N.Y. Photographer Suddenly Deported to War-torn Yemen Told ICE: “My Life is in Danger”

Hazaea “Anwar” Alomaisi says he feels like he’s living in a nightmare. The 42-year-old Yemeni photographer was unexpectedly deported from the U.S. on January 28 following a scheduled meeting with immigration officials.

Alomaisi, who had spent 22 years in the U.S., was told during his meeting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that he was not allowed to go back home. Instead, the 42-year-old wildlife photographer was sent to the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny, New Jersey.

Speaking from Yemen, Alomaisi told The North Star that he was clear with immigration officials that his life would be in imminent danger if he were to be deported to his war-torn country.

“I understand you’re doing your job but my life is in danger,” he remembered telling immigration officials.

Alomaisi has been outspoken against the Houthi armed movement, which fight on behalf of Yemen’s Zaidi Shia Muslim minority against the official Yemeni government, and a return to Yemen puts him in grave danger.

Yet his pleas were ignored.

Instead, Alomaisi was dragged away in handcuffs, he said, and placed on a plane at John F. Kennedy Airport bound for Yemen, his hands bound the entire flight, including during a stop in Egypt.

Alomaisi was deported before he was even able to see his attorney, say goodbye to his family, including aunts, uncles and cousins, or appeal the decision.

Kai De Graaf, Alomaisi’s attorney, told The North Star that immigration officials told him early on January 28 that his client had already been deported. “You’re too late,” De Graaf recalled an immigration official telling him. He later found out that Alomaisi was flown out that night.

De Graaf said he too explained to immigration officials that Alomaisi feared for his life back in Yemen due to his activities in the United States. But Immigration officials claimed Alomaisi never mentioned any such thing.

ICE did not respond to The North Star’s requests for comment on Alomaisi’s case.

Alomaisi has to maintain a low profile while in the countryside in order to avoid being recognized, but the attention his case has received has made that difficult. When someone asks him about his identity, Alomaisi tells them he’s not that American in the news they’ve heard about, or that that guy resembles his cousin.

Anything to keep from telling the truth.

Alomaisi was a beloved environmental photographer in New York. (Courtesy of Hazaea “Anwar” Alomaisi)

Since arriving in the U.S. on a tourist visa in 1998, Alomaisi did his best to integrate into his Peekskill, New York community. For 22 years, he paid his taxes, had a clean criminal record and always attended his scheduled visits with immigration officials. He was widely known for his wildlife photography and also volunteered with the Red Cross in Westchester County.

“I love [the United States] so much,” Alomaisi told The North Star. He said the country was “beautiful” and that Americans gave him a lot of love. “I love them and am grateful [for their support],” he said.

Alomaisi, who was previously married to an American woman, was unable to secure a green card. De Graff told Westchester Journal News that an immigration judge issued a final order of removal for his client in 2006. During his last scheduled meeting with immigration officials, Alomaisi was told they were finally acting on that order.

The Yemeni American Merchants Association (YAMA) told The North Star that it was shocked by Alomaisi’s sudden deportation. YAMA spokesperson Dr. Debbie Almontaser said that unfortunately the organization was unable to stop the deportation as it happened so quickly. Almontaser said YAMA is looking into options to best advocate for Alomaisi’s return.

“The deportation of Mr. Alomaisi has made us as an organization realize that we need to draw in undocumented Yemenis to create a safety plan for them with our partner organization New Sanctuary Coalition,” Almontaser said in an email. “With such a plan in place we would be able to provide the support they need and put the government on notice.”

De Graff told The North Star that he will now file a post-departure motion to reopen his case and argue that Alomaisi’s due process rights were violated. He also explained that his client now finds himself in a difficult position. While he’s free to leave Yemen, doing so could complicate his case. If Alomaisi were to leave Yemen for a third country, the U.S. could argue that he should instead seek asylum there instead of the U.S.

Situation in Yemen

The conflict in Yemen between the Houthi armed forces and the Yemeni government has been ongoing since 2015. The civil war took hold of the poor Arab country after an Arab Spring uprising ousted longtime president Ali Abdullahlo Saleh, who was in power for 33 years. Saleh’s deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, took power in 2012.

Hadi struggled throughout his presidency, facing corruption, unemployment, food insecurity, a separatist movement in the south and jihadists-led attacks, according to the BBC. Houthis used Hadi’s weakness in order to gain control of the northern part of Saada province and eventually the capital of Sanaa.

Hadi was forced to flee abroad in March 2015. In response, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and seven other regional states launched an air offensive in an attempt to restore Hadi to power. The U.S., U.K. and France aided the coalition with logistical and intelligence support, the BBC reported.

The Saudi-Emirati-led coalition’s fight against the Houthis has brought about devastation to the Yemeni population and has left the country in tatters and on the brink of famine.

To make matters worse, in early August 2019, clashes between southern separatists, backed by the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi-backed forces loyal to Hadi broke out in the city of Aden. The separatists took control of Aden, leading to continued fighting between the two groups, The Washington Post reported. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have continued to support their proxies in the country.

In the five years since the conflict began, analysts say that more than 91,000 people have died, Al Jazeera reported in December 2019. Another 3 million Yemenis have been displaced around Yemen.

Muslim Ban Expanded

Yemen is one of the original countries included in President Trump’s Muslim travel ban. The Trump administration issued a ban that prohibited citizens of Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria and Yemen from entering the U.S. There are exceptions, however, for students from Iran, Libya and Yemen, Bloomberg reported.

Citizens of Somalia who want to immigrate to the U.S. are also banned, but those looking to just visit are not. Some Venezuelan security officials were also included in the travel proclamation.

And on January 31, Trump announced that his administration was adding six countries to the stringent travel ban. The latest version of the ban includes Africa’s biggest economy, Nigeria, as well as Eritrea, Sudan, Tanzania, Myanmar (Burma) and Kyrgyzstan. All six of the new additions to the ban have majority Muslim populations, according to The New York Times.

The proclamation, which bans immigrant visas to citizens of Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea and Kyrgyzstan and stops immigrants from Sudan and Tanzania from the diversity visa lottery, is set to take effect on February 22. Non-immigrant visas, such as student or certain temporary work visas, are not affected by the ban.

Just days before the Trump administration released the updated proclamation, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House would vote on a bill that would eliminate Trump’s Muslim travel ban. The National Origin-Based Anti-discrimination for Nonimmigrants (NO BAN) Act would get rid of the travel ban and limit the president’s authority to pass similar bans in the future.

The NO BAN Act, which has 214 co-sponsors in the House and 38 in the Senate, is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate.

“President Trump and his administration’s continued disdain for our nation’s national security and our founding ideals of liberty and justice dishonor our proud immigrant heritage and the diversity that strengthens and enriches our communities,” Pelosi said in a statement on January 27. “Despite the Administration’s hateful policies and dangerous rhetoric, this fundamental truth remains: Immigrants make America more American.”

Resources for Yemenis Living in the U.S.

YAMA is hosting an emergency immigration clinic on February 9 with Yemeni American attorney Asma Ali in response to Alomaisi’s deportation. Almontaser said YAMA has literature in Arabic for community members to help them with immigration issues. The organization also holds a bi-weekly immigration clinic for the community, know your rights training and Facebook live events on evolving immigration policies.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.