posted on 29 January 2017
Special Report from ProPublica
-- this post authored by Charles Orenstein
Hours after landing in New York on Saturday, a doctor at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic was forced to leave the country based on an executive order issued by President Donald Trump that bans visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days.
Her flight to Saudi Arabia took off minutes before a federal judge in New York put a temporary stay on turning back people in such situations.
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Suha Abushamma, 26, is in the first year of an Internal Medicine residency program at the clinic and held an H-1B visa for workers in “specialty occupations." Born and raised in Saudi Arabia, she holds a passport from Sudan, one of the seven countries from which Trump barred visitors.
On Saturday evening, Abushamma was forced to make a choice by Customs and Border Protection agents: She could leave the country voluntarily and withdraw her visa - or she could be forcibly deported, which would have prevented her from coming back to the United States for at least five years. The latter also would have resulted in a permanent black mark on her immigration record.
She asked for a delay but was refused, she said in a FaceTime interview with ProPublica while she was flying over the Atlantic on her way back to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is not one of the countries on Trump’s list, but because Abushamma’s passport is from Sudan, she was told she is covered by the executive order.
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David Leopold, a prominent immigration attorney and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Assocation, had been in contact with Abushamma for hours and was trying to help her stay. He said at one point he told her to give the phone to a Customs and Border Protection agent so he could argue her case.
The agent refused to allow her to delay her flight while the hearing in the Brooklyn federal courthouse was proceeding. On Saturday night, District Court Judge Ann M. Donnelly put a stay on deporting people who hand landed in the U.S. and were covered by the executive order.
Leopold said of Abushamma:
Abushamma had left the U.S. Monday to visit family in Saudi Arabia and then travel to Sudan. Friends alerted her on Wednesday about the possibility that Trump would sign an executive order that could make it difficult for her to return. Though she had planned to be out of the country for two more weeks, she moved quickly to change her plans, obtain a new visa and come back to the U.S. early.
According to her friend, Faris El-Khider, who is a gastroenterology fellow at the Cleveland Clinic and is from Sudan:
A spokesperson for the Cleveland Clinic said the institution was still gathering details about the situation, but ProPublica was able to verify Abushamma’s residency at the clinic through online records.
Abushamma said she landed in New York a little after 11 a.m. Saturday, hoping that she would be let in. At first, her experience with Customs and Border Protection agents seemed normal, until she was directed into a holding area at Terminal One at John F. Kennedy Airport, where she saw another doctor from Iran who works at the Cleveland Clinic. That doctor and her husband both have green cards (making them permanent U.S. residents) and, after a few hours, they were allowed into the country.
Abushamma said she watched as others were questioned - she said there were 30 or more people in the room. Those with green cards, including her colleague, were eventually allowed entry to the country. Those with visas were not.
She texted with her friend El-Khider, who desperately sought legal help for her and advised her to try to stay as long as she could while the matter headed to court.
She said she knew she was in trouble when a representative for Saudi Airlines approached her and told her she would have to book a flight home. Then an officer, whose name she wrote down as T. Lamb, told her her choices:
According to FlightAware, a flight tracking website, the plane pushed back from the gate at 8:29 p.m. and took off at 8:53 p.m. The earliest reports of the judge’s stay of deportations under the executive order came at around 9 p.m.
Abushamma said she couldn’t believe it when she was offered an interview with the Cleveland Clinic, let alone the residency:
Abushamma had to select when to take her vacation last spring, two months before she began working at the clinic. Because there are dozens of residents in the program, creating a calendar takes advanced planning. She decided to go home in late January because she’d had visits from her parents earlier in 2016.
When she departed the U.S. last Monday, she said, “there was no talk at that point" about Trump’s executive order.
Two days later, as word began to leak about the president’s plans, Abushamma said she rushed to come back. She had a visa interview on Wednesday and the officer at the U.S. consulate was “super helpful", telling her about the rumored executive order and advising her to go back as soon as possible. The consulate worker even issued her a visa in one day when it usually takes three business days. Abushamma said:
Abushamma received her passport back with the newly issued visa on Friday and booked the first flight out Saturday morning, leaving at 6 a.m. Saudi time.
Asked what she would do when she landed back in Saudi Arabia, Abushamma said she would try to see if she could get a waiver for the 90-day period in which no visitors from the seven countries are allowed.
Abushamma’s friend El-Khider said he might have found himself in her situation. Though he is a green card holder, he was planning to leave the country last Wednesday to visit Sudan. At the airport, he heard about Trump’s order and decided not to leave.
Leopold, the immigration lawyer, said now that Abushamma has left the U.S. and “voluntarily" canceled her visa, she may not be able to return anytime soon. He said:
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