Biden ended travel ban on Muslim-majority nations. But separated families remain in limbo

Biden ended travel ban on Muslim-majority nations. But separated families remain in limbo

Originally Published in the Los Angeles Times

Sarah Parvini - February 10, 2021

Family separated by travel ban

Armin Deroee, left, and his family at his parents’ home in Tehran in 2018. He has been fighting for his father to secure a green card for years, hitting hurdles due to the Trump administration’s travel ban on Muslim-majority nations.  (Armin Deroee)
Armin Deroee measures his family’s separation in moments missed: graduations, Nowruz celebrations and the birth of his niece, Niki.

For the last six years, he and his sister have been fighting for their parents to secure green cards — the final step before the elderly couple could leave Iran and move to California to be with their children. Their mother, Mina, received her immigrant visa in 2016.

But their father, Ebrahim, was waiting on the results of a background check by U.S. officials when in 2017 the Trump administration passed its first version of a travel ban on Muslim-majority nations that included Iran. Like thousands of others, the 82-year-old physician was barred from entering the United States.

“It’s not easy at all, and it has been a whole stress and pressure over the whole family,” said Deroee, an anesthesiologist in Visalia. “In March, my father got COVID while my mom was here and it was a very scary time for us. It was one of the most difficult times of my life.”

The Biden administration revoked President Trump’s travel ban last month, among a slew of Day 1 promises to undo many Trump-era changes to the nation’s immigration system. Although the move provided a sense of relief to many families separated by the policy, experts say that rescinding the ban did not automatically open the gates to new immigrants or visitors hoping for visas.

These unresolved questions have left many families anxious and in a sort of limbo, not least in California, home to many families with ties to the most affected countries.

Several Trump-era immigration policies remain, including an April 2020 presidential proclamation that banned new visas for some family members of U.S. citizens and family members of permanent residents. The Biden administration reinstated pandemic-related regional travel restrictions on multiple countries. President Biden also expanded the regional restrictions to include South Africa, a decision related to stemming the spread of highly contagious COVID strains.

The April proclamation, set to expire March 31, suspended the entry of most immigrant visa applicants. A separate June proclamation extended the April proclamation and suspended the entry of employment-based nonimmigrant visa applicants “who present a risk to the U.S. labor market during the economic recovery following the novel coronavirus outbreak” with few exceptions.

Attorneys and immigration advocates said that they had hoped Biden would rescind both policies.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Curtis Morrison, an immigration lawyer working on travel ban cases. “Many are confused because of the way the rhetoric is presented on TV. The State Department has put a website up for the repeal that acts like people can go to the embassy now, and I’m telling them, ‘No, you can’t go to the embassy because you’re subject to this other ban.’”

In an email, a White House spokesperson said that “the executive actions signed thus far are just the beginning.”

“President Biden has been very clear about restoring compassion and order to our immigration system, and correcting the divisive, inhumane, and immoral policies of the past four years, which is our focus in the coming weeks and months,” the spokesperson said.

The State Department said that the proclamations “restricting the entry of certain visa applicants due to risks to the U.S. labor market” remain in effect and that the department had no changes to announce.

“A lot of people are anxious. They see the green card ban as the most draconian ban Trump put into place. The Trump administration touted it would prevent a half-million people coming to the U.S.,” said Rafael Ureña, an attorney representing those affected by the ban, referring to the identification that shows that an immigrant holds permanent resident status in the U.S. rather than being admitted for a specific period of time for work or to visit.

As of this month, some 473,000 immigrant visas were stuck in a backlog at the National Visa Center, he said.

Between the 2016 and 2019 fiscal years, there was a 79% decrease in visas issued to Iranians, a 74% decrease in visas for Somalis and a 66% drop for Yemenis, according to an analysis by the Bridge Initiative, a research project on Islamophobia based at Georgetown University. There were significant drops in visas to applicants from Syria and Iraq as well, data show.

“We’re basically nowhere near a resolution on any of those folks who were in administrative processing and waiting for waiver approval, nor on those who have been denied a visa,” said Paris Etemadi Scott, legal director of the Pars Equality Center. “What the Biden administration just asked for is the Department of State to come up with a report within 45 days of the repeal on how to handle those cases.”

The move presented “kind of a pattern,” she said, with the administration asking departments or agencies to come up with a plan rather than stating one outright.

“Nothing has changed, it’s just that if tomorrow somebody goes to an embassy for an interview, then they’re not going to get denied based on the Muslim travel ban,” she said. “Those people in administrative processing waiting for that waiver to get approved, or those who have been denied, they are still in limbo until we get the report from Department of State on how to handle those cases.”

Among families separated by the ban, there are those like Deroee’s, who joined a lawsuit and may be able to expedite a visa and see their loved ones reunited within months; those who never joined litigation, or who are still fighting in court; and those to whom visas were issued in September, but who cannot afford to wait for the April proclamation to end on March 31 because their visas expire before then.

The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program makes up to 50,000 immigrant visas available annually, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and is drawn from a random selection of applicants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

“They won’t have the ability to renew their visa or have the visa reissued,” Ureña said. “They will have to resubmit their applications for the lottery process, and it’s less than a 1% chance to be selected for the lotto and even less to be selected twice.”

Morrison, the attorney, said that, “For about half my clients, it’s a waiting game until March 31.”

“For the other half, it’s not an option because they have diversity visas issued in September,” he continued. “Most of these people have sold their homes. About 50 are in Mexico or Turkey right now because they wanted to catch a direct flight when the proclamation expired.”

 

The Trump administration intentionally hamstrung the immigration system, immigrant advocates said, further complicating an already lengthy process for those wishing to move to the U.S. legally. At the same time, embassies and consulates are facing additional difficulties due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What became clear fairly quickly from the Trump administration was that it was death by a thousand cuts,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “Part of the strategy with certain programs was not just to reduce the numbers in the short term, but to decimate the infrastructure in the long term.”

Although the ban may be lifted, visas won’t immediately be issued, Ureña added.

“If you stop an operation like immigrant visa processing, it creates unfathomable delays,” he said. “We’re in a post-COVID environment where capacity for the State Department to adjudicate visas is less than normal. The idea that problems just go away once the ban is rescinded, it’s just not true.”

Arafat Al-dailami, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Yemen, moved to the U.S. in 2012. The 30-year-old married his wife in Yemen two years later, and filed paperwork for her to receive an immigrant visa so she could eventually live with him in Dearborn, Mich. Her visa was denied under the travel ban.

The couple has three children — two daughters and a son — and Al-dailami was able to move his girls to Dearborn after multiple trips to his home country and several visits to the U.S. embassy in Djibouti. But his 1-year-old son and his wife still live in Yemen, where a civil war continues to rage.

Al-dailami hopes he can reunite his family soon after years of separation.

“I didn’t see my first daughter when she was born. I didn’t see my second daughter when she was born. And now, my son,” he said. “I want to gather my family. I want to be with them.”

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