Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer
The Nayef family, from Aleppo, Syria, arrives at Hopkins Airport in Cleveland, Ohio. From the left: case worker Leena Zahara, mother Khitan, daugher Rama, son Mohamad, daughter Ghadoer, father Abdulsalam and daughter Diana. Rama’s sign says “Welcome” in Arabic.
Abdulsalam and Khitan Nayef’s bags were packed. They had plane tickets for their family, including four children ages six to fifteen, and all were eager to start a new life in the United States. For years they had been living in squalid conditions in Ankara, Turkey, after their home in Aleppo was destroyed during Syria’s raging civil war.
Abdulsalam, speaking through an interpreter, says they paid “an extraordinary amount of money” to be smuggled over the border into Turkey.
To qualify for resettlement in the United States, they submitted to rigorous background checks and an application process that lasted about two years. “There were at least four major interviews and constant follow-up questioning,” Abdulsalam says. “There was biometric and health screening, interviews about where you’ve been, where you lived, and family demographics.”
The first part of the last phase of the family’s resettlement ordeal was to begin January 29 with a seven-hour bus ride from Ankara to Istanbul, where they would board a flight to New York City. But the day before they were supposed to leave, Abdulsalam received a devastating phone call—he and his family were no longer welcome in the United States.
At 4:42 p.m. on January 27, 2017, after one week in office, President Donald Trump signed an executive order called, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” As the secretly drafted order was implemented with little preparation or guidance, invisible barriers clanged down across the world. It blocked nearly all citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the United States. Some 60,000 visas were revoked. Within hours, hundreds of travelers abroad with formerly valid U.S. visas were barred from boarding planes while scores of visitors arriving here were detained and handcuffed.
The order carved out a small opening for refugees already in the admissions process so long as they qualified based on unnamed “additional procedures.” It slashed refugee admissions in 2017 by more than half, from 110,000 to 50,000. And it suspended the entry of Syrian refugees like the Nayefs altogether as “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” It was not until two days later that the Department of Homeland Security issued a fact sheet listing Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen as the impacted nations.
The order allowed for case-by-case exceptions “in the national interest—including when the person is a religious minority in his country of nationality facing religious persecution.” That provision reflected Trump’s prior comments that he was seeking a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Abdulsalam was crushed. “When you think you are going toward freedom and a better life, it was devastating news. The children were all very upset. My first worry was we would have to go back to Syria and back to the war, but we don’t have a home there.”
Protests against the ban erupted at airports across the United States. In New York City, taxi workers staged a brief strike, and more than 1,000 Yemeni-owned convenience stores closed for part of a day. Big tech firms, pushed by employees, publicly opposed the order, and an avalanche of lawsuits—more than fifty—hit the courts.
Within a day, judges in Brooklyn and Virginia ruled refugee and visa holders in the United States could not be expelled, including sixty-three legal residents detained at Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C. A week later, a federal judge in Washington State issued a nationwide preliminary injunction against most but not all the provisions in the order. That injunction was unanimously upheld by a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But while the ban was in effect, at least 141 travelers were reportedly expelled after arriving in the United States and 746 were detained or processed upon arriving here in a twenty-seven-hour period after the Brooklyn judge’s ruling.
The injunction pried open the door for Abdulsalam and Khitan. On February 10, the family arrived in their new home in Cleveland, Ohio. “We feel very happy to be here,” Abdulsalam says. “We are still in shock, but a lot of weight has been lifted from our shoulders.”
The Nayefs spoke by phone from the office of US Together, as Leena Zahara, a caseworker, translated. US Together is a refugee resettlement agency and affiliate of HIAS, a 136-year-old Jewish nonprofit organization dedicated to aiding refugees and displaced people around the world. To ease their transition into American society, US Together settled the family in a duplex in Cleveland where another Syrian refugee family lives.
While the Nayefs feel lucky, the shift in immigration policy is harming thousands, often in hidden ways. This includes undocumented immigrants here, refugees seeking U.S. admission, students abroad unable to return to U.S. universities they attend, and legal U.S. residents who claim they have been unduly detained and questioned upon returning.
