For those caught up in immigration order, tough decisions and lives in limbo

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Namo Abdulla and his wife on their wedding day. Photo courtesy of Namo Abdulla

In a high-rise building in Northwest Washington D.C., one floor buzzed with kinetic activity this weekend. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) was fielding a steady stream of calls from people desperate for legal guidance on behalf of friends or family who were detained in airports or unable to board flights to America.

President Donald Trump’s executive order took effect on Friday afternoon. The order blocks entry indefinitely for Syrian refugees, freezes entry temporarily for all other refugees and puts a 90-day freeze on entry by people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. These countries are also predominantly Muslim. Opponents of the order have called it a “Muslim ban,” which the administration denies.

White House officials have clarified that green card holders were not part of the order although that was not clear in the first 24 hours of its implementation. The order also applies to dual nationals with an additional passport from the banned countries, such as a French citizen who is of Iraqi national origin. The White House says the aim of the presidents order, which has been widely criticized, is to block terrorists from entering the country until a more rigorous vetting process can better review refugees and immigrants from these seven countries.

“She’s not going to be allowed in,” ADC staff attorney Yolanda Rondon was saying into the phone. “She’s going to have to go back to her country of origin and apply for a waiver.” She added flatly, “This could take weeks or months.” The woman on the other line, a student, was traveling back to the U.S from Amman, Jordan with her young child — an American citizen. On the last leg of her trip, immigration officials stopped them from boarding a flight back to the United States, informing her that her student visa, valid just hours earlier, was now revoked. “The child will be allowed back in the country,” Rondon said. “She will not be.”

As the phone beeped impatiently with other callers, there was little room for niceties or personal details. “We tell them they are probably banned,” says Abed Ayoub, ADC’s legal and policy director. As the phone kept ringing, more stories of lives suspended and between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place decisions.

Meanwhile, across the river in Arlington, Virginia, Namo Abdulla was wrestling with his own personal nightmare brought about by the order. Abdulla, a journalist from Iraq, has been studying and working in the United States on a green card for more than five years now. For the last two years, and the entire time they’ve been married, his wife Jwana had been going through the visa process to join him in America from Iraq, where she currently lives.

In September, she did her in-person interview at the U.S Embassy there. It was, she thought, the last hoop in the lengthy process. This week, the couple planned to reunite in Beirut, Lebanon. Those plans were abruptly canceled on Friday. “My wife is completely devastated,” he said.

As Abdulla read the order, formally titled “Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” it became clear this could upend the life he and his wife had so carefully plotted since they were engaged four years ago. “I was shocked to see the language.” Iraq was one of the banned countries and would nullify his wife’s near complete visa application.

In 2012, Abdulla was awarded a scholarship from the White House Correspondents’ Association — an organization of journalists who cover the White House and the president. But today his future in America is unclear. ”You have to leave whatever you have in DC,” his wife told him.“I have a well paying job here, but she says, ‘Let’s live somewhere, anywhere.’”

On Monday, the acting attorney general Sally Q. Yates was abruptly fired by President Trump for refusing to defend the order. Multiple lawsuits have been filed, challenging the order in court, including those from the American Civil Liberties Union and Washington state’s attorney general. In the meantime, Abdulla tries to comfort his wife, but to little effect.

“I try to tell her this might change, but she really doesn’t believe me when I say that.”

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