UPDATED–Judge Robart’s halt of travel ban frees a Yemeni American father and daughter after “Kafka-esque” journey from Djibouti
UNSTRANDED: Eman Ali, 12, and her father Ahmed, sat before media at San
Francisco International Airport on Super Bowl Sunday. They are among the first
to travel to America after the travel restrictions from seven predominantly
Muslim nations were lifted on Friday. Ahmed Ali is a Yemeni American, but Eman
holds a Yemeni passport and was blocked from boarding her flight from Djibouti
once the travel ban was in effect Jan. 27. Read the update
On Friday night after a federal judge’s order, it was like a steel door had been
kicked open, or an imaginary wall torn down.
It was a temporary way out for all the innocents trumped by the executive order
like Eman Ali, a 12-year-old girl from Yemen, desperately trying to reunite with
her family in their new home, California.;
At that moment, she looked nothing like the frightened girl in the hijab on her
Yemeni passport photo, according to her father, Ahmed Ali.
She was happy, and so was he.
“We got good news today, we’re flying back today,” said Ali, 38, a Yemeni
American who had been frustrated and stranded in Djibouti since Jan. 27, the
first day of the travel ban.
When we spoke by phone, he didn’t know anything about what was going on in the
U.S. and how a new temporary restraining order from federal district judge James
Robart in Seattle had just halted the ban nationwide.
All he knew was what his lawyers, Katy Lewis and Stacey Gartland, told him
before I called. He and his daughter, Eman, would be coming home.
“I’m really excited, really happy about it, and I hope everything will go nice
and smooth,” he told me.
But fluid situations aren’t always so smooth, especially in these Trump times.
For a week since the travel ban, Ali and Eman found themselves like many other
Yemenis– stuck in Djibouti, the tiny North African country wedged between
Ethiopia and Eritrea to the north, and Somalia to the south. It all looked
better than going back across the gulf to war-torn Yemen. Staying put seemed to
be the safest way to wait out the ban.
It was just another glitch in a journey of glitches.
All their lives, Eman and her family had dutifully followed the law. Her father,
a convenience store manager in California’s Central Valley, and her mother and
siblings are all U.S. citizens. But Eman was born in Yemen during a family visit
and held a Yemeni passport. All those years, she stayed behind with relatives as
her parents struggled to get her a visa to travel to the U.S. The process was
made even more maddening by the war in Yemen and the closure of the U.S. Embassy
Finally, after seven years, a visa was obtained. Ali travelled to accompany his
daughter to America last month. On that fateful Jan. 27, with tickets in hand,
they were ready to board an Ethiopian Airlines flight that would take them to
And then Ali heard these words: “Your daughter can’t be on the flight because
she has a Yemeni passport, and they’re not allowed.”
Ali was reliving the moment as he talked by phone from Djibouti. “It was really
hard, to be honest with you,” he said. “After seven years to tell me like this,
I was angry, sad at the same time. I was in shock. I didn’t know what to do.”
He told me he thought the ban was racist to Muslims and to Yemenis.
And that the ban would have the exact opposite effect on law-abiding Muslims.
“I think it makes them more angry at the U.S.,” said Ali, a practicing Muslim.
“It wasn’t fair to do that travel ban. And it wasn’t fair to all the kids. When
I was at the airport, there were 10 kids from three families.”
All of them were turned away, rejected because of the executive order.
And then on Friday, it was like none of that bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo had ever
All it took was the signature of Judge Robart, not a “so-called judge,” as Trump
tweeted, but an actual U.S. District Judge in Seattle, an appointee of George W.
Judge Robart adhered to his duty to uphold the Constitution and granted
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s request for a temporary
restraining order, halting Trump’s executive order barring citizens from seven
It was just the latest twist.
Hours before, another judge in Boston, U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton, had
disappointed many when he cited “the public interest in safety and security” and
refused to extend a seven-day ban on Trump’s executive order.
But lawyers I talked to said Gorton’s decision only applied to arrivals at
Boston’s Logan Airport. There would be other legal irons in the fire to
challenge the order, and then shortly thereafter came Robart’s TRO.
The Seattle judge effectively stood up to the bully, nullifying Trump’s travel
ban, and it applied nationwide.
But it seemed more like magic for 12-year old Eman.
Her immigration journey began when she was an even younger girl, sitting in
front of her older sister atop a horse in Yemen. Robart’s order practically
turned that horse into Pegasus.
Finally, she would be flying to America.
“Once she comes to the United States, she will become a U.S. citizen; she will
derive citizenship upon arrival,” Gartland told me. “Her immigration saga will
end at that point.”
But again, it’s becoming clear that nothing in the Trump age comes without a
After the White House issued a statement that the Department of Justice would
file an emergency stay of the order “at the earliest possible time,” Trump
called Robart’s order “ridiculous.”
In the meantime, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency had already
begun making sure the window stayed open for travel.
Several groups, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, began urging
“immediate” rebooking of flights.
“Once in the air or at SFO, she is not in danger of being returned,” Gartland
said. “The CBP Director of Field Operations in San Francisco will exercise his
authority to grant the waiver exception, should the TRO be stayed.”
But as the hours went on from Friday through Saturday, Gartland told me the
journey had not been without incident, with constant communication among
government officials, airline personnel, and credit card companies.
“Super stressful Kafka-esque nightmare,” Gartland told me in an email, as Ali
and Eman continued their 23-hour-long flight to freedom.
Still, there was much optimism that they would be among the first of the
once-banned to find their way to America.
Even when the bombastic twit-in-chief tweeted how a lifting of the ban meant
“bad and dangerous people” would be “pouring into the country,” I kept thinking
how the earnest family man whom I talked with the night before from Djibouti
would soon reunite his daughter with the rest of his family. </di v>
And when they land, it will mark the end of an incredible journey of nearly
9,000 miles, a triumph of law and the Constitution over the whim of an
A true victory, their arrival–as well as that of others previously banned–will
serve as an example of the relentless immigrant spirit that truly makes America
great. And all of it quite fitting enough to upstage a Super Bowl Sunday.
[Read about the happy ending to this immigration story
Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page. The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.