who turned 49 on Wednesday, said. She spoke calmly, but tears glistened around her eyes when she talked about her children, especially her youngest daughter, who was only 4 when Saleh came to the U.S.

Saleh worked at the kindergarten her youngest attended and the pair were inseparable. Now, nearly every time they talk on the phone, the girl asks why her mother had to leave.

“It has a very bad impact on the kids. If I knew it would be like this, I don’t think I would have made the move,” Saleh said. “When you’re far away from your family, you don’t know what to do. The only thing you can do is pray for them.”

The following four years were the most difficult of her life, Saleh said. A month after the travel ban, Saleh watched her oldest daughter get married over FaceTime. Everyone was afraid and unsure whether even green card holders would be let back into the U.S., Saleh said, so she stayed home.

Later in 2017, Saleh was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, triggering stress for her and her family. She is still receiving treatment, but recovering, she said.

In January 2019, Saleh was able to travel to Saudi Arabia for three months before her Saudi visa expired. Back in Oakland, she called her family as often as she could, but with the time difference, her work schedule and spotty internet, could sometimes manage only on weekends.

Over the years, she missed birthdays, graduations and her son winning a soccer tournament. She sent gifts with friends and family heading to Saudi Arabia. When COVID-19 hit, those trips stopped. Presents began to pile up in the closet.

Last year, Saleh cut ties with her lawyer, unable to afford the expense and fearing nothing would change. In October, she got a shard of hope when she learned her family was eligible for a visa interview at the U.S. Embassy.

In November, Saleh spent the week waiting for the 2020 election results, praying that Biden would win. And two weeks ago, she finally rejoiced when he overturned the ban. She said the Bay Area community has supported her through her pain.

“I’ve seen Americans, their hearts, they’re very kind people. They were with us even in the beginning of the ban. I met people who I don’t even know who were hugging and kissing me and crying. It was so emotional,” she said. “I had hope and I still do.”

Mallory Moench is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected].com Twitter:@mallorymoench

Continue Reading
Next Post

Wyndham Accommodations & Resorts Joins with Rover to Make Pet-Pleasant Vacation Less difficult for New Pet Mothers and fathers

PARSIPPANY, N.J., Jan. 28, 2021 /PRNewswire/ — Wyndham Inns & Resorts, the world’s major resort franchising firm with around 9,000 accommodations throughout 90 countries, right now introduced a new tail-wagging offer perfect for new pet moms and dads in will need of getaway. The effectively-known resort business has teamed up […]