How 2-year-old American boy’s death exposed cruel waiver process of Trump’s Muslim ban

As President Donald Trump highlighted his administration’s successes during Tuesday’s State of the Union address, U.S. citizen Ali Hassan and his wife, Shaima Swileh, were in attendance to remind the nation of one of Trump’s greatest failures: The separation of families, including the families of U.S. citizens.

Just a month earlier, the couple had buried their two-year-old son, Abdullah, only days after Swileh was finally reunited with her family after a months-long separation due to Trump’s travel ban.

As Abdullah lay dying in a hospital bed in Oakland, he was denied — by his own government — the comfort and affection of his mother. Abdullah’s forced separation from his mother over the last three months of 2018 exposed Trump’s Muslim ban for what it is: A pillar of his xenophobic agenda targeting immigrants.

Despite desperate pleas from family, elected officials and doctors for the State Department to grant Swileh a waiver to enter the country, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo refused to act because Swileh, as a Yemeni national, was barred from entry by the ban. Even though both her son and her husband are American citizens, the embassy ignored 28 frantic attempts by the family to explain the dire situation.

Abdullah had spent his entire life fighting a congenital brain condition that forced him to seek better treatment in the U.S.


In December, doctors informed his family that he had only days to live.

After previous versions of the Muslim ban were struck down by the courts, the latest iteration was supposed to provide a case-by-case waiver process. Applicants like Abdullah’s mother, who would have faced “undue hardship” if the government denied her request to be with her dying son, are supposed to qualify for a waiver.

Documents provided by the Department of State define the standard for an “undue hardship” to mean that an applicant has an urgent circumstance that requires immediate travel to the United States.” Yet her application was ignored for over a year.

It took an international media campaign, a lawsuit and public outrage to shame the Trump administration into granting Swileh the waiver to finally join Abdullah.

Saad Sweilem
Saad Sweilem

The conservative majority emphasized the waiver process as evidence that the ban was based on national security concerns, not on Trump’s emphatic promise for a “complete and total shutdown” of Muslims entering the country. Yet, this case makes it more evident than ever that these Supreme Court justices were, at best, naive.

Abdullah’s short life shined a light on the horrendous realities faced by American families being torn apart from loved ones in Yemen, Iran, Somalia, Libya and Syria. His case makes it clear that the current iteration of the Muslim ban is just as discriminatory and devastating as previous versions. There is no waiver process.

Two years after the establishment of the Muslim ban, Americans must ask: How many more families must suffer — and how many more young children must die — before we hold our government accountable for its inhumane policies toward asylum-seekers?

What’s happening to these families is a moral outrage. We must channel that outrage toward Congress and demand legislation to abolish these racist, discriminatory and anti-American policies.

Saad Sweilem is a civil rights attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), California chapter. He represented Abdullah Hassan’s family in the December 2018 Muslim Ban waiver case. He can be reached at
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