Feb 08 2014

U.S. Embassy in Sana’a seizing U.S. citizens’ passports

Imagine that you are a US citizen living or traveling abroad.  Imagine that you go to the US Embassy to avail yourself of its “Consular Services” as a US citizen. Then imagine that embassy staff confiscate your US passport.

That’s what’s been happening to many, perhaps most, Yemeni-American US citizens who make the unwitting mistake (!) of showing their US passports at the entrance to the US Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen.

US citizens who have contacted us from Yemen for assistance have told us they believe that there are 500 or more US citizens now stranded in Sana’a, unable to leave Yemen or to return to the US without their passports.

One Yemeni-American who phoned us from Sana’a described going to the US Embassy to apply for a new US passport for his newborn child.  Any child of a US citizen is entitled by birth and parentage to US citizenship, and passports for children of US citizens born abroad are routinely issued by US embassies.

But instead of leaving the embassy with a new passport for his child, this Yemeni-American US citizen left the US Embassy without his own passport, which was confiscated without warning by embassy staff.  Other Yemeni-Americans have had their US passports seized when they visited the US Embassy in Sana’a for consular services in conjunction with Social Security or veterans’ benefits, visa or immigration applications for non-US citizen relatives, absentee voting in U.S. elections, or authentication of documents for other US government purposes.

A cable to Washington from the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a in 2009 released by Wikileaks (presumably among those leaked  by whistleblower Chelsea Manning) revealed that the embassy in Sana’a was already treating all immigrant visa applications as “considered fraudulent until proven otherwise.” The current treatment of US passport holders suggests the embassy has expanded this presumption to US passports in Yemeni-American hands. It’s a clear-cut case of discrimination against certain US citizens on the basis of Yemeni national origin.

The seizure of passports from US citizens at the US Embassy in Sana’a was first reported last year in Yemeni expatriate publications, around the time we were first contacted from Yemen by one of the affected individuals.  But most of those affected were understandably unwilling to be identified publicly, lest it reduce their chances of getting out of limbo. It took some time for the scope of the problem to become apparent,  for the story to be picked up by mainstream media, and for some of those U.S. citizens stranded in Yemen to begin to begin to identify themselves and tell their stories publicly.

A coalition of civil liberties organizations has now launched a bilingual English and Arabic website, MyEmbassyRights.US, including information on legal assistance and a downloadable “Know Your Rights” informational pamphlet for US citizens preparing to deal with the US Embassy in Sana’a.

Read More