Yemeni Immigrants Stranded under the Muslim Ban finally Welcomed to the U.S., while their Home Country is in Tatters
By: John P. Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer
As the civil war in their country continued unabated, Yemeni Arabs initially blocked from the U.S. by the Trump Muslim Ban were hit harder than other Arabs, since their country continued to be torn by war, starvation, and disease. Here, we review the status of those Yemenis who were winners of the diversity lottery, then stranded under the Trump ban. We also examine the complexity of the civil war involving Iran and the Saudis, as well as other international actors, and the potential for peace in that tortured region. Contributing writer John Mason walks us through the issues.
Biden reversal of Trump Muslim Ban finally benefits Yemenis with Temporary Protected Status
The Biden administration has finally extended temporary protected status that will allow people from Yemen to stay in the U.S. temporarily because of the turmoil from the civil war there. Originally the banned lottery recipients were to be represented in a federal lawsuit challenging the State Department’s refusal to process visa applications for winners of the U.S. Diversity Visa Program lottery who come from the six countries covered by President Trump’s Muslim Ban.
Previously, the disappointed lottery winners, including Yemenis, had been through a rigorous application process, including an interview to determine education status, at least two years of qualifying work experience, and a raft of other required documents for themselves and family members. It was reported that many of the Yemeni winners had gone the distance in readying themselves to leave for the U.S.—they left their jobs, sold their homes, cars businesses, and even the jewelry of their mothers or their wives to afford the trip.
The Department of Homeland Security said, according to the Associated Press, in announcing the decision Tuesday that about 2,100 Yemenis and their families will benefit from the extension and re-designation of temporary protected status. They will be allowed to live and work in the U.S. through March 2023, though the program does not automatically grant them a path to American citizenship. It was reported that their temporary protected status was due to expire in September.
In supporting its rationale for giving special status to the Yemenis, “DHS cited the worsening humanitarian and economic conditions that prevent people from Yemen from returning to their homes. The country has been embroiled in a civil war since 2014. There is also widespread famine, a cholera outbreak that has raged since 2016 and the effects of the pandemic.” Several countries have been granted temporary status, which include Myanmar, El Salvador, Haiti and Venezuela. In contrast, the Trump administration tried to get rid of the program but was deterred by legal challenges.
Yemen entwined in International Conflict involving Iran and Saudi Arabia
The conflict in Yemen, tantamount to a civil war, has been exacerbated by the involvement of Iran on the side of the Houthi force and Saudi on the government’s side. Oman is also playing the role along with the U.S., of mediator, in seeking direct talks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia. Oman’s purpose is to bring the two parties to the negotiating table and especially to end Saudi involvement in the war, whose support of the Yemeni government dates to March 2015.
Positions on a Saudi offer of a nationwide ceasefire in Yemen were rejected by the Houthis in March, according to an Al-Jazeera report. The Houthis have pressed for the unconditional reopening of Yemen’s Sanaa airport and full access to the port of Hodeida, where most of the country’s food comes through. Without that, the Houthis say they do not want to discuss a full ceasefire with the Saudis. The Saudis, in turn, want guarantees of their own security. The elephant in the room, Iran, is given a little mention in these discussions, though its entrenchment of Yemen’s southern border is unacceptable to the Saudis.
The Houthis, however, believe they have the upper hand militarily. They hold a large part of Yemen’s populated northern and central highlands, giving them a sense that they can call the shots for any peace agreement. Houthis are also on a strong footing for taking Marib, one of the government’s last key areas. They are also threatening Saudi territory with missile and drone attacks.
International Efforts to end War along with Extreme Humanitarian Suffering
The Biden administration has beefed up efforts to end the war in Yemen, including putting a stop to supporting Saudi-led offensive operations there. To smooth the way towards negotiations, it also dropped the Houthis from the State Department of foreign terrorist organizations. U.S. envoy Tim Lenderking gave legitimacy to the Houthis, stating, “My experience from the Houthis is that they have spoken about a commitment toward peace in Yemen and I think there are certain elements within the leadership that favor that.”
So far, diplomacy has been terribly slow to bring about real progress in resolving seemingly intractable differences between the Houthis and the Saudis. With the U.S. and the Kingdom of Oman serving as interlocutors, there is evidence of direct talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Iran, though not directly involved in the command of the Houthis, provides weapons components that the Houthis assemble in Yemen, these weapons are used in Houthi cross-border attacks on the Saudis. U.S. diplomatic efforts have encouraged the resumption of the UN-led peace process.
The reality on the ground confronting the diplomats, however, is disturbing. According to an analysis by New America, “Biden’s diplomatic strategy is already confronting a complex situation on the ground that leaves diplomats with few easy answers. In February, the Houthis doubled down on their year-long offensive on Marin, a strategically important area that is the last northern stronghold of forces aligned with the internationally recognized government of Yemen. The Houthi offensive in Marib, were somewhere between 1 and 2 million displaced Yemenis reside, has included indiscriminately fired artillery and missiles into heavily populated areas … causing mass displacement and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.” In the absence of an immediate cease-fire, an even worse situation could follow.
The U.S. has taken some criticism because it favors the Saudis against the Iranians. It is clear, in fact, that the Biden administration advocates for Saudi’s principal security interests, especially in the face of what is perceived Iranian aggression. Nevertheless, it is believed that even in the absence of a neutral U.S. mediating role, it can still play a valuable role in negotiating an end to this horrific civil war.
An Appeal to Biden to Help Yemen
Biden has been a proponent of ending the conflict in Yemen, his proposal hinging on the U.N. leading negotiations in pressuring the Saudis to end their military support of the Yemeni government. These negotiations however, several months later, are not moving anywhere. It seems that the Saudis have objected to U.S. opposition to continued Saudi military actions in Yemen. A noteworthy perspective is recorded in a War on the Rocks.com release from a few days ago.
This report proposes that “An effective strategy for ending Yemen’s civil war should couple a renewed commitment to pushing back against the Houthis militarily with a new approach to negotiations that draw in a broader cross-section of Yemenis and builds on on-going local initiatives.” So, continued military conflict is assumed to be a necessary outcome of the situation of the Saudis and Yemeni forces and those of the Houthis prior to any peaceful result.
In other words, no military victory on the ground is expected under this approach and the U.S. will continue to help the Saudis push back the Houthis until a negotiation is possible. The approach also includes a bottom-up perspective, in which all segments of Yemeni society participate. And Yemeni representatives of civil society have stepped forward to promote their interests, especially in conflict areas.
In underscoring the help it sees as essential from the Biden people, the advocated approach calls for the following: “By demonstrating incontrovertibly that the military faction cannot succeed, Biden can further empower those who favor negotiations. To this end, the U.S. administration and the international community should commit to sustaining the Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign. This does not mean defeating the Houthi movement. It does mean preventing a Houthi takeover of the Mareb and neighboring al-Jawf governorates.
This prescription has a bit of ‘fighting fire with fire’ about it, but it seems to make sense from this vantage point.
“US extends temporary protected status to people from Yemen,” Associated Press, 7/6/2021
“Giving Diplomacy a Chance in Yemen,” New America, 7/18/2021
“How Biden can help Yemen,” War on the Rocks.com, 7/15/2021
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He did fieldwork in an east Libyan Saharan oasis and has taught at the University of Libya-Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo. John served with the United Nations as an advisor in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, the UN, and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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