Tarah Demant, a senior director at Amnesty International USA, says that despite the injunction, “The executive order and confusion has given broad discretion to border agents. People are still being turned back. H-1 category visas, research visas, visitor visas all remain affected. It’s impossible to get a full list of who is affected.”
The stories of some of those affected circulate within diasporic communities, ricochet around social media, and trickle out in court filings.
Abdulsalam speaks of other family members unable to escape Aleppo: “I feel badly I can do nothing to help them. They are living in rubble, stuck in horrible conditions.”
'I feel badly I can do nothing to help them. They are living in rubble, stuck in horrible conditions.'
Trump’s order has compounded the Syrian tragedy, gumming up the process for some of those trying to flee. The order suspended the “derivative asylum application” for a mother and three-year-old daughter trapped in Aleppo, says Andrei Vrabie of the New York-based law firm Holwell Shuster & Goldberg. The two are related to a Syrian man who received asylum in the United States in 2016 after being tortured by both government and Islamist forces in Syria.
In February, the firm sued the federal government in a Wisconsin U.S. District Court on behalf of the man, named as “John Doe” to protect his family’s identity, and his asylum petition for his wife and daughter.
His wife is hiding in Aleppo because the Syrian army threatened to rape and murder her, and their daughter is starving and emaciated due to a lack of medical care. Vrabie says the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services were processing their applications, which were complete except for vetting the security risk of the girl, when Trump’s order “suspended the asylum application indefinitely.”
“When you see that the order, which is allegedly aimed at preventing terrorists from entering the country, is being applied to a three-year-old girl, it’s beyond the pale that it’s a bona fide policy decision,” Vrabie says. His client fears the worst for his family, as his three-year-old son died in 2015 when he fell three stories to his death during a mortar attack in Aleppo.
'When you see that the order, which is allegedly aimed at preventing terrorists from entering the country, is being applied to a three-year-old girl, it’s beyond the pale that it’s a bona fide policy decision.'
In a subsequent exchange with the court, the Trump Administration admitted derivative asylum applications had been halted as a result of the executive order, but were resumed following the nationwide injunction. The government said the wife and daughter’s “petitions are being processed on an expedited basis.”
Attorneys for the Syrian man expressed relief, but warned they would defend the constitutional rights of their client “should the Trump Administration issue a new executive order interfering with his derivative asylum applications.”
According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, there were 21.3 million refugees worldwide in 2015, and only 107,000 people, or one-half of 1 percent, were resettled that year.
The executive order against Muslim-majority nations is just part of the story. On January 25, Trump issued two executive orders to build a wall on the southern border, pressure sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate on immigration raids, and create the basis for mass deportation. One order, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” calls for prioritizing for removal those “aliens” who “have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense.”
With a stroke of a pen, Trump criminalized eleven million immigrants, as anyone lacking documentation has committed a chargeable offense. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents moved quickly, apparently widening the net by arresting undocumented immigrants without a criminal record, a departure from most Obama-era enforcement policy. The crackdown was also shrouded in secrecy, leading to panics about nonexistent raids and checkpoints as well as bursts of “Day Without Immigrants” walkouts in cities around the country.
Trump’s other order, “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” calls for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, expanding detention for border crossers and asylum seekers, and hiring 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents. These measures could be as devastating to asylum seekers as the seven-nation ban.
Weeks later, the Department of Homeland Security fleshed out the orders with plans to “publicize crimes by undocumented immigrants; strip such immigrants of privacy protections; enlist local police officers as enforcers; erect new detention facilities; discourage asylum seekers; and, ultimately, speed up deportations,” according to The New York Times.
Under international and U.S. law, people crossing the border who says they fear persecution in their home country are supposed to be afforded an asylum process. Demant of Amnesty International say Trump’s order “militarizes the border, making it much harder to get asylum. The wall will not shut down immigration. What it will do is make it deadlier.”
Since 2013, intense poverty and violence have sparked an exodus of migrants from Central America. In some months, the Border Patrol has apprehended more than 20,000 unaccompanied children or families, typically a mother and child. Youth in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are fleeing extreme gang violence and the highest murder rates in the Western Hemisphere, sometimes traversing the length of Mexico by foot.
