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Rayman Hussein was 10 years old in 1993 when his family moved to the United States from Yemen. His father hoped to provide him with a future free of the political violence and poverty that plagued their homeland. The family began a new life in Oakland, Calif., a city long recognized as an immigrant sanctuary. Within two years, Hussein was a naturalized U.S. citizen. But today he languishes in Yemen, his U.S. passport confiscated on the grounds that it was obtained under a false identity.
He signed a statement to that effect, after what he described as a lengthy interrogation by a State Department investigator at the embassy in Sana’a, who, Hussein alleges, threatened to confiscate his passport if he refused to sign. The moment he signed, his passport was immediately seized — illegally, according to his lawyer and civil rights groups — and he has been granted neither a hearing nor the travel documents that allow an American whose passport has been revoked to return to the U.S.
Hussein is believed to be one of at least 100 Yemeni-Americans in similar circumstances — a situation that has prompted advocates for those stripped of their passports to suggest that U.S. officials may have intimidated U.S. citizens into confessing identity fraud, then kept them in Yemen without due process.
“The number is probably higher. We don’t have an accurate number because people are afraid to speak out,” said Ibraham Qatabi, an expert on Yemen at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Stories that the U.S. embassy in Yemen was revoking passports began emerging two years ago, he said.
A representative for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs told Al Jazeera that the department has the “authority to revoke a U.S. passport under certain specific conditions, including when issued under a false identity.” The State Department, which oversees U.S. embassies, consulates and the Foreign Service officers who staff them, declined to respond more directly to questions posed concerning Hussein’s case.
But another State Department official familiar with the issue — and who spoke on condition of anonymity — told Al Jazeera that a majority of the passport revocations in Sana’a follow a similar pattern. “Virtually all of the statements say that the individual naturalized under a false identity,” he said. “They appear to be involuntary.”
According to the official, an internal investigation determined that the statements those revocations were based on were obtained under “confrontational” circumstances, with individuals alone in an interview room with an investigative officer and an interpreter who, the official said, treated their subjects “aggressively.”
“We’re talking about an inherently coercive and intimidating environment, without any independent supervision of the interrogator and his translator,” said the official.
Advocates for those stripped of their passports believe the process raises serious constitutional concerns.
“They’re being conducted in violation of federal regulations and citizens’ due process rights,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. Consular officials “cannot take your passport without granting you a hearing," he said. “When they take away a citizen’s passport and don’t inform them that they have the right to return (to the U.S.), that is a grave violation of a very basic protection.”
Growing up in Oakland, Hussein lived a life typical of many young immigrants. He kept connected to family in Yemen, yet he became integrated into American life. Winning the district soccer championship for Willard Middle School “for the first time in 30 years,” he said, remains among his fondest childhood memories.
As a political-science major at nearby San Francisco State University, he continued his Yemen trips. On a 2005 visit, he married a Yemeni-American woman with U.S. citizenship. He returned alone to San Francisco, and after graduation he worked in his family’s grocery store and drove a cab. He says he wanted nothing more than to earn enough money to settle his wife and son in Oakland, where he could give them the kind of life his father had given him.
In 2012, Hussein flew to Yemen to take his family home. “I was excited,” he said. “I didn’t expect to be in Yemen any longer than a couple of months.”
But Yemen had, in the decades since Hussein immigrated to the U.S., had become a growing security concern for the U.S. The bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden harbor in 2000 started the trend, and in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the birthplace of Osama bin Laden’s father became another theater of Washington’s war with Al-Qaeda. The foiled Christmas day underwear bombing attempt on a Detroit-bound airliner and other failed attacks were believed to originate with the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the country became the target of a sustained campaign of drone attacks that have killed hundreds of fighters and civilians.
So it was into the walled and heavily guarded U.S. embassy in Sana’a that Hussein walked with his family in 2012 to apply for his son’s passport. Once inside, embassy employees separated Hussein from his family and took him to a small, windowless room, where he said an investigative officer with the State Department accused him of identity fraud. Hussein had a different name, the officer said, and demanded that he reveal it. Many Yemenis have a patronymic, tribal or geographic name that identifies their origin, which is often shortened for convenience when immigrating to the U.S. That’s what embassy officials used to claim fraud was committed.
Unless he signed a form, Hussein recalled the officer telling him, he would be imprisoned, his U.S. passport would be confiscated, and his son’s application would be denied.
