'This is unacceptable:' After Biden reversed Trump's Muslim ban, advocates say little has changed

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When President Joe Biden lifted a ban barring U.S. entry from people from primarily Muslim countries on his first day in office, immigrant and refugee advocates rejoiced.

The move promised long-awaited relief and hope of reconnection to thousands denied the chance to be with loved ones under the Trump administration. But advocates, initially grateful and optimistic, now say little has changed, and most applicants have yet to be reunited with their families or even notified of their status.

“We were trying our best to be patient, but this is unacceptable,” said Aarti Kohli, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus (AAAJ-ALC). “We’ve seen very little progress, and people have suffered in the meantime.”

Last month, Kohli’s San Francisco-based organization was among more than 100 immigrant and refugee support groups from around the country that co-signed a letter pleading with Biden to follow through. The effort was led by the No Muslim Ban Ever Campaign and National Iranian American Council.

“Where the rescission should have been a beacon of hope for those denied under the ban, many have instead given up on their dreams of coming to the United States,” Donna Farvard, the Iranian council’s national organizing director, said in a statement. “The Biden administration must take immediate action to right these wrongs.”

Sarvin Hahghighi with her parents in Melbourne, Australia, shortly after son Kian's birth in March 2019. Hahghighi's parents, both Iranian citizens, have been unable to visit her family in the U.S. because of former President Donald Trump's ban on travelers from certain primarily Muslim countries. President Joe Biden lifted the ban on his first day in office.

Advocates cite examples such as Marziyeh Ehtesab, an Iranian woman who wished to join her lonely sister in the United States, or Mohammed Mushin Abulla, a Yemeni man who mortgaged land and sold off valuables to pay the costs of traveling to Malaysia for his application interviews. After much time and expense, both ultimately won visas through the U.S. diversity visa lottery program – but found them revoked under the ban instituted by former President Donald Trump because of their countries of origin.

Trump’s executive order, issued in 2017, prohibited U.S. entry by people from certain countries despite little evidence of any systematic review of relevant national security concerns.

The order disrupted the plans and hopes of many ready or forced to leave their countries to be with loved ones in the United States. More than 41,000 people were explicitly denied visas as a result, advocates say, and the number doesn’t include people who subsequently became discouraged from applying.

Federal judges denied two initial versions of the ban as discriminatory on religious grounds, but the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 approved a third iteration prohibiting travelers from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and North Korea. Two years later, just before Trump left office, a similar ban added multiple African and Asian nations to the list, including Nigeria, Sudan and Myanmar.

Elation and hope led to confusion and disappointment

In his proclamation reversing the bans, Biden mandated the State Department to submit within 45 days a plan to expedite applications denied or delayed under the policies.

"We were thrilled by his day-one priority and thought it would lead to a major uptick" in visa processing, said Ryan Costello, the Iranian council's policy director. "But that hasn’t been the case. The relief has not been felt on the ground."

Instead, said Hammad Alam, AAAJ-ALC’s program manager for national security and civil rights, the department’s instructions only further muddled the process, arbitrarily cutting off those who had applied for visas before a particular date for no apparent reason and offering little to no guidance as to when applicants should contact officials or vice versa.

The State Department also did not extend eligibility reconsideration to those such as Iran's Ehtesab and Yemen's Abulla who were awarded visas through the diversity visa program.

Additionally, Alam said, while the department said it would waive re-application fees for those denied visas under the ban, the online system for doing so has still not been updated to reflect that, meaning applicants are stuck with paying the fees or not reapplying at all. Such fees can run from $200 to nearly $800, not including fees for waivers and other services, required medical tests and associated travel costs.

Once they do apply, individuals, get caught up in an immigration logjam aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates say, and many have no idea what their status is. Some have simply given up on moving to the United States, forced to resettle in other nations where they had no family.

“What it comes down to is administrative delay,” Alam said. “There’s a lack of consistency across the board on what families should do. Even immigration lawyers are confused.”

Joe Biden signed a series of orders and proclamations in the Oval Office after being sworn in as U.S. president on Jan. 20, 2021, including a decision to reverse bans on U.S. entry and resettlement for people from certain African, Asian and primarily Muslim-majority countries. A year later, advocates say little has changed despite the rescission of the bans.

The letter sent to Biden is signed by 108 nationwide organizations such as the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Oxfam America, Georgia Muslim Voter Project, South Dakota Voices for Peace and Human Rights Initiative of North Texas. It outlines 13 policy proposals that advocates said would alleviate the situation, which affects those hoping to join loved ones in the United States or seeking job opportunities or medical care.

In addition to revisiting and expediting applications from those denied under the ban, the letter urges Biden to provide clarity to affected communities, to restore consular services to pre-ban levels and to address federal anti-terrorism policies that enabled the bans to be created in the first place.

“It is unacceptable that families separated under these draconian Trump policies remain apart and in limbo,” Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said in a statement. “We urge the Biden administration to fully follow through on his campaign promises, provide meaningful relief and restore due process for those impacted.”

Alam, of the AAAJ-ALC, said it’s unclear how many people have been able to obtain visas after being denied under the ban, but that in many cases, families are having to take it upon themselves to reach out to U.S. embassies.

“We don’t have enough lawyers to represent them all,” he said. “And if there’s no clear guidance, if even immigration lawyers are confused, how are the families supposed to navigate that? The government owes these people some remedy and respect.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Muslim ban: After Biden repealed Trump policy, many still in limbo