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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 January 2019

Yemeni mother arrives in US to see dying son

Immigration lawyers estimate tens of thousands have been affected by blanket denials of visa applications

Shaima Swileh, center with her back turned, is greeted by supporters after arriving at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco. AP
Shaima Swileh, center with her back turned, is greeted by supporters after arriving at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco. AP

A Yemeni mother who fought for the right to see her dying son has arrived in California after the Trump administration gave her a long-sought waiver to its travel ban.

Shaima Swileh was mobbed by well-wishers at San Francisco International Airport on Wednesday night.

"This is a difficult time for our family but we are blessed to be together," the boy's father, Ali Hassan, said at the airport. "I ask you to respect our privacy as we go to be with our son again."

Mr Hassan and Ms Swileh, wearing dark glasses and a white headscarf, were then driven away to see their two-year-old son, Abdullah, at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in Oakland.

Citizens from Yemen and four other mostly Muslim countries, along with North Korea and Venezuela, are restricted from coming to the United States under the travel ban enacted under President Donald Trump.

The State Department granted Ms Swileh a waiver on Tuesday after lawyers with the Council on American-Islamic Relations sued this week, ending her family's yearlong battle.

"This will allow us to mourn with dignity," the boy's father had said in an earlier statement.

Mr Hassan, who is a US citizen and lives in Stockton, brought Abdullah to California in the fall to get treatment for a genetic brain disorder.

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Read more:

Yemeni mother wins US visa fight to visit dying son

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"My wife is calling me every day wanting to kiss and hold her son for the one last time," Mr Hassan said, choking up as he made a public plea at a news conference on Monday, a day before the government granted the visa.

The couple moved to Egypt after marrying in war-torn Yemen in 2016 and had been trying to get a visa for Ms Swileh since 2017 so the family could move to California.

When the boy's health worsened, Mr Hassan went ahead to California in October to get their son help. As the couple fought for a waiver, doctors put Abdullah on life support.

"I am emailing them, crying, and telling them that my son is dying," Mr Hassan said in an interview with The Sacramento Bee newspaper.

He started losing hope and was considering pulling his son off life support to end his suffering. But then a hospital social worker reached out to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which sued on Monday, said Basim Elkarra, executive director of the group in Sacramento.

Ms Swileh lost months with her child over what amounted to unnecessary delays and red tape, Mr Elkarra said.

State Department spokesman Robert Palladino called it "a very sad case, and our thoughts go out to this family at this time, at this trying time."

He said he could not comment on the family's situation but that in general cases are handled individually, and US officials try to facilitate legitimate travel to the United States while protecting national security.

Ali Hassan with his dying two-year-old son Abdullah in a Sacramento hospital. AP
Ali Hassan with his dying two-year-old son Abdullah in a Sacramento hospital. AP

"These are not easy questions," he said. "We've got a lot of foreign service officers deployed all over the world that are making these decisions on a daily basis, and they are trying very hard to do the right thing at all times."

Immigration attorneys estimate tens of thousands of people have been affected by what they call blanket denials of visa applications under Mr Trump's travel ban, which the US Supreme Court upheld in a 5-4 ruling in June.

The waiver provision allows a case-by-case exemption for people who can show entry to the US is in the national interest, is needed to prevent undue hardship and would not pose a security risk.

But a lawsuit filed in San Francisco says the administration is not honoring the waiver provision. The 36 plaintiffs include people who have had waiver applications denied or stalled despite chronic medical conditions, prolonged family separations or significant business interests.

"We hope this case makes the administration realise the waiver process is not working," Mr Elkarra said. "Thousands of families have been split apart, including families who have loved ones who are ill and are not able to see them in their final hours. I'm sure there are more cases like this."

In addition to the waiver, the government gave Ms Swileh a visa that will allow her to remain in the United States with her husband and begin a path toward US citizenship, Mr Elkarra said.

Updated: December 20, 2018 02:17 PM

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