On this week’s episode of Unauthorized Disclosure Kevin Gosztola and I speak with Gadeir Abbas, an attorney representing dozens of Yemeni-Americans in their lawsuit against the US government’s refusal to evacuate their loved ones from Yemen. (Download the episode here or subscribe for free on iTunes here). Here’s Kevin with the details:
Tom Kelly, according to McClatchy, acknowledged that hundreds of Americans had fled Yemen for Djibouti recently on foreign ships and aircrafts after dangerous journeys on land. At one point, “evacuees” were left behind at the “port of Aden because they had been unable to climb up rope ladders to board an Indian navy frigate from smaller boats that had ferried them to the larger ship, which had been unable to dock because of fighting in the city.”
Dozens of Americans arrived on that frigate on April 11. Potentially, 55,000 Americans remain in Yemen and have received no pledge from their own government that there will be help for them so they can escape. Countries like China, India, Pakistan and even Somalia have launched missions to rescue their citizens but the US has decided not to launch an operation to specifically help Yemeni Americans, even though it easily could because it is coordinating with the Saudi-led coalition that is bombing the country.
Gadeir Abbas, an attorney representing dozens of Yemeni Americans who are stranded in Yemen, is this week’s guest on the “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast. He talks about the lawsuit filed to force the US government to help these trapped Americans. He highlights the betrayal Yemeni Americans feel as their government treats them like second class citizens and discusses what it would take to evacuate them.
In the second half of the show, Abbas, who represents an American named Gulet Mohamed in his challenge to his placement on the No Fly List, highlights the latest developments. The government is now informing plaintiffs in No Fly List cases that they have a new process where Americans can get confirmation that they are on the list. Abbas contends the changes are meaningless, however, and discusses how none of what the government has implemented resolves Mohamed’s case.
The weekly podcast radio show hosted by Kevin Gosztola and Rania Khalek is available for download here.
Partial transcript of interview with Gadeir Abbas:
GOSZTOLA: Set this up for people who might not be aware that this lawsuit is being brought and what they are trying to get out of suing the government.
ABBAS: There are thousands of Yemeni Americans that are now stranded in what is a chaotic war zone, where shelling from various factions that are fighting for control of Yemen is a constant threat to their lives. Out of the thousands that are stuck there, I work with CAIR Michigan representing about three dozen individuals, the majority of which are children stranded in Yemen and have been effectively abandoned by the country that they pledge allegiance to, the United States. And this lawsuit is an effort to compel the United States government to do what it’s done routinely in the past, which is provide evacuation services to American citizens who are stranded in war-torn areas.
And this is no different from what the American government has done in countries across the world, including Lebanon, including several countries in Africa. This is one of the benefits of being a citizen of one of the more powerful nations in the world, and here what you really have and what we’re seeing is another iteration of the federal government’s policy of treating Yemeni Americans much differently than they treat other Americans.
The US government has cast a systematic suspicion on US citizens of Yemeni descent. And here, what we’re hearing from the federal government time and time again is that the federal government shouldn’t do this evacuation because the federal government has been issuing traveling advisories about Yemen for years. But that’s true for countries across the world in North Africa and the Middle East and that hasn’t stopped the United States from evacuating their citizens from those countries before.
Here, the US is better positioned than it’s been in many other instances. Military operations that were started by Saudi Arabia are being run in conjunction with US authorities. They’re being facilitated by the delivery of weapons from the US government. And so, the US is in a perfect position to guarantee the safety of its citizens; in a much better position than countries, such as India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Somalia, among others, which have taken concrete actions to actually evacuate their citizens.
GOSZTOLA: Legally speaking, why do you go to the court? What can you make the court do to the US government?
