Houda waited over two-and-a-half years for her husband to join her in Round Rock, and when his visa application was approved on January 15, it seemed as though they would finally be reunited on U.S. soil. Her husband sold all of his possessions back home in Iraq and was preparing to travel to Turkey to buy plane tickets. If all went as planned, he would arrive the first week of February. Expecting her husband would be here to help pay rent, Houda recently signed a lease on a new apartment and filled it with furniture so she, her husband, and their one-and-a-half year old daughter, Toleen, could start their new lives. But on the evening of Friday, January 27, their plans were shattered when President Donald Trump signed an executive order that prevented people from seven Muslim-majority countries—Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iran, and Iraq—from entering the United States temporarily.
The travel ban ensnared refugees, students, visitors, and even green card-holding legal permanent U.S. residents, hundreds of whom were detained in airports all across the country—including here in Texas—over the weekend while federal agencies and courts sorted out the language of the order and how to implement it. Confusion continues to swirl around the executive order, leaving families like Houda’s in limbo.
“I’m suffering because I’m working here by myself, and I have to be a mother and a father for my daughter,” a teary-eyed Houda, 27, said during an interview at her attorney’s office in Austin, with her brother Mohammed translating. “When I have an emergency or something, and especially when Toleen was a newborn, I’d have to handle everything by myself. I was so happy when I heard my husband finally got his visa, but I was so disappointed when Trump made his decision. We hope he changes his decision after 90 days, but if he doesn’t, I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do if my husband can’t come here, because I can’t go back to my country. I don’t want to raise my daughter without her father. I don’t want my family to be separated.”
Houda’s story is just a snapshot of the lives here in Texas that have been impacted by the travel ban. Among those stories are the Sudanese mother and her eleven-month-old American-born daughter who were both detained at DFW; the Syrian man who worked as a translator for journalists but now can’t move to Texas with his wife, a native of Amarillo; the sixteen-year-old Jordanian high school student in Katy who has been detained by U.S. immigration officials for days since he tried to fly back after renewing his visa in Jordan; and the Syrian father of two who left his family behind to build a new life in Lubbock, but can no longer bring along his wife and kids.
Houda’s attorney, Alexandra Minnaar of the non-profit immigration advocacy organization Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), said she has many clients impacted by the travel ban, including immigrants who live here legally and have loved ones living in refugee camps while awaiting pending visa applications, permanent U.S. residents and green card holders who are unsure if they can travel outside the United States without being barred from re-entering, and dual citizens who don’t know how the order might affect them. Minnaar said it’s been difficult to provide answers. “Organizations like ours are trying to keep up and put information out there as the situation is rapidly changing, but it’s very challenging to be able to give clear guidance right now,” Minnaar said. “I’ve been practicing immigration law for over eight years, and I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
One of Minnaar’s clients, Ali, has been living as a refugee in Texas for four years after he fled the fighting in Iraq (for the safety of Houda and Ali, we’re only using their first names). Two years ago he filed a visa application for his wife, who was still back home in Babylon, and her application was finally approved on January 20, the same day Trump was sworn into office. Trump implemented the travel ban before Ali’s wife was able to leave Iraq, and now she’s stuck there.
Ali, a 48-year-old tow truck driver, said he loves living in Austin and hopes his wife will eventually be allowed to join him there so they can start a family, but if the ban continues, he will have to find another safe country that would take him in—maybe Australia, where his brother lives, or the Emirates, where he lived and worked as an accountant for eight years after he first fled Iraq. The uncertainty of his future plagues Ali. “I’m thinking about it 24 hours a day,” the soft-spoken Ali said, in broken English. “Is it OK, is it not OK? I still don’t know the rules. They didn’t tell people before [implementing the ban] so they could be ready. What will I do? Where will I go? I need to decide.” Going back to Iraq, however, is not an option. “There was no safe there, so I go out, and there continues to be no safe there even today,” Ali said. “My country—there is no country. No safe, no country, no home.”
Like Ali, it is also not safe for Houda to return to her home in Iraq. Her three brothers, including Mohammed, all worked for the U.S. Army in Baghdad. Mohammed worked at Camp Taji in northern Baghdad for three years, helping order parts for Army vehicles that broke down or were damaged during the fighting. He worked and slept at the camp, and was only able to see his family when he took time off for vacation. He said the Americans at the camp became like brothers to him, and he has no regrets about serving with the Army. But such work was extremely dangerous for an Iraqi, and it was impossible for Mohammed to keep his job secret.
In 2009, Mohammed heard whispers that the Iraqi government was making a list of people who worked for the U.S. Army. His family began receiving letters, accusing them of being traitors. He said some of his friends who also worked for the Army were visited at home by people dressed as Iraqi police, and then within a few days, his friends would be gone, never to be heard from again. Soon, people from the Iraqi government began visiting Mohammed’s house too, asking questions about him and his family. Mohammed fled in 2009, and he has never returned. “I’m scared of my government first, and then terrorists,” Mohammed said. “I can’t send my sister back to Iraq. I really worry about her, and I feel really bad, like it’s my fault, like I put her in that situation.”
It was a long and arduous process for Houda to get to the United States in the first place. She began filing the proper paperwork in August 2014—first, a family petition, then the actual visa application. Houda’s application was approved after five months, but her husband’s application took longer. He passed an interview in May 2016, passed his background check on November 3, and got his visa on November 23. But the U.S. Embassy in Iraq made a mistake on his visa, listing the expiration date as October 2016, rather than October 2017. So Houda’s husband had to send it back, and underwent a second medical exam because his first had expired while he was waiting for his new visa. He finally received the corrected visa on January 15—less than two weeks before Trump signed the executive order.
Houda’s husband was still waiting for his visa in Iraq when Toleen was born. “This was a very important moment for him and he was supposed to be with me,” Houda said. “But he wasn’t there. [Toleen] doesn’t know her father yet. She sees my brother and thinks it’s her father.” Houma’s been living with Mohammed while working as a nurse’s aide and taking accounting classes at Austin Community College (she has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Iraq, and was working as an accountant at a construction company before she left). She signed a lease for a new apartment in early February, but will have to cancel it. Without her husband’s help, there’s no way she would be able to support herself and Toleen on her own.
“I was really optimistic to come here,” Houda said. “But now unfortunately I’m really disappointed. I wish Trump will change his decision. It’s going to effect a lot of people and separate families. Not all the people are the same. I wish that before he makes his decision, he studies well. I want to tell him that this is my community, this is my home. I don’t have anything back in Iraq. My life is going to be dangerous there.”