Government & Politics

Questions swirl for students, others in KC with ties to countries on Trump’s list

Sudan-born U.S. citizen concerned the travel ban may affect his plans

John Gak, who originally came from South Sudan to the United States as a refugee in 1995 and became a citizen in 2001, is concerned about his upcoming travel back to South Sudan where he visits every year to do missionary work as a Christian due t
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John Gak, who originally came from South Sudan to the United States as a refugee in 1995 and became a citizen in 2001, is concerned about his upcoming travel back to South Sudan where he visits every year to do missionary work as a Christian due t

All that seemed clear across the Kansas City landscape Monday was the number of countries — seven of them — included in President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel from predominantly Muslim nations.

Beyond that, confusion and unanswered questions swirled.

Many Republicans on Capitol Hill, including some representing Kansas and Missouri, signaled regret that Trump had not consulted with Congress before signing the order Friday.

Democrats voiced outrage. And university officials in both states urged their international students and faculty with ties to the countries on the list not to start planned study or research abroad. The nations are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Indeed, individuals from those places should not travel outside the country for any reason, officials said.

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“All nationals from the affected countries (should) avoid international travel until there is some clarification of the situation,” University of Kansas Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little said. “This includes passport holders, citizens, nationals and dual nationals from the impacted countries.”

Praising the president’s action was Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who said Trump was on “rock-solid legal footing” in issuing the order. Kobach was a member of Trump’s transition team and added that he “was one of many” involved in drafting the order.

“President Trump has done more in one week to improve the security of he United States of America than Barack Obama did in eight years,” Kobach said.

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But uncertainty about the new rules was causing anxiety among many, including members of the local Sudanese community.

“We have family members in Sudan who are stuck there and they cannot come,” said Wamda Hamad, 25, who is a naturalized American citizen and a graduate of the University of Central Missouri.

“There are a lot of international students that are stuck,” she continued. “They cannot go back to their homes to visit their families. Their families cannot come and visit them here, even if they are sick.”

Hamad told of a friend who recently had a premature baby by caesarean section while her husband was in Sudan.

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“He cannot come here (now) because he has a Sudanese passport,” Hamad said. “So now she is going through the emotional trauma, and he can’t come visit her.”

Trump’s order blocks any visitor — including tourists, students and business people — from the seven countries for 90 days. The order also bars entry for refugees from anywhere in the world for 120 days, and bans refugees from Syria indefinitely.

Travel in question

In addition to Hamad, at least two other U.S. citizens in the Kansas City area were left wondering how they fit into the controversial order.

Iran Amani, a native Iranian, and John Gak, who was born in Sudan, each made plans separately to visit their native countries long before Trump put out the travel ban list. Gak comes from a southern part of Sudan that has become a separate nation and is not officially on Trump’s list.

For both, passports show their U.S. citizenship. Still, each has questions.

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“I’m a citizen, and I don’t know what’s going on,” Amani said Monday. “Right now, they’re saying it has nothing to do with U.S. citizens, but while I’m there something may change.”

Gak, 50, said he wanted assurances that he would be able to return to Kansas City and his family.

“I go to South Sudan every year. I do mission work,” said Gak, who has made the trip for many years. “I will ask the immigration office, or I can ask the South Sudan embassy in D.C. to make sure we are not affected by this.”

U.S. citizenship didn’t keep Gak from encountering difficulty re-entering the U.S. after a 2002 trip. Officials in Amsterdam stopped him temporarily from boarding a flight to the United States. “They investigated me for no reason for 45 minutes,” he said.

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Moussa Elbayoumy, a board member for the Kansas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said U.S. citizens should not be affected, “but people with dual citizenship are a different matter.” He said some area residents with travel plans do not want to draw public attention and are staying quiet.

“For people from these countries to travel abroad is a judgment call everyone has to make themselves,” Elbayoumy said. “For now, we’re advising that unless it’s an urgent trip to not leave if their return can’t be guaranteed.”

Worried employee

The confusion over Trump’s order reached down to a small tech company in Kansas City, Kan.

Joel Teply, CEO and developer of 5-year-old tech firm Cambrian, said he lost sleep over the weekend worrying about one of his Iranian employees who is in the United States on a student visa.

Teply said his Iranian employee worries about whether she can travel home to see family and, if she does, whether she could return to the United States to resume work and studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“We’re frankly worried if she’s going to be able to remain in the country,” Teply said.

Hundreds of protesters gathered Sunday at KCI to decry President Donald Trump's order barring citizens of seven Muslim nations from entering the United States.