ABBAS: There’s a very old process that comes from English common law and it’s called a writ. Essentially, a writ is an action that you can take to court whenever the government has a duty to do something that it is not doing. So, this comes up a lot in immigration contexts. The government has to make a decision about allowing Person A into the country or not. And a lot of time what the US will say is maybe we don’t have a basis for denying this visa but we’ll just not make a decision ever, which is an effective denial. What a writ of mandamus says is it forces the government to make a decision. It forces the government to fulfill a duty that it’s obliged to fulfill.
And, in this case, what these plaintiffs are seeking via an executive order that was issued by President Reagan in the ’80s, is the US has created for itself a policy that it is the duty of the United States to evacuate its citizens from war-torn areas. Here these plaintiffs are asking for that duty to be fulfilled. And we know that it is a duty because it’s an order that was relied upon by President Clinton. Even earlier there was an evacuation that the US helped facilitate, about a 100 Yemenis of the Jewish faith that were evacuated from Yemen. So this is the policy of the US government and we are hopeful that a court will see that and compel actions to be taken.
GOSZTOLA: Can you talk a little bit about any of the people who are plaintiffs? What kind of experiences are these people going through? They’re here in the United States and this horrible warfare is going on back home. Can you talk about what they are going through personally?
ABBAS: Sure. Many of the plaintiffs that are part of this legal action are residents of different parts of Michigan and traveled to Yemen either to visit family that they have there, to take care of relatives that they have there, to tend to family matters as people often do when they are part of a diaspora. For instance, Rashid Mohamed Sadi, along with his wife and kids, traveled to Yemen earlier this year to visit family, which is a typical and important part of keeping in touch with their roots. And they arrived in Yemen just a few days before Saudi Arabia began its military attacks inside of Yemen.
What makes this situation even more upsetting for many of the plaintiffs is that undoubtedly the United States had advanced warning that Saudi Arabia was going to begin its military attacks inside of Yemen. And had the US provided information that Saudi Arabia was going to commence a bombing campaign inside of Yemen, many of these people would have, to the extent possible, delayed their travel or not chosen to go to Yemen.
So in a lot of ways, it’s a double betrayal. There’s the sense among the people that are part of this lawsuit who are stuck in Yemen, as well as their families that’s working for their evacuation here in the United States—There is a sense the US could have done something to let them know they were about to enter what’s turning into a regional war. And then on the other hand now that they are, it appears to the families and individuals who are stuck there that the US has simply abandoned them.
The overwhelming sensation of abandonment that the people that I represent in this lawsuit—it’s palpable. Immigrants are always the most proud citizens. It’s something that is an accomplishment and status that, for folks who are born in the United States, we just take for granted. But, for individuals who become naturalized citizens, it represents the culmination of perhaps a lifetime of aspiring to live and work and obtain permanent status inside the US. And here the United States’ actions are reminding many Yemeni Americans that they’re not in the eyes of the federal government as are those from other countries or those that are born here. And I think that abandonment coupled with the chaos that they’re all experiencing is leading to a lot of despair.
KHALEK: When I see what’s happening with the situation with Yemeni Americans, the only Americans that have been killed abroad have been people of Yemeni descent. Is that right? Americans targeted on Obama’s kill list.
ABBAS: In Yemen, yes.
KHALEK: So, it just seems to me when it comes to Yemenis specifically the US seems to look at them as a lower hierarchy of citizenship, where they don’t get the same perks as other Americans because they have ties to Yemen.
ABBAS: Absolutely. It’s not lost on the Yemeni community in the US that the US government has been very willing to send drones into Yemen and unwilling to send ships and planes to evacuate American citizens that are there. That contrast is something that leaves the indelible impression that Yemeni Americans are not viewed worthy to risks inherit to an evacuation. Even the Department of State has thankfully, at the very least, had to listen great questions from reporters over the last several weeks about why the US hasn’t evacuated its own citizens.