After a lengthy interrogation about the names of his parents, siblings and their tribe, Hussein signed the form saying he had obtained his U.S. passport using a false identity. “After being in there for hours, I gave in. I didn’t realize what it would lead to,” he told Al Jazeera by phone from Yemen.
The moment Hussein signed the statement, he said, the officer seized his passport and told him to leave the embassy. The State Department’s internal guidelines, provided to Al Jazeera by the official, stipulate that an individual must be issued a temporary passport if a case is forwarded to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS): “While the appropriate review is taking place, the applicant should be issued a limited one-year validity passport … or a three-month limited emergency photodigitization passport.”
Hussein said he doesn’t know if his case is up for review. He sent numerous emails to the Sana’a embassy in the month after his was confiscated, asking what he should do. He said the embassy responded with an unsigned email stating that the basis for the revocation was the sworn statement in which he admitted that he had obtained his passport under a fraudulent identity. He has received no answer to his question about how to challenge the decision. Al Jazeera’s emails and calls to the embassy in Sana’a have gone unanswered.
“There are no words to describe my frustration,” said Hussein. “I grew up in Oakland, went to school in Oakland, and now I’m being treated like a complete stranger by my own government.”
Peter Spiro, a Temple University Beasley School of Law professor who specializes in constitutional and immigration law, told Al Jazeera that it is “virtually impossible” to take away an American’s citizenship. Seizing passports, he said, is one way to prevent people from traveling to the United States.
“In this case, they’re not actually seeking to formally revoke citizenship, but by taking passports away, it becomes a proxy citizenship revocation or de facto expatriation. Given that the bar to formal expatriation is so high, it’s an easier way to do it,” he said.
I grew up in Oakland, went to school in Oakland, and now I’m being treated like a complete stranger by my own government.
Yemeni-American whose passport was confiscated
In October, Yaman Salahi, a San Francisco lawyer with the national security and civil rights program at Advancing Justice Asian Law Caucus, filed a Freedom of Information Act request about Hussein’s case and asked for a copy of his sworn statement taken in Sana’a.
The State Department denied Salahi’s request for expedited processing, finding that Hussein could not demonstrate a compelling need — this despite the fact that the State Department had issued an advisory, based on the security risk in Yemen, urging U.S. citizens to leave the country.
Salahi said that although the State Department has the authority to revoke passports in a narrow set of circumstances, it is unusual to use that authority as a means of investigating possible immigration fraud. “Passport revocations are most common in child-support cases or in criminal contexts, such as in the case of a suspected murderer trying to evade authorities,” he said.
Qatabi, at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said that passport revocations like Hussein’s have a social cost. “The inability to travel back home, see family, return to work and the stigma that comes with being viewed with suspicion by one’s own government — this unwarranted practice upsets their whole lives,” he said.
Abdulhakem Alsadah, chair of the National Association of Yemeni-Americans, is calling for greater transparency and oversight at the Sana’a embassy. He said his group has met with State Department officials and Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., to demand an investigation. “We are not saying that the authorities don’t have a right to investigate fraud,” Alsadah said. “What we’re saying is, produce the evidence and give us a chance to challenge the allegations right here in the U.S. This is our right as Americans.”
In one meeting, Alsadah said, a federal official had told him the passport revocations might originate with Yemenis’ “having multiple names.” Salahi noted that the practice of modifying names “for the sake of assimilation” is not uncommon among immigrants to the U.S. from many different countries — a point affirmed on the USCIS website. But the State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity said it is “drilled” into Foreign Service officers that name modifications in Arab cultures are “dishonorable,” creating a pervasive believe that “any name change by an Arab is suspect.”
In December the State Department started issuing notices of appeal to individuals in Yemen whose passports had been revoked, possibly in response to complaints by Yemeni-American groups and lawyers. But lawyers told Al Jazeera the notices of appeal are insufficient because interim travel documents have yet to be issued, leaving stranded those Yemeni-Americans whose U.S. passports were confiscated.
The ACLU’s Arulanantham said the fact that the State Department has initiated appeals reflects an acknowledgment that the initial revocations are open to legal challenge and urged that steps be taken to ensure that the process used in Sana’a is not repeated.
Meanwhile, Hussein continues to wonder why he is in Yemen. He said that his experience has inspired him to become an immigration attorney — that is, if he ever gets home. “I never imagined a simple trip to the embassy would result in the loss of my rights and leave me stranded here,” he said. “I just want to go home.”