Murtadha Al-Tameemi was in Canada a couple days ago, excited to watch his little brother perform in a high school play, when his immigration attorney called with an urgent command: Get back across the border.
It was an early warning of the executive order President Donald Trump signed Friday banning entry for people from seven majority-Muslim nations in the Middle East.
The administration calls it an extra layer of security to keep out foreign terrorists plotting attacks in the United States. Critics say it’s unnecessary and ineffective, especially because it omits Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan – places with entrenched extremist forces.
Al-Tameemi knows it as the order that will keep him from seeing his family.
An Iraqi-born software engineer at Facebook’s Seattle office, Al-Tameemi, 24, spent eight years alone in the United States before his family was resettled in 2015 right across the border in Canada. The short commute has allowed the family to spend weekends and holidays together, making up for the years stolen by war.
Now, with the stroke of a pen, Trump has turned that three-hour trip from Seattle to Vancouver into an impassable route. As Iraqi refugees, Al-Tameemi’s family can’t visit him in the United States. And as an Iraqi on a work visa, Al-Tameemi can no longer pop over to Canada – he wouldn’t be allowed to return.
“There was relief that I made it back in time, but still the anxiety of being stuck here,” Al-Tameemi said in a phone interview. “I feel that anxiety, that uncertainty, the feeling of someone holding all the cards and deciding your fate. Basically, the next few months of my life will be determined by an executive order.”
Trump’s moves freeze refugee admissions and temporarily block people from seven nations from entering with visas: Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Syria. Those nations are either on the list of terrorism-sponsoring countries or have been flagged by the government as countries of concern. The order is aimed squarely at Muslim nations, but without other big players on the list, it falls far short of the “Muslim ban” Trump promised on the campaign trail.
It infuriates Al-Tameemi to hear people on TV talk about America’s “porous borders” or the need for “extreme vetting” of foreigners entering the United States. If only they knew, he said, about the probing searches, intrusive questions and small indignities he faces each time he travels outside the country for work or to see his family.
We are being feared as potential threats to national security when we have been the very victims of violence and terrorism.
There’s also a feeling he can’t quite describe – “outrage” is close, he said – in being viewed as a security threat when his family’s only wish was to escape the bloody civil war that followed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“We are being feared as potential threats to national security when we have been the very victims of violence and terrorism – these acts tore my family apart,” Al-Tameemi said.
The procedure for returning to the United States varies slightly depending on the port of entry, but the basic drill is the same: he goes through the main border control point along with all travelers and then invariably lands in the secondary inspection room. That’s where his passport is added to a queue and the wait begins to speak with an officer, perhaps the same one he had the week before, who begins anew each time with questions about his family, his travels, his religion.
“I’ve gone to that room every single time I’ve entered the United States in the past 10 years,” Al-Tameemi said. “As a frequent traveler, you’d think that I’ve established trust by now and would be allowed in the country, but I’m still scrutinized every single time as if it’s my first time, as if they don’t have my information on a screen in front of them.”
Murtadha Al-Tameemi came to the United States as a high school exchange student and was separated from his family for eight years while war raged in Iraq. When the survivors of his family were resettled in Canada, he could visit them.
It’s a crapshoot as to what kind of experience he’ll face in the questioning room, but there’s always an element of humiliation.
In plain sight, he said, authorities go through a traveler’s cell phone, sometimes laughing or commenting as they scroll through the photos. He’s seen an immigration officer loudly berate a foreign traveler for “staring” at him; Al-Tameemi said the man had appeared confused and unable to speak fluent English.
In accordance with the admissions procedures, Al-Tameemi said, officers read his email and scan his Facebook friends, sometimes pausing to ask: “How do you know this guy? What’s the nature of your relationship with this other one?”
