Harrowing Treatment of Yemeni-Americans Demands Government Probe, Groups Say

Civil liberties groups ask the State Department to investigate dubious passport revocations and a failure to evacuate U.S. citizens after Yemen became a war zone.

SANAA, YEMEN - OCTOBER 08: Graffities are seen on the wall of the U.S. embassy compound seized by the Houthis after the ambassador and diplomats left the country, in Sanaa, Yemen on October 08, 2015. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SANAA, YEMEN - OCTOBER 08: Graffities are seen on the wall of the U.S. embassy compound seized by the Houthis after the ambassador and diplomats left the country, in Sanaa, Yemen on October 08, 2015. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images) Photo: Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

CIVIL LIBERTIES GROUPS have asked the State Department’s Office of Inspector General to investigate what they said were years of misconduct at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, including a wave of dubious passport revocations.

The request, which includes previously unreleased emails from seemingly desperate Americans stranded in Yemen, comes as seven civil rights and immigration lawyers from across the U.S. tell The Intercept that their clients have had their passports revoked without due process, resulting in them being separated from their children, fired from jobs, placed under suspicion, singled out for treatment not inflicted on other immigrant groups, and told to remain silent about their ordeals, among other travails.

The report to the State Department paints a similarly harrowing picture of the treatment of Yemeni-Americans who had passports confiscated. Submitted yesterday by Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus and CLEAR, a free legal clinic at the City University of New York School of Law, it details instances of coercive interrogations and of U.S. citizens stranded in Yemen and separated from family members for years. Although many were eventually allowed to fly back to the U.S., they continue to face various restrictions on their travel.

The report says the Yemeni-Americans were coerced into signing confessions that fraudulent names were used in their naturalization documents or the naturalization documents of their fathers. In some cases, a translator was not present and the people did not understand what they were signing.

The report adds: “There is at least one case where a statement obtained by a Diplomatic Security Service Special Agent was disproved by an already existing DNA test. In a small number of cases, the Department has, without explanation, suddenly returned passports to individuals in their requested names in advance of scheduled administrative hearings; even though they had signed confessions purporting the name was false — shedding more doubt on the reliability of the confessions.”

In none of the cases, according to the lawyers, have issues of national security or terrorism been raised.

In addition to the Asian Law Caucus and CLEAR, signatories to the document include eight other advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, who hope to spark the sort of investigation undertaken by other federal inspectors general. The Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Justice, for example, has looked into the use of national security letters, while the OIG at the Department of Homeland Security has investigated redress procedures for travelers on terrorist watchlists.

The most egregious case is that of a 7-year-old girl, an American citizen who has not seen her mother for almost two years. She is now suffering from panic attacks, anxiety, and seizures.

Getting official answers about passport revocations has become an increasingly urgent issue in the Yemeni-American community since the revocations began in 2012. It’s unclear why the State Department seems to be reexamining naturalization papers, often decades old, at this moment. People whose passports have been revoked are often fearful their citizenship status might change or frustrated at losing, for a protracted period, the ability to return to or leave the U.S.

“The [State] Department essentially asks these individuals to re-prove their claims of citizenship,” the report says. “However, the Department’s evidentiary standards are nearly impossible to meet.”

Some legal experts believe that the passport revocations amount to a sort of back-door denaturalization of citizens.

“The idea that someone’s passport can be denied in such a rudimentary fashion, with so little process, eventually amounting to a form of temporary exile — that’s a serious problem, and it hasn’t gotten nearly the attention that it should. It’s a ripe area for the IG to investigate and for greater public attention,” says Shirin Sinnar, a professor at Stanford Law School whose work explores the capacity of inspectors general, civil rights offices, and other institutions within federal agencies that monitor and oversee national security and civil rights issues.

The issues around passport revocation have become all the more pronounced since a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the U.S. started bombing Yemen in April, drawing attention for excessive civilian deaths. The violence made the issue of restricted travel urgent for Yemeni-Americans who were either stuck in Yemen and unable to escape a war zone or prevented from going abroad to help relatives.

THE FILING to the State Department includes emails from Americans stranded in Yemen, some of whom waited up to 709 days after their passports were confiscated before receiving formal notice that they had been revoked. The emails convey a sense of confusion and desperation.

