QARWASH MOHSN AWAD WAS ALREADY ABOARD his flight to Jordan at Chicago’s O’Hare airport in May 2015 when he was pulled off and escorted to a small room by two individuals — a man and a woman.
The agents questioned him, asking him for his documents, how much money he had, how many bags he had. Every time Awad answered, they responded, “You are lying, you are lying.” Agitated, Awad had no idea what was going on, he says. He was accused of having fake paperwork and told he would be locked up.
Awad, who is 32 years old and owns a gas station in Chicago, spoke to The Intercept over the phone with a translator present. A slew of U.S. citizens in Yemen have had their passports revoked since 2012; Awad has become one of the first Yemeni-Americans to have his passport revoked while in the U.S. His experience reflects the continuation of a practice some lawyers believed had stopped. (The issue of passport revocations — and a request by civil liberties groups that the State Department investigate the practice — is explored in a related story.)
At the time of his brief detainment, Awad had not been to Yemen for two years. He was traveling to Jordan, where his wife and three children had fled amid the war in Yemen, to file visa paperwork so they could join him in the U.S.
After his initial interrogation, Awad was taken to a small room, where somebody brought him food. By now, his flight had already left, and he waited in the room for over an hour. Eventually, a different man came in. “They were playing good cop-bad cop,” says June Htun, an immigration attorney in Chicago who recently filed a lawsuit on Awad’s behalf. “The second man who came in was nice,” says Awad. This man was gentler, and he handed him a letter saying that his passport had been revoked, explaining the document had been mailed to his home address. When Awad looked at the address, it was a place he had lived eight years prior. He had never received the letter.
“In almost 16 years, I’ve never had any problem. My record is clean, I don’t even have traffic tickets,” says Awad. His questioning only lasted for about 15 minutes, but he was held for a few hours. He says before he was released, the man who questioned him took a phone call. He overheard the man being questioned — “Do you have anything? Do you have anything?” — and an aggressive exchange where the man pressed the person on the other end of the phone about why he had been asked to detain Awad. When Awad walked out, another immigration official who seemed sympathetic to his situation stopped him and told him he was surprised he had been detained, Awad says.
When Htun, Awad’s lawyer, examined the case, it turned out the entire basis for revocation was a document signed by Awad’s sister three years earlier at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa. The circumstances were similar to other recent passport revocations involving Yemeni-Americans.
The complaint in Awad’s suit says that in 2011, Awad “properly and lawfully reapplied for a United States passport using his given name, Qarwash Mohsn Saleh Awad.” He was issued a new passport four days later. In September 2012, Awad’s sister visited the embassy to apply for a visa. “Plaintiff’s sister was held, by the defendants, or their agents, at the United States Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, for nine hours under interrogation,” the complaint says. “She was very distraught to the point of tears.” Awad’s sister was forced to falsely state that her father’s name is Attaf and her brother’s name is Qarwash Attaf Saleh Kurwash, according to the complaint. If she did not, agents at the embassy threatened to deny her visa application. If she complied, they allegedly promised to free her from interrogation and issue her a visa in return for her false statements.
Awad had no idea his sister had signed this document until his experience at O’Hare.
“I don’t care about my passport, I just care about my family,” Awad tells The Intercept. He has not seen them since February 2014, since before the war escalated in Yemen. “I cry every time I call them.” He is worried about not being physically present to help his family during this difficult time, in particular, his daughter who is sick and requires medical attention.
Documents show, and Awad’s lawyer confirms, that Awad initially filed visa applications for his wife and three children in March 2009. These applications are still pending. HeLena Masri, an attorney at CAIR-Michigan, says these sorts of extreme delays for visas for family members are common in the Yemeni-American community in Michigan. She has also recently seen a significant number of Yemeni clients who have not been able to get previously existing passports renewed when they expire. One of her clients, Ahmed Nagi, filed a renewal application on an expedited basis, which typically takes two weeks. She says the State Department sat on his passport application and failed to process it for a year and four months. Nagi filed a lawsuit and was able to get a new passport. But Masri is concerned that Yemeni-American applications for passport renewal are being ignored.
“On the one hand they are preventing family members from coming to the United States by refusing to issue them visas and then [they] are preventing at the same time Americans [from] having proper travel documents so they can travel abroad to visit family,” says Masri. “The policies are forcibly separating families.” Both Masri and Htun refer to a 2009 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks about fraud in Yemen that says, “Due to the pervasive fraud environment, all Immigrant Visa (IV) cases are considered fraudulent until proven otherwise.”
Htun and Awad filed their suit in the belief that a court would provide a better chance at justice than an administrative hearing at the State Department that some lawyers have described as “not impartial.” Another Yemeni-American whose passport was revoked, Mosed Shaye Omar, sued the State Department in May and was issued a passport after winning a motion for preliminary injunction. Htun is hoping for a similar outcome for Awad.
See accompanying article: Harrowing Treatment of Yemeni-Americans Demands Government Probe, Groups Say