Stripped of the Right to Travel

Typically, an expedited passport application takes eight business days to process. In the case of Mr. Ahmed Nagi, over 16 months after he submitted an expedited passport renewal application, it remains pending without any explanation. His story is just one example of those of many Yemeni American Muslims who have similarly waited for an indefinite period of time for their passport applications to be processed. In fact, the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI) estimates that several dozen such Yemeni American Muslims in Michigan alone are waiting on their passport applications to be processed.

This week, CAIR-MI filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Nagi that seeks a writ of mandamus to compel the U.S. State Department to process Mr. Nagi's passport renewal application without delay. The lawsuit also challenges the U.S. State Department's unchecked and unconstitutional practice of sitting on passport applications of Yemeni American Muslims indefinitely.

In what appears to be an attempt to restrict the travel of an entire group of Americans, the U.S. State Department's blatant refusal to process passport applications of Yemeni American Muslims is the product of false stigmatization reminiscent of McCarthy-era, guilty-until-proven-innocent, finger-pointing. By sitting on passport applications for an indefinite period of time, the U.S. State Department has not "denied" the applications in the technical sense, thereby allowing it to evade judicial review of its actions. The federal government has therefore effectively taken advantage of a system that does not place restrictions on the time required to process passport applications, thereby depriving Yemeni American Muslims their basic constitutional right to travel without any semblance of due process under the law.

The failure to process passport applications is only the tip of the iceberg. According to a federal government leak released by WikiLeaks, visa applications for relatives of Yemeni Americans are "considered fraudulent until proven otherwise" and routinely tabled indefinitely. Consequently, Yemeni American Muslims are systematically prevented from leaving the U.S., and their non-citizen relatives are systematically prevented from entering the U.S.
Equally disturbing, Yemeni American Muslims who present themselves to the U.S. Embassy in Yemen for any reason are at risk of having their U.S. passports immediately seized for an indefinite period of time. Without passports, these individuals are left stranded in Yemen -- unable to exit the country or to return to their homes in the United States.

The result of these policies: Families have been unable to reunite with no hopes of reuniting in the future, marriages are at risk of being destroyed, and children are being forced to grow up without their parents. Moreover, Yemeni American Muslims are prevented from fulfilling their religious obligation to perform the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca.

Such forms of collective punishment without due process unfairly strip a segment of the American population of arguably one of the most fundamental rights -- the right to travel. A false sense of security is certainly not worth having at the expense of our basic civil rights and civil liberties.