Yemeni mom separated from dying son by Trump travel ban ‘begged,’ ‘pleaded’ with officials for months: Lawyer
Believe_In_Me/iStock(SAN FRANCISCO) — A mother who spent more than a year fighting for a visa to be with her terminally ill child is on her way to the U.S. after being granted a visa waiver from the Trump administration’s travel ban.
Shaima Swileh was denied the right to travel to the U.S. because she is from Yemen – one of the countries on which the Trump administration imposed travel restrictions. Swileh’s husband, Ali Hassan, and her son, Abdullah Hassan, 2, are both U.S. citizens.
Abdullah suffers from epilepsy and hypomyelination, a neurodegenerative disorder that has continued to worsen, according to his family’s attorney, Jennifer Nimer. While he received treatment in the U.S., Swileh was unable to be with him, though she tried multiple times to have her visa waiver request expedited.
Abdullah is on life support and is not expected to regain consciousness, Nimer said.
“It’s extremely sad because it was preventable. If she had been able to travel with them from the beginning, she wouldn’t have missed out on the last two months when he was still conscious and awake and able to see her,” Nimer told ABC News. “They basically have been trying to keep him alive until she could get here. It became apparent that he’s deteriorating very quickly, and they decided that as long as he wasn’t in pain, that they would try to wait for her. But if it became apparent that he was in pain or he was suffering, that they were not going to be able to wait.”
Swileh is expected to arrive at San Francisco International Airport Wednesday evening, the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Sacramento Valley chapter said in a statement.
Ali Hassan, 22, has been by his son’s side throughout his treatment in the U.S., which began in October. Initially, Abdullah was able to go home with round-the-clock care, Nimer said, but his health worsened and he has been in the University of California San Francisco’s Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland since the beginning of November.
Now, the family of three will be together to say goodbye to Abdullah.
“My son is dying right now. Even though it’s too late for him, at least I am getting her. We will be able to say goodbye to our son,” Ali Hassan told ABC San Francisco station KGO Tuesday.
The family filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Carl Risch and Consul General at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo Lisa Vickers, among others. The contents of the lawsuit have not been made public, but it seeks immediate relief in the form of the visa waiver, which has been granted, as well as damages, Nimer said.
A State Department spokesperson declined to comment to ABC News on the lawsuit, citing department policy to not discuss pending litigation.
But the State Department did provide a statement about its policy on granting visa waivers to the travel ban, saying waivers were available “on a case-by-case basis when the applicant demonstrates” to a consular officer at a U.S. embassy or consulate that denying entry “would cause undue hardship,” their entry “would not pose a threat to national security or public safety,” and their entry “would be in the national interest.”
Nimer told ABC News that Swileh was first interviewed by U.S. consular officials for a visa in November 2017, when an injunction on Trump’s ban had been put in place, so she could travel with her husband and son as they sought treatment for him. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo did not make a decision on Swileh’s visa until December 2017, when they denied her on the grounds that the ban on travelers from Yemen was in effect once again after the Supreme Court allowed the ban to go into effect on Dec. 4, 2017 even as legal challenges to it made their way through the courts.
Swileh applied for a visa waiver, and requested that it be expedited multiple times, Nimer said, adding that the family emailed embassy officials 28 times to check on the status of her application and explain how dire Abdullah’s health had become.
“They repeatedly emailed, begging and pleading and detailing that their son was getting sick, and he was getting worse, and we have to travel. They mention that he was still breastfeeding and didn’t want to be separated from his mother,” Nimer said. “And every time the answer was simply, ‘Your case is in administrative processing.’ You can’t even get a human response.”
Finally, Hassan made the difficult decision to bring Abdullah to the U.S. alone in October of this year. But Swileh was still waiting on the visa waiver to join them, even as Abdullah’s health worsened, Nimer said. Hassan began working with CAIR to try to raise awareness about his wife’s case. Nimer began representing the family on Dec. 14, sending inquiries to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and the State Department’s LegalNet, a resource for attorneys.
“We specifically said, ‘This is a matter of life and death at this point, and it needs to be expedited.’ And the embassy’s email [Friday] was exactly the same, ‘It’s in administrative processing.’ And we actually told them in that email we were planning to file a lawsuit, just kind of hoping that would prompt them to get moving on it,” Nimer said.
On Tuesday, CAIR’s Sacramento Valley chapter tweeted that a visa waiver had been granted for Swileh and that the organization is working on “getting her here ASAP.”
Nimer said the family has “suffered needlessly” over more than a year.
“The fact that they have now issued her the visa means that there wasn’t any problem with her visa, she qualified for the waiver, they just didn’t — for whatever reason, they just weren’t going to issue it,” Nimer said. “This is probably the most egregious case I’ve seen. If someone in this circumstance can’t get a waiver, I don’t know who can.”
“Obviously, the trauma that they have gone through over the past several months is not going to be erased by the fact that now she got the visa,” she added.
Saad Sweilem, CAIR Sacramento Valley’s civil rights attorney, said in a statement on Tuesday that the organization is “relieved that this mother will get to hold and kiss her son one last time,” calling the public support for the family “incredible.”
“Our happiness for the family is tempered by the imminent loss of Abdullah and the fact that he could have been receiving comfort from his mother for many additional days or weeks if the U.S. government had not enforced its racist Muslim ban, or if embassy staff had not required a massive public mobilization to commit an act of humanity,” Sweilem said in the statement.
During a briefing with reporters Tuesday, Deputy State Department Spokesperson Robert Palladino called it a “very sad case,” adding that their thoughts go out to the family at “this trying time.”
But he defended the administration’s actions, saying visa waivers are decided on a “case-by-case basis” and that State Department employees are “committed to following United States administration law and ensuring the integrity and security of our country’s borders.”
“These are not easy questions,” Palladino added. “We’ve got a lot of Foreign Service officers deployed all over the world that are making these decisions on a daily basis, and they’re trying very hard to do the right thing at all times.”
For its part, the hospital where Abdullah is being treated said in a statement Monday it supports “the family’s desire to come together in Abdullah’s final days. In the meantime, we are doing everything we can to keep the child comfortable and help the family through this difficult experience.”
Nimer said she represents many clients who have been affected by Trump’s travel ban, and that the process for adjudicating waivers is often long and unclear.
“It’s unbelievable to me that they could be so callous,” Nimer said. “There are processes and there are procedures to get a visa and that’s fine, but you have to have some kind of reasonable time frame for the adjudication of these things, and with the waivers, it just seems completely arbitrary.”
“It’s sad because if someone in this circumstance can’t get a waiver without filing a lawsuit and having a huge public campaign to get her approved, it just goes to show that there’s not a real process for the waivers,” she added.
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