The spokesman last week began her answer. The question was all these other countries have evacuated their citizens. Why hasn’t the US evacuated its own citizens? And the State Department spokesperson began her own answer saying it’s not that we can’t. And that’s exactly what’s causing so much despair among those that are stuck in Yemen and their families in the US. Everybody knows that the US, if it decided to, would be able to evacuate its citizens from Yemen. So, the question is why isn’t the US evacuating its citizens.
And one of the points that we make in the lawsuit is that this really isn’t a decision that the United States is making about what it is able to do and not able to do. It’s a decision that’s being made in light of who is at risk. Here, because Yemeni Americans are the ones who are at risk, those that are stranded in Yemen, the US does not seem to have any urgency in conducting evacuation operations that they would likely conduct were it any other people aside from let’s say Somali Americans stuck in Somalia.
KHALEK: Just on a side note. In 2006, when Israel was bombing Lebanon, my dad and my little sister were visiting family there. And the US State Department—the US in general was very lazy about evacuating people but they did it. They eventually did it. It was not pleasant and it was not easy but they did it. So, yeah, it just seems crazy that in the case of Yemen there is no option.
ABBAS: Yeah, and there really isn’t. And in Lebanon in 2006 the US ended up evacuating 15,000 citizens in one of the largest evacuation operations that the US has ever conducted.
KHALEK: And don’t get me wrong. They made them pay for the tickets too. Which is funny. But, yeah, they did. They’re capable of evacuating people clearly. They’ve done it in the past so this is insane.
ABBAS: Structurally, the situation is similar. In Lebanon, you had a close US ally bombing a country with US weapons that the US was able to coordinate with. Don’t bomb here because we’re evacuating at that point. Here is a similar situation. The countries that are conducting the bombings of US allies. They would surely coordinate their actions with the US government efforts to evacuate.
I think in this case the US government has made the calculation that Yemeni Americans are so inherently dangerous that taking in an influx of Yemeni Americans back into the US via evacuation in my mind might be a risk the US government does not want to take. That’s the impression that Yemeni Americans get when they see their government fail to act to protect them and I think it’s consistent with the way the US government has used Yemeni Americans as a danger to be managed rather than citizens to be protected.
GOSZTOLA: Just to clarify. Are you saying susceptible to radicalization if brought back to the United States?
ABBAS: Yeah, part of the federal government’s approach to the Muslim community at large and the Yemeni community in particular has been that security requires absolute knowledge of what’s happening in those particular communities. And we know, for instance, from government documents that were leaked about the federal terrorist watch list that travel to particular countries can cause a person to be listed on those federal watch lists.
One of the reasons for the government to fail to act in this case—Their view would be that they’re just increasing the risk by “importing” Yemeni Americans by the thousands back into the US.
GOSZTOLA: Some of the Americans that are stuck in Yemen—It’s my understanding that there is this issue with their passports being revoked by the State Department. Is that something that you’re concerned about as you pursue this lawsuit?
ABBAS: There’s many individuals from various Middle Eastern countries, in particular from Yemen, who have gone to either renew their passport or let’s say add pages to their passport, routine administrative actions that typically an embassy will turn around in two days, three days, maybe a week. But when people of Yemeni descent go to do these things they just lose their passport and without a passport they’re unable to travel back to the US.
So what we’ve been concerned about—and several other organizations are involved in litigation about this very issue—is that the US government is systematically taking the position that Yemeni Americans—If they can take away their passport, they do, and those people end up more stuck than others. Because, for instance, earlier this week a Russian vessel ended up evacuating several hundred people stranded in Yemen and of those a little bit less than 200 were American citizens. Even if the US doesn’t, some other countries are seeing this as a humanitarian issue and evacuating those that can be evacuated. But it will complicate and perhaps stop completely a person’s ability to board a foreign country’s boat or ship if they don’t have a US passport.
That’s not the subject of this particular legal action, but it’s part of the context that leads Yemeni Americans, as well as people who are paying attention, that the US government’s failure to act is but the latest indication that it treats Yemeni Americans as second class citizens.