Al-Tameemi recalled watching border guards rifle through his bags, inspecting every belonging. Once, an officer demanded to know where Al-Tameemi’s Quran was and didn’t seem to grasp the response that he wasn’t particularly religious and, besides, most Muslims didn’t go about their daily lives toting the sacred book. He also insisted that Al-Tameemi divulge his “tribal name” and refused to believe that an Iraqi might not use one.
Sometimes, Al-Tameemi said, officers try to trip him up in questioning. They’ll ask about “the last time” he was in Syria instead of asking whether he’s ever been. He tells them he’s never visited Syria. They’ll move on to other questions and then ask, “So, when again was the last time you were in Syria?”
“I would love to trade passports with anybody who says our borders are lax,” Al-Tameemi said. “I’d love to say, try coming into the country as me and see how it is.”
The worst experience, Al-Tameemi said, was the time he was returning from a business trip to South Africa. The immigration officer was confused about the length of his visa and Al-Tameemi was pushing back, urging him to look at previous entries in his passport to clear it up. Another officer butted in and told Al-Tameemi to stop arguing; he replied, “I’m talking to this officer – I’m not talking to you.”
The officer got her manager, who confronted Al-Tameemi .
“The boss came over and said, ‘I just heard you disrespected my officer,’” Al-Tameemi recalled. “He said, ‘I’m going to stand here and watch you apologize to her and if you don’t, I’m going to put you on a plane so fast you won’t even know what happened to you.’ ”
Al-Tameemi apologized to the officer, though he said he’d never felt “so small.”
Still, Al-Tameemi emphasized, not all border officers throw around their power. He’s felt heartened by the sympathetic comments and looks he gets from ones who know his face from his frequent trips. He counts nearly 50 crossings in the past two years alone.
“Because I’ve gone through so many times, some of the officers would recognize me and wave me over to process me through quickly,” Al-Tameemi said. “They would sometimes apologize and say, ‘Sorry, can’t do anything about it, but the system makes us send you through this extra screening.’ Some of them have been real humans about it.”
On the night Al-Tameemi got the call alerting him to the looming executive order, he stopped for a moment to consider his options: Should he rush to the airport and miss out on his brother’s performance? Or could he risk that he had enough time to watch the play and still make it across before Trump signed?
He thought about the family’s years apart. He’d come to the United States in 2007 on a high school program, living with a host family in Minnesota and graduating from a high school in Duluth. He was only able to go to college, he said, because of the generosity of American friends who helped with application fees and tuition, urging him to keep studying.
All the while, Al-Tameemi’s family was still in Iraq, with a raging sectarian war that would fuel the rise of the Islamic State. Al-Tameemi’s father and older brother were killed in a suicide bombing. His mother and two other brothers joined the refugee exodus to Jordan and eventually were resettled in Vancouver, thanks to the efforts of a sympathetic church group. By that time, Al-Tameemi had graduated and was working at Facebook in Seattle.
The long separation had ended and the family, now smaller because of death, embraced the chance for a new life. Al-Tameemi said they went hiking and rock-climbing and camping. They ran in a 10k race, had their first snowball fight and joined in Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations. Al-Tameemi’s mother learned to ride a bike and even tried surfing off Vancouver Island.
Those moments were precious to Al-Tameemi. He decided the play was important enough to gamble that he could still beat the order if he left early the next day. His little brother is passionate about theater and Al-Tameemi was determined to be there for his stage debut. After the show, the family stayed up late talking about the play, trying to have a good time even though they knew that another open-ended separation loomed.
Al-Tameemi left for the airport at 4 a.m. while his family was still sleeping. He wanted to make sure to check in as early as possible in hopes of getting cleared before the executive order was announced. He said he’d never seen the secondary inspection room so full of Muslims. He made it back on U.S. soil 48 hours before Trump signed. The order took effect immediately.
“It felt really special to have that night with my family,” Al-Tameemi said. “If this means goodbye for a little while, it was a nice night to leave on, to have that connection, that closeness. I would’ve been devastated if I’d had to give that up.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Trump’s executive order contained a 30-day grace period. It took effect immediately.