Yemenis Thought They’d Won the Visa Lottery. Then Came Trump’s Muslim Ban.

Despite federal judges ruling against Trump's travel ban, many winners of “diversity visas” from banned countries are out of luck.

Emgergency services and Yemeni civilians search under the rubble of houses destroyed in an air strike in the residential southern Faj Attan district of the capital, Sanaa, on August 25, 2017.The attack destroyed two buildings in the southern district, leaving people buried under debris, witnesses and medics said. / AFP PHOTO / Mohammed HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Emergency services and Yemeni civilians search under the rubble of houses destroyed in an air strike in the residential southern Faj Attan district of the capital, Sanaa, on Aug. 5, 2017. Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

In March, Abdullah Fadhel left his family in war-wrecked Yemen, traveled overnight by bus through military checkpoints, and flew to Malaysia on a promise: He was eligible to receive a U.S. green card. Seven months and $12,000 later, he’s still waiting, stranded because of President Donald Trump’s travel bans.

Fadhel had been selected in the annual “diversity visa” lottery – last year, 19 million people applied for 50,000 green cards reserved for citizens from countries with low immigration to the United States. Being chosen in the lottery doesn’t guarantee a visa, but the immigration system generally promises applicants a fair chance and timely response in a maximum of 60 days after they have an interview, according to the State Department.

This year, however, for at least 95 applicants from countries listed on Trump’s travel bans, including Yemen, the State Department did not respond to their applications for months. While their paperwork languished, the available visas for this fiscal year ran out. Beginning in late September, Fadhel and dozens of other Yemeni applicants received letters from the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur stating that the visa cap had been reached. They were out of luck.


Yemeni diversity visa winners in Malaysia. Sadeq Naji Alzaraf, far right, and Abdullah Fadhel, second to right.

Photo: Provided by Sadeq Naji Alzaraf

Trump’s travel ban – now in its third iteration – has attempted to bar immigrants from a number of predominantly Muslim countries, as well as all refugees, with the stated goal of increasing vetting and protecting national security. Federal judges struck down his initial order banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. An amended order that went into effect in June blocked only those without a bona fide U.S. relationship, such as a family member, work contract, or university admission. His most recent proclamation on September 24 indefinitely banned immigrants from many of the same countries, while adding restrictions on North Korea, Chad, and Venezuela.

This week, a federal judge in Hawaii ruled against the latest order just a day before it would go into effect, stating that the revised ban still amounted to over-broad discrimination, and noting that the president’s “record has only gotten worse” on that front.

The decision offers a glimmer of hope for diversity visa applicants who have been overlooked victims of the travel ban, but for others, relief may come too late.

A number of people have already litigated to win back their chance to get green cards. On August 4, two Yemeni and two Iranian applicants sued the State Department with the help of a coalition of legal aid organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, or ADC. Their lawsuit argued that by demanding already vetted applicants to prove a bona fide U.S. relationship, the travel bans inappropriately affected visa issuance and arbitrarily added another step to the diversity visa application process.

“We documented that persons were languishing in administrative processing. It was a de facto Muslim ban to run out the clock,” Yolanda Rondon, an ADC attorney on the case, told The Intercept. “And we made it plain to the State Department that it flies into the face of who we are as a nation, and not something we can abide with.”

On September 29, U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan ruled that if the Supreme Court struck down the travel ban, it would be unfair to delay or deny green cards to the four diversity visa applicants. She ordered the government to report any unused visas and award them to the plaintiffs after the Supreme Court rules. (The Supreme Court was set to hear arguments on the issue this month, but instead kicked it back to lower courts for the time being.)

The State Department responded that only 24 visas are left – enough for the four plaintiffs if the travel ban is declared illegal, but not for all applicants from banned countries. Rondon explained that if those applicants could argue in court that the travel bans directly affected them, they may still have a chance. But for now, despite legal wins, Fadhel and dozens of other Yemenis who were not plaintiffs on the lawsuit are stranded and growing increasingly desperate.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the number of diversity visa applicants from Yemen tripled between 2013 and 2015, the year that war broke out in the country. In the past two years, the conflict between a Saudi Arabia-led coalition and Houthi rebel groups has killed an estimated 10,000 people and left nearly 7 million starving. At least 700,000 are infected with cholera.

Yemeni children suspected of being infected with cholera receive treatment at a hospital in the capital Sanaa, on August 12, 2017.A cholera outbreak has claimed the lives of some 2,000 Yemenis in less than four months. / AFP PHOTO / Mohammed HUWAIS (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Yemeni children suspected of being infected with cholera receive treatment at a hospital in the capital Sana’a, on Aug. 12, 2017.

Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

Fadhel was an English student working part-time in a clothing store when the war began. He remembers bunkering inside his family’s apartment in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, as bombs erupted. Schools closed. There was no water, no electricity, and no salaries for government employees. Fadhel’s father still ran his business selling clothes, but with very little profit.

Fadhel applied for the diversity visa the same year. In May 2016, he received news that he thought would change his life: He’d won.

“I felt so happy, and I thought I will be able to achieve my dream and get a good education and get a better job and also help my family and friends,” Fadhel, now 28, told The Intercept over Skype from Malaysia. “My family was a little bit worried about me, the way I was traveling, the fighting and all those things.”

Applicants like Fadhel sold their houses and cars, and spent their entire life savings, to travel to Malaysia, Djibouti, and India for interviews at U.S. consulates. Months later, they’re still waiting, unable to work and living off borrowed money.

Fadhel has spent $12,000 over the last seven months. His friend Sadeq Naji Alzaraf, 44, who worked in Yemen’s education ministry and owned a poultry farm, has paid $22,000 to support his wife and two teenage children while they wait in Malaysia, but his children have not been able to register for school because they lack legal status in the country – and they never knew when they might leave.

“I want everyone to know that we came to Malaysia according to the letter from the U.S. government, that we came from a long distance, and we have lost a lot of money,” Alzaraf said over a Skype call. “If they don’t want us to travel to the U.S., why do they accept us and then they sent us a message and letter to come to Malaysia?”

Diversity visa applicants stranded in foreign countries now face a choice: Wait indefinitely for a green card that’s not guaranteed or brave the treacherous journey back. Alzaraf said he knows of around 20 families that have already returned to Yemen, some being harbored in Sudan before returning to the conflict zone at home.

“For the first time in my life, I do not know what to do,” Alzaraf said. “We don’t go back to Yemen, because we are scared about everything because of the war.”

Alzaraf said he will now try to immigrate to Canada, but Abdullah holds out hope that he can build a life in America.

“My dream is to live peacefully and to have a better life and to study and get a good job for my family, to help them, and I’ll try my best to do my best for America and to be a good citizen,” Fadhel said. “We are normal people, and we just like to live a normal life.”

Top photo: Emergency services and Yemeni civilians search under the rubble of houses destroyed in an airstrike in the residential southern Faj Attan district of the capital, Sana’a, on Aug. 5, 2017.

Join The Conversation