The employee declined to be identified or to speak publicly.

“This has all happened in the first week” of the Trump administration, Teply said. “It all seemed very irresponsible and idiotic.”

There was added uncertainty over the weekend about whether holders of green cards from the seven affected countries could enter the United States. The White House on Sunday backtracked on parts of the executive orders, clarifying that green card holders would not be denied entry into the United States.

Lawmakers’ questions

Lawmakers in Washington had questions of their own, with some from Missouri and Kansas wondering why Trump hadn’t consulted with Congress before taking action.

“I agree with President Trump that we need a major overhaul of our immigration system and a better vetting process for those entering our nation,” Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts said Monday in a statement. “... However, we need to strike a balance that protects the rights of Americans and those permitted to enter the country legally.”

He added: “The president needs to work with Congress to ensure every aspect of a major policy change such as this is taken into consideration.”

Kansas City Mayor Sly James thanked people protesting the Trump immigration order for their peaceful resistance on Sunday afternoon, Jan. 29, 2017, at Kansas City International Airport.

Kansas’ other senator, Republican Jerry Moran, issued a similar statement calling on the president to consult with Congress. “While I support thorough vetting,” Moran said, “I do not support restricting the rights of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri pointed out that Trump “is doing what he told the American people he would do.”

“I would not support a travel ban on Muslims; I do support increased vetting of people applying to travel from countries with extensive terrorist ties or activities,” Blunt said.

Some answers might be forthcoming when U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Kansas City, hosts an immigration town hall Saturday at Manual Career and Technical Center, 1215 Truman Road. The event, scheduled for 2 to 4 p.m., will bring together immigrant and refugee groups, legal advisers and advocates to discuss policy.

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Cleaver said he welcomed public outrage but said it should have materialized more forcefully before Trump’s election.

For now, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, the top Democrat on the Senate’s Homeland Security committee, has asked for an emergency meeting with John Kelly, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

McCaskill, along with six other Democrats who serve on the committee, requested Monday that Kelly meet with them within 24 hours to explain his role in implementing Trump’s order.

McCaskill has said she doesn’t plan to be an obstructionist, and she voted to confirm Kelly on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20. “When it comes to well-qualified nominees charged with protecting America’s security interests at home and abroad, party labels shouldn’t get in the way of good public service,” McCaskill said at the time.

University support

Schools and universities in the region expressed worries as well.

Kansas State University President Richard Myers said his university “deeply values” contributions of its international faculty and students and is “concerned about the detrimental effects of this policy on those pursuing academic studies and research.”

An initial count, Myers said, indicates that K-State has 63 students and three post-doctoral fellows from the seven countries that the U.S. is blocking.

University of Missouri-Kansas City Chancellor Leo Morton said in a message to the campus that the university extends its “support for international students, faculty and staff who make important contributions, enrich our university, and are integral members of our community.”

About 200 UMKC students, faculty and staff members turned out for a listening session Monday organized for anyone with questions or concerns.

UMKC has 33 students who were born in those seven countries but now are U.S. citizens. Those students are not affected by the order, said John Martellaro, UMKC spokesman.

But 28 other students are at UMKC on education visas and may be affected — students like Amir Barati, a first-year doctoral student from Iran who is studying English and humanities.

Barati said he had planned to visit his family in his home country, but with Trump’s order in play, “I’m worried now that I cannot do that.

“It feels like I am being incarcerated here for maybe five years. I just don’t know what to do.”

The Army Command and General Staff College at Leavenworth is a stopping point for midcareer officers, including many foreign military officials — some from Muslim countries. A spokesman at the Leavenworth military college said there were “no issues reported here” regarding the travel restrictions hitting students or their families.

Some callers contacted the office of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas with questions about future travel plans.

“There’s nobody I can point to locally who right now would be directly impacted,” said office executive director Micah Kubic. “But there’s a lot of fear. A lot of misinformation. A lot of outrage. Many folks believe (the order) is more expansive than it really is.”

Protesters were absent Monday from Kansas City International Airport, where an estimated 400 to 500 demonstrators had assembled Sunday afternoon in peaceful protest. No travelers were detained because of the order, said city Aviation Department spokesman Joe McBride.

The Star’s Matt Campbell, Scott Canon, Diane Stafford, Steve Vockrodt and Hunter Woodall contributed to this story.

Rick Montgomery: 816-234-4410, @rmontgomery_r

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc

Mark Davis: 816-234-4372, @mdkcstar

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