Imagine that you are a US citizen living or traveling abroad. Imagine that you go to the US Embassy to avail yourself of its “Consular Services” as a US citizen. Then imagine that embassy staff confiscate your US passport.
That’s what’s been happening to many, perhaps most, Yemeni-American US citizens who make the unwitting mistake (!) of showing their US passports at the entrance to the US Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen.
US citizens who have contacted us from Yemen for assistance have told us they believe that there are 500 or more US citizens now stranded in Sana’a, unable to leave Yemen or to return to the US without their passports.
One Yemeni-American who phoned us from Sana’a described going to the US Embassy to apply for a new US passport for his newborn child. Any child of a US citizen is entitled by birth and parentage to US citizenship, and passports for children of US citizens born abroad are routinely issued by US embassies.
But instead of leaving the embassy with a new passport for his child, this Yemeni-American US citizen left the US Embassy without his own passport, which was confiscated without warning by embassy staff. Other Yemeni-Americans have had their US passports seized when they visited the US Embassy in Sana’a for consular services in conjunction with Social Security or veterans’ benefits, visa or immigration applications for non-US citizen relatives, absentee voting in U.S. elections, or authentication of documents for other US government purposes.
A cable to Washington from the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a in 2009 released by Wikileaks (presumably among those leaked by whistleblower Bradley Manning) revealed that the embassy in Sana’a was already treating all immigrant visa applications as “considered fraudulent until proven otherwise.” The current treatment of US passport holders suggests the embassy has expanded this presumption to US passports in Yemeni-American hands. It’s a clear-cut case of discrimination against certain US citizens on the basis of Yemeni national origin.
The seizure of passports from US citizens at the US Embassy in Sana’a was first reported last year in Yemeni expatriate publications, around the time we were first contacted from Yemen by one of the affected individuals. But most of those affected were understandably unwilling to be identified publicly, lest it reduce their chances of getting out of limbo. It took some time for the scope of the problem to become apparent, for the story to be picked up by mainstream media, and for some of those U.S. citizens stranded in Yemen to begin to begin to identify themselves and tell their stories publicly.
A coalition of civil liberties organizations has now launched a bilingual English and Arabic website, MyEmbassyRights.US, including information on legal assistance and a downloadable “Know Your Rights” informational pamphlet for US citizens preparing to deal with the US Embassy in Sana’a.
Yemen appears to be the new “axis of evil” in the minds of those directing the US “war on terror”. Most of the remaining prisoners in Guantanamo, who are still being detained, despite the fact that even the US government concedes that they are “eligible” for release, are Yemeni citizens. Merely having visited Yemen has been deemed sufficient to deny entry to the US to citizens of other countries. Many of those US citizens who have been placed on the US government’s no-fly list while abroad, and told that they could get off the no-fly list and return home to the US only if they became FBI informers, have been Yemeni-Americans. Yemeni-American US citizens, especially those who have traveled to Yemen, have been subjected to a wide range of harassment and overt and covert US government sanctions.
Confiscation, revocation, or denial of an application for a passport does not constitute denial or revocation of US citizenship. But US laws and regulations now require a US citizen to possess a US passport to enter or leave the US by any means of transport, including crossing US land borders as a pedestrian. As a result, lack of a passport constitutes a strict legal bar to departure from the or return to the US by a US citizen, unless a standardless, “discretionary” waiver of the passport requirement is issued. Such a waiver can be revoked at any time, without notice or cause. So even if such a one-time or open-ended waiver is granted, a US citizen who is allowed to return to the US on the basis of such a waiver may never be allowed to leave the US again. Similarly, a US citizen who believes the US on the basis of such a waiver may never be allowed to return.
The denial of a passport application is subject to judicial review. But the confiscation or revocation of a passport is not deemed to constitute “denial” of a passport. In theory, a US citizen is free to apply for a new passport, and to appeal to the courts if and when their application is denied. In practice, if the State Department wants to prevent an individual from obtaining a passport, without having its action be subject to judicial review, the State Department indefinitely delays making, or notifying the applicant of, any “final” decision on the passport application. The State Department agreed to some changes in 2009 to settle a class-action lawsuit challenging discriminatory passport issuance delays, but these practices appear to have continued.
Sometimes the passport application goes into a black hole. In other cases, each inquiry by the applicant as to the status of their passport application is responded to with new demands for additional information. It’s in this context, as a pretext for Indefinitely delaying disfavored passport applications, that the State Department developed its new, impossible to complete, “long form” for selected passport applicants.
So far as we know, there has not yet been any legal challenge to the passport seizures. Anyone who has been affected and is potentially interested in participating in such a challenge should contact the organizations listed on MyEmbassyRights.US.