“People are not walking a thousand miles to seek benefits,” Demant says. “They are coming because they don’t have a choice. If a young man fleeing El Salvador gets to the U.S. border and is turned around, that is a death sentence.”
Others impacted by Trump’s immigration orders may not be at risk of dying, but their lives have been upended nonetheless. According to College Factual, 23,763 students from the seven nations who are studying in the United States are affected by the travel ban.
The provision in the executive order suspending the issuance of student visas to nationals of these countries apparently remains in effect. U.S. Customs and Border Protection declares student visas “are currently provisionally revoked.” Those inside the United States are not affected, but for those outside the country they “will not be allowed to return for this temporary period.”
Of the students affected by the order, nearly two-thirds are from Iran. These include Nayere Tajielyato, a PhD student in computational biophysics at Clemson University.
Speaking from Tehran, Tajielyato says in April 2016, after nearly two years in the United States, she went home for a visit: “I really missed my mom. She is the most valuable thing in my life.” She applied for a new visa right away, at the U.S. embassy in Yerevan, Armenia.
Her initial visa took less than a month to process, so Tajielyato planned to go back in June. She was told there was “high demand” for visas and was unable to return in the summer, losing her plane ticket in the process. “So I thought I would return in the fall semester. I didn’t make that, and then I didn’t make the spring.”
Tajielyato and two other Iranians enrolled in PhD programs at U.S. universities say their visa applications have been in “administrative processing” for six to ten months. That means their visas were initially held up for four months or longer under the Obama Administration. Unlike greencard holders or asylum-seekers, there is little recourse for those applying for or denied a visa, and the State Department has broad discretion to reject visas.
When Tajielyato heard about Trump’s executive order, she says “I was shocked. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, didn’t want to eat. I just slept. I have never experienced this kind of depression in my life.”
She and another Clemson student say the wait has taken a toll on their education, career plans, and life. “I had to ask for money from my family,” Tajielyato says. “I can’t apply for a job here because I might have to leave. I miss the valuable life I had in my research. I miss all of my friends.”
'I can’t apply for a job here because I might have to leave. I miss the valuable life I had in my research. I miss all of my friends.'
Tajielyato, whose research may one day be applied to designer medical therapies and diagnostics, has asked people to urge government officials to expedite her application. She says friends and colleagues have “reached out to Senators” on her behalf. But, according to the Clemson student newspaper, the university administration has been silent on the immigration ban, sparking student and faculty protests.
Green card holder Nisrin Elamin, a PhD student in anthropology at Stanford University, was trapped at JFK airport in the initial sweep. She sees the ban in a broader context: “Trump’s executive order is a reflection of a larger trend in this country to criminalize black people, to criminalize immigrants, to criminalize Muslims.”
Elamin had been conducting field research on land dispossession and community resistance in central Sudan when her university encouraged her to “get back as soon as possible.” She landed in New York the night of January 27, the day Trump signed the order and minutes after the ban went into effect at JFK. She and a greencard holder from Iran were among the first detained.
After being shunted into a holding area, Elamin says, “I was asked to stand up and put my hands against the wall and spread my legs. They touched my breasts and groin area twice. I felt like I was being criminalized. Then they handcuffed me. That indicated to me that something was wrong, that I would be detained or I might be sent back.”
The handcuffs were quickly removed and, Elamin relates, “what happened to me was mild compared to other people. The officers were apologetic, confused, they didn’t know what to tell us.” She feels guilty that her story has gotten so much coverage “when the stories of those fleeing war, or political persecution, or undocumented families being detained are not getting attention.”
Like the Iranian students cut off from their research in the United States, Elamin fears that if she goes to Sudan to finish her research, she may not be able to return. She immigrated to the United States in 1993 from Germany when she was fifteen years old, and, as soon as she qualified, applied for citizenship, for which she is still waiting. She plans to bring her elderly parents here, but in the meantime worries she “could not rush back to Sudan if one of them gets sick.”
At the same time, her parents and family in Sudan have encouraged her to speak out. “For people outside the country to see people standing up to these injustices is important,” Elamin says. “It enables them to make a distinction between government policy and the people. They see a majority of the U.S. public stands against this arbitrary banning.”
Update: After the print version of this article went to press, Nayere Tajielyato received word that her visa has been granted.