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Yemenis Wait To See If U.S. Government Renews Their Protected Status


Today more than 1,200 people from Yemen find out if they must return home. The U.N. called their country the world's worst humanitarian disaster. Economic collapse and disease followed a civil war and the intervention of outside powers, including Saudi Arabia supported by the U.S.

The 1,200 Yemenis were lucky enough to be outside their country as everything went wrong. They were in the United States. The U.S. granted them temporary protected status, designed for just such a nightmare, letting them stay here until chaos subsides. But it is temporary status, which soon expires. Today the Trump administration decides whether to renew it. The administration already canceled protected status for Haitians and Salvadorans, which led Stephen Seche and others to appeal for Yemenis to stay. He served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2007 to 2010.

STEPHEN SECHE: The security situation has gotten much worse. And there's that real toxic mix in Yemen now. In addition to the war, it's spawned a humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions, the collapse of the infrastructure in almost every respect in Yemen in terms of municipal water supplies, electrical grid, hospitals, schools not functioning. So it's just a terrible environment in which anyone would be able to return as a civilian and not suffer catastrophic loss.

INSKEEP: I guess we could note that even the United States Embassy, with all of its efforts at security, is not located in Yemen at this point. They had to leave the country.

SECHE: Yeah. We left some years ago now - in order to be able to make sure that our staff was safe - and relocated to Saudi Arabia.

INSKEEP: OK. So is there some burden or cost to the United States for allowing some number of people to stay in the United States an extra number of months or years or who knows how long?

SECHE: I would think the only consideration would be national security. And I see no evidence to suggest that the Yemeni population that is here by virtue of temporary protected status poses any threat to our national security whatsoever.

INSKEEP: Is there something about the Yemeni situation that would make them different than people from several other countries whose temporary protected status has been ended in recent months?

SECHE: Well, the one thing that comes to mind, of course, that Yemen has been included in the Muslim ban - in the travel ban that the president - I don't mean to call that a Muslim ban. It's a travel ban.

INSKEEP: It's what President Trump himself called it before revising it and narrowing it down somewhat.

SECHE: Indeed. It is now a travel ban affecting several countries, Yemen among them. So one might conflate, then, the fact that Yemenis are no longer able to enter the country at the moment with those who are already here under temporary protected status. And that would be unfortunate.

INSKEEP: So you want to keep that separate. You want to emphasize, these are people who are legally within the United States. And the question is whether they are legally allowed to stay. You are one of a number of diplomats who wrote a letter to the administration. And, among other things, you write that the sudden return of over 1,000 individuals will undermine the developmental and diplomatic tools available to the United States for a strong, principled foreign policy and national security strategy. What do you mean by that?

SECHE: Well, the argument to be made here is that the United States needs to be seen as an honest broker, someone who has an ability to speak to all parties in a conflict. And if we decide to adopt the position which returns Yemenis to a a war zone - to the middle of a serious conflict - we are undermining our own ability to speak equally to all the parties by saying we don't have a dog in this fight.

INSKEEP: So this would make us even less credible as some kind of honest broker?

SECHE: I absolutely believe it would, yes.

INSKEEP: Related question - Michael Anton, former presidential adviser - he was on the National Security Council as a spokesman - wrote an article the other day. And the headline was something to the effect of "Why Do We Need More People In This Country Anyway?". Anton was speaking broadly about immigration, not this very special category of people. But his question applies. He essentially was arguing that, in his view, it was hard to make the case for allowing people into the United States. What's the benefit for citizens who are already here? Effectively, what's in it for us? If Anton were asking you, what's in it for us in letting these Yemenis stay? - what would you answer him?

SECHE: I think, as an American, when I look at my country - our country - I see a texture that is woven together from people from all over the world who have brought tremendous richness and energy and ambition and integrity to my country - to our country. And I think to exclude them weakens that fabric enormously and makes us far more likely that we're going to suffer the indignities of loss of our own freedoms.

As we start to get more and more exclusionary, that just has a kind of corrosive effect, you know? If we can keep out one group of people, why not another? And then we start looking down the list of who else don't we like? Who else do we want to exclude? How many people can we keep away? - rather than think about - how many people can we embrace in a very positive, constructive way? - which is how we built this country.

INSKEEP: Stephen Seche was the United States ambassador to Yemen from 2007 to 2010 under two different presidents.

Thanks very much, Ambassador.

SECHE: My pleasure, Steve. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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