A distinguished Kuwaiti neurosurgeon with ties to the South Florida medical community says he and his wife were singled out by a U.S. federal agent at an airport in Dubai last week and told, without explanation, that they could not enter the United States for vacation.
Dr. Hisham Al-Khayat, 50, who says he is the only practicing neurosurgeon in the Middle East certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery, had spent more than a month planning a two-week family vacation in Florida with his seven children, wife and elderly mother.
The family of 10 had intended to fly into the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, visit Miami — where Al-Khayat lived for eight years as a resident physician from 1996 to 2003 — and then head north to Disney World in Orlando.
The former University of Miami resident physician had also been invited by John Ragheb, the director of the Pediatric Neurosurgery Department at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital — and Al-Khayat’s longtime mentor — to speak at Neurosurgery Grand Rounds at UM’s Miller School of Medicine. Al-Khayat and his twin brother, Haithem Al-Khayat, who operate a private practice in Kuwait, both trained at UM more than a decade ago.
After flying from Kuwait to Dubai on July 26, Al-Khayat’s family prepared to board an Emirates flight to Fort Lauderdale the following morning when airline staff and a federal official stopped the husband and wife at the gate.
The federal official, Al-Khayat recalled, said he had received a call 30 minutes prior from U.S. Customs and Border Protection ordering him to deny Al-Khayat and his wife, Shatha Hajeyah, from getting on the U.S.-bound flight.
Nine months ago, Al-Khayat was in Florida for a medical meeting, and said he cleared Customs without any issue. Al-Khayat and his wife, holders of B1/B2 non-immigrant visas that are not set to expire until August 2024, are no strangers to the federal government. Last month, Al-Khayat successfully applied for identical visas for some of his children.
“We are blocked from entering [the] U.S. and of course no reasons are given,” Al-Khayat wrote in a July 28 letter to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
A spokeswoman with Rubio’s office said her colleagues have been in contact with Al-Khayat to “assist in any way that we can.”
The eight others in the family — the kids are 2, 9, 11, 14, 19 plus 20-year-old twins; their grandmother is 73 — were approved to board the plane. Six of them have visas, and two were born in Florida and are thus citizens.
But splitting up the family was not an option, so they canceled the trip and swallowed a $400 deposit they paid to the Faena Miami Beach hotel. Medical check-ups scheduled for Al-Khayat’s mother and daughter were also canceled.
Al-Khayat remembers seeing his daughter cry when she found out she would not be going to Disney World after all. In the end, the family visited Hong Kong and its Disney theme park.
In the days after the incident, the federal government revoked the visas of Al-Khayat and his wife on unclear grounds, he said. Federal law authorizes consular officers and State Department officials to revoke visas at any time, at their discretion.
“Information has become available subsequent to visa issuance that indicates you may no longer be eligible for your visa,” reads a message from the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait to his wife.
It has been nearly a week since the incident, and he still has no idea why he couldn’t visit Florida. Now he wants an explanation and, if the feds got it wrong, an apology.
“This was their vacation after 11 months of hard work,” Al-Khayat said in an email to the Miami Herald. “Whole trip is ruined for no specific reasons. ... I was treated so bad and there is no explanation for such action.”
In a statement to the Miami Herald, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson did not confirm or deny Al-Khayat’s version of events, citing privacy policies.
The spokesperson referred a reporter to a list of more than 60 grounds for inadmissibility divided into subgroups like “health-related, prior criminal convictions, security reasons, public charge, labor certification, illegal entrants and immigration violations, documentation requirements, and miscellaneous grounds.”
It is unclear what violations the federal government cited in barring the couple entry into the U.S..
“Due to privacy policies, CBP is unable to discuss specific cases regarding an individual traveler,” the spokesperson said. “Under U.S. immigration law [Section 291 of the INA [8 USC 1361] applicants for admission bear the burden of proof to establish that they are clearly eligible to enter the United States. In order to demonstrate that they are admissible, the applicant must overcome all grounds of inadmissibility.”
Rosanna Berardi, a managing partner at Berardi Immigration Law in Buffalo, N.Y., said that on the surface the case seemed “very unusual,” especially since Al-Khayat visited the U.S. a few months ago. But, she explained, the U.S. database of travelers is constantly changing, so “something must have hit the database” that gave the government pause.
“I don’t really know what the issue is but we do see this time and time again,” Berardi said. “The government just has a wide amount of discretion and sometimes good people get caught in that.”
Passengers who believe they have been wrongly denied entry to the U.S. can apply for redress through the Department of Homeland Security’s Traveler Redress Inquiry Program. The process can take over a month.
Dr. S. Anthony Wolfe, the chief of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital and a longtime friend of Al-Khayat, said he was shocked and angered to learn that Al-Khayat and his wife were not allowed to board their flight to the U.S.
“I think the appropriate thing would be that he is issued an apology,” Wolfe said. “He’s a wonderful person. He’s an extremely good surgeon.”
Wolfe, who has attended medical meetings in Kuwait and has operated with Al-Khayat on patients with craniofacial anomalies, said Al-Khayat’s treatment at the hands of the U.S. government was humiliating and unfair.
“To claim this is correct in any way, shape or form would be outrageous,” he said. “I think he deserves some kind of explanation.”