Deepti Hajela and Amy Taxin
NEW YORK (AP) — Mohammed Hafar paced around the airport terminal — first to the monitor to check flight arrivals, then to the gift shop and lastly to the doors where international passengers were exiting.
At last, out came Jana Hafar, his tall, slender, dark-haired teen daughter who had been forced by President Donald Trump's travel ban to stay behind in Syria for months while her father, his wife and 10-year-old son started rebuilding their lives in Bloomfield, New Jersey, with no clear idea of when the family would be together again.
"Every time I speak to her, she ask, 'When are they going to give me the visa?'" the elder Hafar said, recalling the days of uncertainty that took up the better part of this year. There was "nothing I could tell her, because nobody knows when."
That she landed at Kennedy Airport on a recent December day was testament to her father's determination to keep his promise that they would be reunited and his willingness to go as far as suing the government in federal court. Advocates say the process for obtaining a travel ban waiver is still shrouded in unpredictability, which causes delays for thousands of American citizens waiting for loved ones.
The "system is messed up," said Curtis Morrison, the Los Angeles-based attorney who has filed several federal lawsuits, including Hafar's, against the administration on behalf of dozens of plaintiffs from countries affected by the travel ban.
Many of those he has represented have received visas. But he said those cases represent only a fraction of the people in need and that the decision to grant those visas is unfair to thousands of other immigrants who cannot sue or do not know how to take their frustrations to court.
"The government should not be able to do this," Morrison said. "It should not be able to cherry-pick the visas that it wants to issue so that it can evade review."
The third version of the administration's ban took effect in December 2017, keeping citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and North Korea, and government representatives from Venezuela, from traveling or immigrating to the United States. The Supreme Court upheld the ban in June 2018, in part because of the promised waiver system that would allow people to come despite the ban if certain criteria were met.
The government says 28,100 immigrant visa applications were filed by people seeking waivers to move to the U.S. between December 2017 and Oct. 31, 2019. Of those, 11,325 have been deemed qualified for waivers and 16,775 have not.
It was unclear how many of those who have been deemed qualified have actually received visas and how quickly. At the beginning of 2019, waivers were being issued in a trickle, with only 2,673 granted for both immigrant and non-immigrant visas from December 2017 to January 2019, according to State Department figures.
In an emailed statement, the State Department said changes made in late June have "significantly" increased the number handed out monthly, and officials "believe this is representative of the new normal" and that "applicants who qualify for a waiver will likely be issued their visa much sooner than possible before the changes."
But while some applications for immigrant and non-immigrant visas submitted in recent months are seeing faster processing and approval times, earlier cases are still languishing, with no transparency from the government, said Mahsa Khanbabai, an immigration lawyer in North Easton, Massachusetts.
"They have fooled people to think, 'Oh, with our new automated process, it's working now,'" Khanbabai said. "They're able to distract by granting a few here and there. They're fooling people into thinking that it works."
Hafar, a Syria native and naturalized American citizen since 1996, had been living in Syria with his family when civil war started. He came back to the U.S. in 2012, assuming he could transfer citizenship to his children and apply separately for his wife to receive a green card making her a permanent legal resident.
His wife got the card in early 2017, but paperwork problems got in the way of the children's transfers, requiring him to submit immigrant petitions for them. He was told in 2018 that his son would get his visa, but there was no word on when Jana would.
"When I heard that, it was very, very painful for me," Jana said last week in the family's New Jersey apartment, where she never strayed far from her mother. "Because I understand that I'm going to be left alone."
Her brother, Karim, came to the U.S. in May, leaving Jana behind in Damascus with her cancer-stricken grandfather and her grandmother, who spent most of her time looking after him.
There were frequent daily calls to her parents, who worried constantly about their daughter. She was too distraught to go to school and living in a country torn apart by armed conflict, even though Damascus had settled down.
Hafar couldn't understand it. "I have my son and my wife here. Why on earth is my daughter back home?" he said.
Farida Chehata, an immigrant rights attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in California, worked with the family before they sued.
When people file litigation, it attracts swift notice from the State Department or the Department of Homeland Security.
"All of a sudden they'll be attentive and responsive — but just for those people," Chehata said. "Not everybody has the luxury of getting an attorney."
Hafar was determined. He said to Jana, "Remember this, what I'm going to tell you. I will do whatever necessary to bring you over. I'm not going to leave you behind."
After filing the lawsuit in August, Jana's petition got moving in October, and she was soon given the go-ahead to come to the U.S.. The official word came just days after she turned 15 and spent a birthday without her parents and brother.
"It's been difficult for me to be away from my whole family," she said. But she believed her father. "My dad wouldn't lie to me. He always tells me the truth."
Taxin reported from Santa Ana, California.
Hajela and Taxin cover immigration for The Associated Press. Follow Hajela on Twitter at https://twitter.com/dhajela and Taxin at https://twitter.com/ataxin.