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Yemeni Man Hopes For A Second Chance As Biden Repeals Trump's Travel Ban

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

One of President Biden's first acts in office was to repeal the Trump administration's ban on immigration from several Muslim-majority and African countries. He said the ban contradicted America's history of welcoming people of all faiths. NPR's Ruth Sherlock tells the story of one Yemeni father hoping for a second chance to come to the U.S.

ANWAR AL SAEEDI: (Speaking Arabic).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Anwar al Saeedi (ph) speaks with me from the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, where he lives with his wife and his 9-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. Yemen is in civil war. And Sana'a is under the harsh rule of Houthi militias and is regularly bombarded by airstrikes.

SAEEDI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Saeedi says he spent years applying for visas to take his family to the U.S. In 2017, he got the chance. He was selected in the immigrant visa lottery.

SAEEDI: (Through interpreter) It was a big dream for me to be able to move my children to America to live in a respectable country which respects human rights and where it's possible to live in safety.

SHERLOCK: The U.S. embassy in Sana'a is closed, so the family was sent to the African country of Djibouti for interviews. That required expensive travel costs and medical tests and visa fees required by the U.S.

SAEEDI: (Through interpreter) I borrowed money from friends with the promise that I pay them back shortly after I arrived in America. I also sold my wife's jewelry and any property we owned, a small piece of land we owned and our car.

SHERLOCK: To get to Djibouti, the family had to cross front lines in Yemen and appease militiamen at checkpoints.

SAEEDI: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Saeedi says that once in Djibouti, they expected to travel on to the U.S. like their friends had done. Instead, he says, the interviewing officer handed him a letter - seen by NPR - saying the visas were denied because of the Presidential Proclamation 9645, Trump's executive order banning immigrants from Yemen and several other countries under the disputed claim that they posed a security threat. Saeedi says he was dumbfounded.

SAEEDI: (Through interpreter) Why call us? Why make us pay the costs for the interview, for the test, for the travel to Djibouti and go through the whole routine only to refuse us at the very end?

SHERLOCK: The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the ban just days before he might have gotten his visa. A State Department official said they can't comment on individual cases. We contacted Saeedi through the American Civil Liberties Union, who he says are trying to help.

The visa rejection left Saeedi's family in a much worse place than before. The process cost them thousands of dollars and, after months in Djibouti, his job as a bank teller.

SAEEDI: (Through interpreter) Now I've lost my job. I don't have any money. And I have huge loans that I can't pay back any time soon or maybe even ever as long as I'm in Yemen.

SHERLOCK: Now he's a day laborer in construction. And people who lent him money want it back, but he can't pay.

SAEEDI: (Through interpreter) One of my friends threatened me with prison. They need their money.

SHERLOCK: President Biden's reversal of the travel ban should help those hoping to come to the U.S. now and in some categories from before but maybe not thousands with Saeedi's lottery visas, says Harsha Panduranga with the New York University Brennan Center for Justice.

HARSHA PANDURANGA: And so the question is, should people who had their visas denied because of the ban have to do it - have to go through that all over again?

SHERLOCK: The answer for Saeedi may well be yes. His visa application has expired. And the State Department says, under current laws, old lottery applications can't be revived. Saeedi and his lawyers hope that changes as the administration reviews how to implement Biden's order because, otherwise, it's back to the visa lottery, which he might never win again. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.