By Charles Ornstein
Hours after landing in New York on Saturday, a doctor at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic was forced to leave the country based on an executive order issued by President Donald Trump that bans visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days.
Her flight to Saudi Arabia took off minutes before a federal judge in New York put a temporary stay on turning back people in such situations.
Suha Abushamma, 26, is in the first year of an Internal Medicine residency program at the clinic and held an H-1B visa for workers in “specialty occupations.”
Born and raised in Saudi Arabia, she holds a passport from Sudan, one of the seven countries from which Trump barred visitors.
On Saturday evening, Abushamma was forced to make a choice by Customs and Border Protection agents: She could leave the country voluntarily and withdraw her visa — or she could be forcibly deported, which would have prevented her from coming back to the United States for at least five years. The latter also would have resulted in a permanent black mark on her immigration record.
She asked for a delay but was refused, she said in a FaceTime interview with ProPublica while she was flying over the Atlantic on her way back to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is not one of the countries on Trump’s list, but because Abushamma’s passport is from Sudan, she was told she is covered by the executive order.
“I’m only in this country to be a doctor, to work and to help people — that’s it,” she said. “There’s no other reason.”
David Leopold, a prominent immigration attorney and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Assocation, had been in contact with Abushamma for hours and was trying to help her stay. He said at one point he told her to give the phone to a Customs and Border Protection agent so he could argue her case.
The agent refused to allow her to delay her flight while the hearing in the Brooklyn federal courthouse was proceeding. On Saturday night, District Court Judge Ann M. Donnelly put a stay on deporting people who had landed in the U.S. and were covered by the executive order.
“My heart sank when she told me she was on that plane,” Leopold said of Abushamma. “It was one of the hardest moments I’ve ever had being a lawyer.”
Abushamma had left the U.S. Monday to visit family in Saudi Arabia and then travel to Sudan. Friends alerted her on Wednesday about the possibility that Trump would sign an executive order that could make it difficult for her to return. Though she had planned to be out of the country for two more weeks, she moved quickly to change her plans, obtain a new visa and come back to the U.S. early.
“She picked up her passport from the U.S. embassy, changed her flight and came as quickly as she could but she wasn’t able to make the stroke of the pen,” said her friend, Faris El-Khider, who is a gastroenterology fellow at the Cleveland Clinic and is from Sudan. “She was basically racing against Trump.”
A spokesperson for the Cleveland Clinic said the institution was still gathering details about the situation, but ProPublica was able to verify Abushamma’s residency at the clinic through online records.
Abushamma said she landed in New York a little after 11 a.m. Saturday, hoping that she would be let in. At first, her experience with Customs and Border Protection agents seemed normal, until she was directed into a holding area at Terminal One at John F. Kennedy Airport, where she saw another doctor from Iran who works at the Cleveland Clinic. That doctor and her husband both have green cards (making them permanent U.S. residents) and, after a few hours, they were allowed into the country.
Abushamma said she watched as others were questioned—she said there were 30 or more people in the room. Those with green cards, including her colleague, were eventually allowed entry to the country. Those with visas were not.
She texted with her friend El-Khider, who desperately sought legal help for her and advised her to try to stay as long as she could while the matter headed to court.
She said she knew she was in trouble when a representative for Saudi Airlines approached her and told her she would have to book a flight home. Then an officer, whose name she wrote down as T. Lam, told her her choices: “Either to withdraw my visa … so it wouldn’t leave a negative mark on my profile … or the second option was to refuse to withdraw” and be banned from the U.S. for five years. “I told them at that point I already had lawyers working on my case. I just need a few more hours … They absolutely refused. I even talked to the supervisor.”
According to FlightAware, a flight tracking website, the plane pushed back from the gate at 8:29 p.m. and took off at 8:53 p.m. The earliest reports of the judge’s stay of deportations under the executive order came at around 9 p.m.
“I’m happy for the people that are held,” she said. “I met a really bright young female from Iran who’s studying at NYU. Her flight was at 11. I’m happy for her that she at least gets to go in. I’m frustrated, but it’s the way it is.”
Abushamma said she couldn’t believe it when she was offered an interview with the Cleveland Clinic, let alone the residency. “My parents are both doctors. They know the Cleveland Clinic. They know all the big names in the U.S. so they were even more excited than I was.”
Abushamma had to select when to take her vacation last spring, two months before she began working at the clinic. Because there are dozens of residents in the program, creating a calendar takes advanced planning. She decided to go home in late January because she’d had visits from her parents earlier in 2016. “I thought it would be a good time for me to see my family.”
When she departed the U.S. last Monday, she said, “there was no talk at that point” about Trump’s executive order.
Two days later, as word began to leak about the president’s plans, Abushamma said she rushed to come back. She had a visa interview on Wednesday and the officer at the U.S. consulate was “super helpful,” telling her about the rumored executive order and advising her to go back as soon as possible. The consulate worker even issued her a visa in one day when it usually takes three business days. “Exactly what she said was ‘I don’t want your patients not to have you.'”
Abushamma received her passport back with the newly issued visa on Friday and booked the first flight out Saturday morning, leaving at 6 a.m. Saudi time. “I knew he signed something. I didn’t know the exact details of it,” she said. “I thought there might be some changes to it that didn’t affect me. I just went with great hopes that I would go in.”
Asked what she would do when she landed back in Saudi Arabia, Abushamma said she would try to see if she could get a waiver for the 90-day period in which no visitors from the seven countries are allowed.
Abushamma’s friend El-Khider said he might have found himself in her situation. Though he is a green card holder, he was planning to leave the country last Wednesday to visit Sudan. At the airport, he heard about Trump’s order and decided not to leave. “By the time I got to the airport, I thought wait a minute. I canceled my flight and my friend drove me back to my house.”
Leopold, the immigration lawyer, said now that Abushamma has left the U.S. and “voluntarily” canceled her visa, she may not be able to return anytime soon.
“She’s not going to be able to get a visa for at least 90 days,” he said. “She’s already been removed, so I think it’s over. This is heartbreaking.”
Update, Jan. 29: In a statement released this morning, the Cleveland Clinic did not refer to Abushamma directly but said the recent immigration action “has caused a great deal of uncertainty and has impacted some of our employees who are traveling overseas. We are fully committed and actively working toward the safe return of any of our employees who have been affected by this action.’ The clinic’s CEO, Dr. Toby Cosgrove, was considered by President Donald Trump for Secretary of Veterans Affairs but withdrew from consideration. He is a member of a new panel of 16 business leaders advising Trump on the way in which the government affects economic growth.
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.