One email was an “urgent inquiry” from a U.S. citizen unable to get his prescriptions filled, who typed out a list of medicines for diabetes and high blood pressure that are not available in Yemen. “Please note that I must be back to the USA for a sooner medical treatment,” he writes.

Another email was from a man eager to go back to California and finish law school: “I very disappointed because the US my country where I lived since I was 10 years old. I had been a US citizen for 17 years and I feel that the US is a part of me.”

All of these individuals had traveled to Yemen for a brief visit with relatives and had no plan to stay for extended periods of time.

The report also includes a sample of what the rights groups are designating “involuntary confessions” of the use of fraudulent names in naturalization documents. These statements, which are labeled “Voluntary Statement,” have been used as the sole evidence for revocation. “A specter of suspicion is being internalized by people,” says Nasrina Bargzie, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus.

After civil rights groups began contacting the embassy, many of these Americans were allowed to fly home using one-time travel documents.

Upon returning to the U.S., many Yemeni-Americans whose passports were revoked have become enmeshed in a lengthy legal process, including administrative hearings at the Department of State that one lawyer described as “not impartial.” Few have been reissued passports. The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa (pictured above) has been closed since February 2015, but revocations are continuing to happen in the U.S., the lawyers say. In addition, Lena Masri, an attorney for CAIR-Michigan, says she has seen a significant number of cases in recent months in which Yemeni-Americans have had trouble renewing their passports.

Because of fear and pending litigation, only one Yemeni-American whose passport was revoked was willing to speak with The Intercept. (Read his story in the sidebar here.) Most instead had their cases described via legal counsel; The Intercept spoke with lawyers in New York, California, Michigan, and Illinois about the experiences of their Yemeni-American clients.

“It’s a very unusual situation. The lawyers involved scratch their heads and blink in amazement,” says Jan Brown, an immigration attorney and co-chair of the immigration and nationality committee for the New York State Bar Association. “They have a procedure that would never withstand a due process scrutiny. Actually, I don’t think they had a procedure until [the revocations] started happening.”

Adding to the lack of transparency, the State Department has not answered FOIA requests filed in February 2013 and July 2013 by the Asian Law Caucus.

“They don’t seem to take these allegations of coercive interrogations seriously,” says Naz Ahmad, a lawyer at CLEAR. “There is no indication that they have investigated them.”

A spokesperson for the State Department’s inspector general told The Intercept,We are in receipt of and reviewing the letter and the attached report” and declined to comment on whether the office would be pursuing an investigation.

BROWN HAS ENCOUNTERED five families who experienced passport revocation. The most egregious case is that of a 7-year-old girl, an American citizen whose passport was confiscated along with her father’s at the embassy in Sanaa when the girl was 5. Returning to the U.S. on one-time travel documents, she had expected to come for a short visit, but is now stuck here. The girl has not seen her mother for almost two years.

“It’s doubly traumatizing for a little girl to be separated from her mother. And certainly in that culture, it is the mother who would raise the little girl, not the father. Who knows what impact that would have on her in the future,” Brown says. “There is no allegation that the child did anything wrong — as a matter of fact, that would be an absurdity — a legal impossibility.”

The girl is now suffering from panic attacks, anxiety, and seizures. The father, who had been living in the U.S. for decades, had no idea he would be denied a new passport, and if he had, he would not have brought his daughter to the U.S., Brown said.

Tensions between the Yemeni-American community and the State Department have also been exacerbated by the government’s failure to evacuate citizens from Yemen when violence erupted there this past spring. While the U.S. has routinely facilitated evacuations of its citizens from war zones — in 2006, for example, 15,000 Americans were evacuated from Lebanon — the government refused to do so from Yemen in April. When Americans sought help from the State Department, they were advised to find their own way out of the country or to ask other governments for help. China, India, Russia, and Somalia all evacuated their citizens. CAIR filed a lawsuit, and at least one American was killed.

“Many people have had to rearrange their lives for their own safety and try to get to other countries,” says Brown. “A lot of people whose passports have been taken are typically males, the father, the husband, who certainly in that culture would be expected in a time of crisis to be there to help their families survive and find safe haven somewhere and are unable to do so.”

