Washington, DC – Speaking before a United States congressional panel on Tuesday, Ismail Alghazali, a Yemeni American, described how President Donald Trump‘s travel ban has prevented his Yemeni wife and two small children from joining him in the US.
“I have never even met my daughter. I have never held her in my arms. I’ve only seen her through photos and videos,” Alghazali, 26, told a joint hearing of House Judiciary and Oversight subcommittees.
Alghazali came to the US as a child in 2000 and makes a living from his job at a bodega in New York City. He said his wife should have been eligible for a waiver to the ban, but after what he said was a five-minute meeting with a consular officer, her visa was denied. Now, his young family is stuck in war-torn Yemen.
For the first time, Muslim Americans had an opportunity to testify before a congressional hearing in the US House of Representatives on the effects of Trump’s travel ban, which targeted several Muslim-majority countries. The ban at present applies to people coming from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and North Korea, as well as to government officials from Venezuela.
Abdollah Dehzangi, an Iranian and legal permanent resident of the US, described waiting three years to get a visa for his Iranian wife. Dehzangi, who holds a doctorate degree, had moved to the US in 2015 to do research in bioinformatics at an American University.
“Our dreams were all shattered after the announcement of the Muslim ban,” Dehzangi, age 36, said. His wife’s visa was denied and she has been living since in Australia.
“Our hope was to move to the United States pursue our careers and build our families,” he said. “I am being denied that love and future. Many more have similar stories, similar hardship, similar heartbreak and sadness.”
The Democrat-led House of Representatives is considering legislation that would reverse Trump’s policy. The No Ban Act introduced by Representative Judy Chu in April has 170 co-sponsors. The bill would impose limits on the president’s ability to restrict entry into the US of foreigners.
“Singling these people from countries, these residents who are primarily Muslims, as the basis for assessing threat is essentially irrational,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat chairman of the subcommittee.
“There are tremendous hardships that being inflicted on Americans and their families and it has nothing to do with national security,” Lofgren said.
Trump administration officials appearing before the congressional panel sought to defend the policy in the face of evidence of the travel ban’s continuing discriminatory effects on Muslim Americans and their families.
Under procedures of the ban, individuals from the listed countries cannot obtain visas to come to the US unless they can demonstrate hardship, their entry to the US would not pose a national security threat and their entry would be in the national interest of the US. Only five percent of visa applicants are granted waivers, according to US government data.
Elizabeth Neumann, assistant secretary of Homeland Security, said the restrictions are conditional and would remain in place until listed countries improve systems for identifying their nationals and tracking “terrorists”. The procedures are international norms and the US is improving security worldwide through implementation, Neumann said.
“Because we have focused on this and said, ‘No, we have to get this right’, we are now enhancing standards across the world,” Neumann said.
Administration officials said databases and processing procedures have been improved leading to a reduction in wait times and potentially more approvals of waivers. Homeland Security has conducted internal reviews of the programme every 180 days but has not provided those reports to Congress.
Farhana Khera, president of Muslim Advocates, a group that has challenged the travel ban in court, said there has been little improvement in the ability of people to travel to the US.
“From what we hear, that is just a drop in the bucket in terms of the number of people who have been waiting a very long time,” Khera said.
“The Muslim ban has not made us safer. It has weakened our standing in the world. And runs contrary to our countries moral and philosophical foundation,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “The United States has always been and must continue to be a place that welcomes and embraces people of all religions and nationalities.”
Democratic Representative Veronica Escobar said with “all the anti-immigrant policies that have been rolled out in the last couple of years, it is hard to keep track of just how much erosion of our democratic values there has been.”
The House bill, however, will likely face opposition in the Republican-led Senate.
During his presidential campaign, Trump had called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
Trump’s original executive order, signed within days of his taking office in January 2017, was widely condemned and triggered chaos for travellers at US airports. More than 100 State Department officials signed an internal memo dissenting from the policy. The order was blocked by US federal courts as discriminatory on religious grounds.
The Trump administration subsequently revised the order twice to include a waiver process and add two non-Muslim countries and it was eventually upheld by the US Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling in June 2018.