Joe Biden takes office Wednesday with a promise to overthrow the “first day”, the so-called Muslim ban – the decree that outgoing President Donald Trump put in place prohibiting citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.
The ban, which kept a central Trump campaign promise, had immediate and far-reaching consequences. It has blocked refugees in third countries, divided families and denied essential health care to sick people. It has barred U.S. citizens from being joined by friends and relatives for weddings, funerals and graduation ceremonies, and has barred couples from marrying.
“Banning Muslims from entering the country is morally wrong,” Biden says on his campaign website, “and there is no information or evidence to suggest that it makes our nation safer.”
Advocates and U.S. Muslim groups have welcomed Biden’s pledge to reverse the measure, but wonder if he can do enough to address the harm he has caused families over the past four years.
“We are happy that Biden is repealing the ban,” said Ibraham Qatabi, a legal worker at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
“But the question is: what does this mean for the families affected by the ban?” Qatabi told Al Jazeera. “Will they get their visas and reunite with their families?”
Meysam Azin, 40, an Iranian-born U.S. citizen, filed green card applications for his parents aged 65 and 68 in December 2015 – a year before he and his wife planned to start a family, hoping that they could come and help them raise them.
But the travel ban imposed just over a year later posed major obstacles to their process. He enlisted the help of a lawyer. Yet their request was stuck in “administrative processing” for months, and when they received a response it was for requests for additional documentation. Her mother, Fatima, was eventually called in for an interview in January 2020, but not the father.
Their situation is further complicated by the fact that there are no US embassies in Iran, so they would have to travel to neighboring countries, Armenia or Turkey for consular talks, or in the case of relatives of ‘Azin, the United Arab Emirates, a country they cannot reach due to coronavirus travel restrictions.
Azin, who has a doctorate in electrical engineering and lives in San Diego with his wife and two children, says the process was so stressful that he was diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression in 2017 and later a autoimmune disease. His father, too, has recently shown signs of depression and psychosis.
“I dream of it every day that they are coming,” Azin told Al Jazeera. “I dream we are all sitting outside in our backyards and having a barbecue and the kids running around,” he says.
“Is that too much to ask?”
“ By nature discriminatory ”
On January 27, 2017, a week after taking office, Trump abruptly announced the first travel ban. The move sent shock waves across the globe and caused chaos at dozens of US airports as hundreds of travelers who were in mid-flight when the announcement was made suddenly had US visas. invalid. Many have been detained and sent home.
In the United States, this sparked outrage among rights groups who challenged the measure in court, arguing that it was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
The lower courts overturned the first two iterations of the ban. But in June 2018, the US Supreme Court upheld the third version which mainly concerned nationals of Iran, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Nigeria, Libya, Myanmar, Sudan and Chad. It also included restrictions on citizens of Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, North Korea, Tanzania and Venezuela.
Official records show that at least 88,000 people were subject to the ban.
Defenders of the ban say it was a justified move, as it allowed immigration agencies to properly screen citizens of countries that do not maintain or share intelligence files with the United States.
“These particular countries are particularly problematic for US intelligence and law enforcement agencies who check security because they are largely ungoverned,” said Todd Bensman, Senior National Security Fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies , citing the examples of Libya and Yemen, two wars – torn countries lacking stable governments.
“From a national security standpoint, it was a good thing,” Bensman said. “It definitely reduced the risk of people entering and carrying out attacks,” adding that it helped screening officers “determine whether candidates are part of jihadist movements or terrorist groups, may be radicalized or have a disqualifying track record. which would make them ineligible. “
U.S. Muslim groups say the national security argument was a pretext that helped the third iteration succeed in court, they also cite the introduction of a waiver provision that allowed – at least in theory – exceptions for certain foreign nationals to be deposited in order to enter the country.
“There was a third iteration of the Muslim ban because the first two were so discriminatory it would never have been passed by the Supreme Court,” said Robert McCaw, director of government affairs at the Council on American- Islamic Relations.
“The third ban, while still inherently discriminatory in its origins,” McCaw said, “on its face was based on national security concerns and the promise of a waiver process that was never executed.”
Hiba Ghalib, an immigration lawyer in Atlanta, Ga., Has reportedly been approved for a waiver, petitioners must meet three criteria: that “undue hardship” would be caused to the applicant if entry was denied, l entry into the country would be in the national interest of the United States and that their entry would not constitute a threat to the national or public security of the United States.
In practice, Ghalib said the waiver process has proven difficult to maneuver, not least because the criteria are too broad.
“It was a mess,” Ghalib said. “It was arbitrary and also new, but it was also intentional,” she told Al Jazeera. “There was neither clarity nor coherence because it could remain subjective.”
According to The Bridge Initiative, a Georgetown University research group, 74% of waiver requests between December 2017 and April 2020 were denied.
Ghalib added that more worrying was the time it took for immigration agencies to notify applicants of the outcome of their submissions, often taking months or even years.
“Everyone was suddenly in limbo,” Ghalib said. “They just weren’t making decisions. The lack of responsiveness has become the most frustrating thing for people, ”she added.
‘Just a dream’
In July, the Democrats past the No Ban Act in Congress, which would repeal the travel ban and prevent the US president from imposing future immigration restrictions based on religion or ethnicity. At the time, the bill did not advance to the Republican-controlled Senate.
With control of the Senate soon to be held by Democrats with a narrow majority of one vote, it remains uncertain whether the bill can pass.
“Trump’s travel ban is Trump’s quintessential immigration policy,” said Alex Nowrasteh, director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute.
“It was mainly targeting predominantly Muslim countries for poor security reasons,” Nowrasteh told Al Jazeera. “Removing it is not only good from a public policy standpoint, but it also negates the most visible and well-known immigration action taken by Trump.”
Finally, on December 23, Azin’s father Ali received an interview notice – five years after he applied for a green card. According to Azin’s attorney, Curtis Morrison, a typical request for other nationalities takes around a year to process. They are now working on finding a way to get an appointment at a U.S. Embassy.
Azin’s case, Morrison said, is by no means an exception. According to The Bridge Project, the issuance of immigrant visas to Iranians fell 79% between fiscal 2016 and 2019. And repealing the ban, he said, may not automatically lead to an improvement in delays.
“I’m really glad Biden has promised to overturn this ban, but the backlog is huge,” Morrison said. “There are so many families that have been separated for years, so many involve children and elderly parents.”
Still, Azin said after Biden won the election, he was relieved and hoped he could be reunited with his parents soon.
“I can’t stop dreaming that they are going to be there, that they are going to teach my children Farsi and read them stories, that we are going to cook together and visit other cities,” he said. .
“It’s just a dream right now, it’s frustrating because I thought it was my right to have this.”