The Trump Administration Seals the Escape Doors After Turning Yemen Into Hell
There is no longer any legal way for Yemenis to come to America.
The war in Yemen has taken a devastating toll. More than 85,000 babies and toddlers have starved to death, according to a 2018 Save the Children report. Another roughly 80,000 people—civilians and combatants—have died in the war. The United States is a party to this carnage, because it has aided Saudi Arabia's military strikes against this small Middle Eastern country. Yet last week President Donald Trump vetoed a congressional resolution to end U.S. involvement in the war.
What has the United States done to relieve the humanitarian catastrophe that it has had a hand in causing? It has blocked Yemenis trying to escape to America.
The Trump administration has yet to accept any Yemeni refugees this year. It has banned nearly all permanent immigration from the country, including for immediate family members of U.S. citizens, and it has stopped issuing most temporary visas. For good measure, last year it decided to make many Yemenis subject to deportation when their temporary visas expire by withholding Temporary Protected Status (TPS) from them.
The United Nations Group of Regional and International Eminent Experts on Yemen has concluded that the "coalition air strikes have caused most direct civilian casualties" in Yemen and "hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities." A 2018 Human Rights Watch report warns U.S. officials that they could face "legal liability for war crimes" if they continue indiscriminate support for the Saudi campaign, through refueling jets, providing military supplies, and other means.
Even as the war crimes proceed, the United States has resettled no refugees since January 1, 2019. In 2018, the State Department resettled two Yemeni refugees. While we might expect this from the notoriously anti-immigrant Trump administration, President Barack Obama was hardly better, resettling just 42 Yemenis from 2015 to 2016.
Moreover, Trump's travel ban has indefinitely suspended almost all legal immigration from Yemen, except in very exceptional cases.
Because of America's family-focused immigration system, the ban disproportionately affects immediate Yemeni relatives of U.S. citizens. As of January 2019, the administration had already barred more than 1,700 American citizens—American citizens—from bringing over their Yemeni spouses and minor children. About 3,500 Yemeni kids are thus being separated from their American parents. (Apparently, the administration's family separation policy isn't limited to migrants at the Mexican border.) Thousands of parents of adult U.S. citizens are also being denied green cards that could save their lives.
In 2015, then-Rep. Steve Russell (R–Okla.) related the story about a Syrian interpreter who had served with him in Iraq and become a U.S. citizen. The interpreter's mother died in that country's civil war while awaiting a visa. There must be countless tragedies just like this one that we don't hear about; this one only received attention because it personally affected a congressman.
The travel ban also prevents Yemenis from receiving temporary visas for business or tourism purposes. They thus cannot request asylum, because that requires being on American soil.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has refused to redesignate Yemen for TPS. This would provide temporary legal status and work authorization to people holding expiring or expired visas if going home would mean going to disaster zones. Haitians received TPS, for example, after a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010.
Yemen has been hit by a man-made disaster of even greater proportions. The Obama administration protected Yemenis who arrived during its time in office, making its final redesignation in January 2019. Yet the Trump administration has declined to allow Yemenis who have entered since then to apply for TPS, leaving them vulnerable to deportations to the war zone.
The United States doesn't have an obligation to put out fires everywhere in the world. But it shouldn't pour gas on them, as it has in Yemen by supporting the Saudi assaults. And it certainly shouldn't then slam shut the fire escapes, leaving the residents to burn.