NEW YORK -- Eight-year-old Mutaz cries when he sees his classmates with their mothers at teacher conferences. His 9-year-old brother, Adel, gets into trouble at school.
In hourslong weekend calls with their mother, the children always have the same question: When are you coming to America?
It's a question with no answer. Their mother, Amena Abdulkarem, is stuck in Yemen with her two younger sons, the boys' brothers. She's been waiting three years for a visa to come to the United States to join her husband, Sadek Ahmed, and the children.
Their family's situation is representative of the toll that the Trump administration's travel ban has taken on an untold number of families. Ahmed, a 31-year-old school maintenance worker in New York and a U.S. citizen, and other Americans with relatives from countries targeted by the ban see no end to their separations. And they say they have no idea how to get a coveted waiver created, but seldom issued, by the government to help families avoid being apart for so long.
"I really don't understand how long it's going to take ... I have two kids here. I need to know when she's going to come. The kids keep asking me," said Ahmed, tears in his eyes. "It's hard for them, because they're so young."
The Trump administration issued a third version of the ban in December 2017, blocking citizens of five Muslim-majority countries and their immediate families from traveling or immigrating to the United States. The ban — which affects Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea and government representatives from Venezuela — was upheld by the Supreme Court in June 2018.
The measure has devastated not only overseas relatives who have been unable to visit family in the United States but also American citizens such as Ahmed — husbands who have been separated from wives and parents from children.
The administration announced that waivers would be granted on an individual basis so long as doing so did not threaten national security. But immigrants and their advocates contend there's no formal system to apply for a waiver, and they have sued the government in federal courts in California and New York. They describe an arbitrary process with no clear guidance on how to make their cases or ensure that consular officials accept their documentation.
Even the success stories, of visas sometimes handed out without the need for waivers first, prove there's no rhyme or reason to the decisions, they said.
"It makes you question the legitimacy of this waiver process. It makes you question your existence in this country," said Ayyad Algabyali, director of advocacy at the Yemeni American Merchants Association, which has been helping families write essays to make their cases.
The State Department said the president's proclamation "clearly explained" the conditions under which a waiver could be issued, and that applicants should come forward during their visa interviews with any information that could help demonstrate their eligibility.
The travel ban's effect has been stark: Almost 38,000 people seeking immigrant or tourist visas have been blocked from the U.S. since the ban took effect. Only 2,673 waivers were granted between December 2017 and January 2019, according to the State Department, which did not comment on how the waivers were granted.
That coincides with a sharp decline in immigrant visas allotted to people from the five majority-Muslim countries seeking to move permanently to the United States. In the 2018 fiscal year, the U.S. issued 4,167 immigrant visas to people from those five countries, compared with 25,538 visas two years earlier.
Mike Razi, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles, said his American clients separated from relatives in Iran are being discriminated against based on their family's heritage.
"Nobody has a right to come to the United States," Razi said. "But you have a right as a U.S. citizen to petition your family members. If you are from the Philippines, you can do that, but if you are Iranian, you can't."
Ahmed, who came to the U.S. as a teen in 2005, married Abdulkarem in 2008, after meeting her in Yemen through mutual connections. She remained there and he would visit. Their older two sons were born in 2009 and 2011.
Ahmed became a citizen in 2011 and petitioned first for the older boys in 2012, but it took until 2015 for them to be allowed to join him, in a harrowing trip from a country filled with unrest. Adel, the oldest son, is in weekly therapy to help him cope with the traumatic departure. Ahmed doubts the sessions are doing any good.
In March 2016, he applied to bring his wife to the U.S., and they have been waiting ever since. They should have waited only a few months, but because of a backlog, the application was still being processed when the ban took effect.
Abdulkarem had an interview in Djibouti in October 2018, and Ahmed gave a consular officer material that he and his attorneys put together to request a waiver. They have heard nothing since.
Now the family is split up. He and the couple's two older children are in Brooklyn with his parents. She lives in Yemen with their younger sons, ages 5 and 1.
The ban also has completely upended the life of Shamim Darchini Astaneh, a 25-year-old Californian heading to graduate school in the fall for a career as a pharmacist.
She cannot concentrate. Her hands shake, and she spends nearly all her waking hours tethered to a computer in the hopes of sharing her life with her 33-year-old husband, Amin Sirati, a dentist stuck in Iran.
She came to the United States as a teenager after her mother won a green card lottery and met Sirati when she went to visit family in Iran.
Four years ago, the couple married knowing they could be apart for two years while their visa application was reviewed. Since the ban, they now face the prospect of an indefinite separation.
At home in Irvine, California, she gets migraines. Her family takes her to the emergency room when her tremors are severe. During college, she kept her laptop open while she studied so her husband could be with her, at least virtually. She left it by her bed at night so he could watch her fall asleep.
"We don't have too much time to see each other. When I am going to bed, he is going to work," she said in a phone interview. "All the time we are on FaceTime."
In July 2017, the couple were interviewed at the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi and told a visa should be ready in about two months.
Since then, she has sent consular officials letters from doctors describing the toll of the wait. In January, officials replied by saying they would no longer send updates on her waiver request.
"I believe there is no waiver, and everything is just window dressing," she said.
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 .