Abdulhakem Alsadah, president of the National Association of Yemeni Americans in Dearborn, Michigan, says that “in some ways, the passport issue has been overshadowed by the evacuation issue.” Alsadah, a social worker who has been in the U.S. since the 1980s, has been active in efforts to mobilize his community. In May 2015, he worked with Congresswoman Debbie Dingell to bring an amendment to Congress to evacuate Americans from Yemen. The amendment ultimately did not pass.

It is impossible to know how many passports were revoked because people were explicitly told not to talk about it, Alsadah tells The Intercept.

Some of Dr. Alsadah’s clients, many of whom work in the service sector, have lost jobs after telling employers their passports had been revoked. Others are afraid to tell their family members because of shame, says Ahmad, the CLEAR lawyer. “You don’t know how you got into it, you don’t know how you are going to get out of it.”

The combination of revocations and the failure to evacuate citizens leaves many in the Yemeni-American community concerned about the status of their citizenship. “They are doing this in a specific community, and this community has already been really targeted” says Ahmad. “People are asking, What impact does it have on my citizenship? It doesn’t make sense to them that they could still be a citizen and not have a passport.”

“Being someone who has worked very closely with the Yemeni community for years now, I am seeing a level of sadness in the community that I haven’t seen,” says Bargzie, who works as a civil rights and national security attorney in San Francisco.

THERE IS A PROPER PROCEDURE for passport revocation and one question that lawyers are asking in the report to the State Department’s inspector general is if this procedure has been followed — a question they’ve been asking for years now. 

The embassy in Sanaa has been the site of various peculiarities over the years, including delays on visa applications of up to eight years, but the most salient example involves passport revocation.

In 2012, Politico reported that Anwar al Awlaki’s passport was revoked before he was killed in a U.S. drone strike. A memo sent to the embassy from Washington, D.C., instructed consular affairs to send him a note inviting him to the embassy — where he would pick up a passport revocation letter. “The Department’s action is based upon the determination by the secretary that Mr. Awlaki’s activities abroad are causing and/or are likely to cause serious damage to the national security or the foreign policy of the United States,” the memo stated. Officials planned to offer him a one-way travel document back to the United States.

Some observers have speculated that the Yemeni-American passport revocations are related to the security situation in Yemen. But the lawyers say the phrase “national security” has never come up — not in the administrative hearings in D.C., nor in the confessions, which have focused on fraudulent names.

 “These cases are not national security cases, nor are any of the people and families involved considered a national security risk,”Alsadah says. “Most, if not all, are based on suspicion, speculation, and ineffective, unclear immigration policies here in the United States and in the Republic of Yemen. People and families involved are scared, fearful, and are suffering a great deal of loss and injustice as a result of these practices.” Bargzie says that in cases where national security is a factor, the issue often comes up overtly. One example is a recent case that involved a visa being denied on “terrorism grounds.”

When the first notices of passport revocation appeared, there was speculation about whether this was the work of a few rogue officers — one particular diplomatic security service agent signed the majority of forced confessions. But the fact that many passport revocations have been sustained in administrative hearings by the Department of State and that they continue to happen here in the U.S. suggests something more systemic.

Even though denaturalization is a completely different process from passport revocation, Ramzi Kassem, professor of law at CUNY, has asked if passport revocation is being used as proxy denaturalization.

He writes in an article for the Fordham Law Review that “collectively, these cases and firsthand accounts paint a disturbing portrait of the U.S. Department of State attempting to circumvent the procedures and safeguards that normally must be respected in order to reach a result tantamount to the denaturalization and expatriation of a U.S. citizen.”

It seems the Yemeni-American community is being targeted — none of the lawyers The Intercept spoke with have encountered or heard of revocations for Syrian-Americans, Iraqi-Americans, or Afghan-Americans.

The concern is that this trend reflects a policy shift involving the citizenship status of Yemeni-Americans and that these tactics may be used for other Muslim Americans in the future.

“My sense is they are trying this out in this community, and who knows what community they will try it out in next,” says Bargzie. “That’s one of the reasons we are so hopeful the OIG will do an investigation, so we can stop this particular practice in its tracks before it extends out to other embassies.”

See accompanying article: Yemeni-American Tells How the U.S. Separated Him from His Wife and Three Children

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