President Joe Biden may have declared the end of the Muslim ban on the first day of his presidency, but the facts on the ground present a different and disturbing reality. After almost two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, and nearly a full year into President Biden’s term, the inequitable implications of being a U.S. visa applicant from one of those banned countries remain in place. Extreme vetting and background checks that are a bureaucratic minefield continue to endure, and the COVID-19 pandemic has added another roadblock—U.S. Consulates in Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries have not resumed scheduling certain applicants for appointments.
Since the beginning of 2017 when the Muslim ban was put into place, countless families from the MENA area have yet to be reunited with their loved ones in the U.S.—they include parents, sons and daughters, as well as grandparents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. There was a glimmer of hope at the beginning of 2021—President Biden announced the end of that ban. However due to the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Consulates around the world were essentially closed to most applicants, and —these family members continued to wait for the ability to secure a visa appointment.
Beginning in March 2020, the U.S. put into place several Covid-related travel bans to slow the effects of the pandemic. At its height, it barred most nonimmigrants and immigrants, as well as international visitors from 33 countries such as the U.K., South Africa, Brazil, and many in Europe. These bans provided carve outs and exceptions for certain applicants—however visa services were either suspended or extremely limited into early 2021.
As vaccine distribution increased, U.S. consulates began to resume visa services accommodate qualifying applicants while the ban remained in place. Qualifying applicants from around the world began scheduling appointments, getting themselves situated to reunite with their loved ones in the U.S. While qualifying applicants were scheduled for their appointments, many MENA applicants were stonewalled. An invisible but very real ban remained.
For example, Iranian visa applicants must travel to other countries for their visa appointments. This includes the UAE, Armenia, and Turkey. The U.S. consulates in these countries have specific agreements in place to accommodate the visa appointments of Iranian nationals, as there is no U.S. consulate in Iran. However, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Iranians have been subject to new bans. The U.S. Embassies in Turkey stated on their website that, due to the pandemic, they would only schedule appointments for Turkish nationals and residents. Iranians remained banned from access.
On November 8, 2021, the administration lifted the Covid-related travel bans.
The drastic differences in the implementation of the lifting of these two travel bans are startling. Whereas when President Biden lifted the Muslim and Africa bans, celebration seemed muted, amidst the lifting of the COVID ban, there was an air of celebration where passengers landed in the U.S. greeted by airline employees’ applause and balloons. Much of the coverage pertained to predominantly white-Eurocentric reunions.
Conversely, foreign nationals from predominantly Muslim and African countries are met with bureaucratic hoops to try and jump through. Thousands of individuals are held up in backlogs because of extensive administrative processing and “extreme vetting” which are only slightly better than an actual ban. It’s reproachful that nearly a year later, those suffering from the Muslim ban and Africa bans remain separated.
In fact, a new travel ban was imposed on eight African nations over the weekend in response to the detection of the new Omicron covid variant. However, a number of non-MENA countries including Australia, Israel, Canada, the Netherlands, and the U.K., among others, have also confirmed Omicron variant cases. Travel bans have not been imposed on these countries, even though we have since learned that the Netherlands detected it first. While the travel bans are supposed to limit entry into the United States to individuals who have physically been in these countries for 14 days, the Administration has also stopped processing visas for these individuals, which unlawfully restricts their ability to quarantine in another country before coming to the United States and has nothing to do with preventing the spread of COVID-19.
One cannot help but wonder if these bans are purely political, and discriminatory, theater at this juncture given the fact the variant has been found in so many areas.
Too many family milestones have passed. Births, bar/bat mitzvahs, graduations, weddings, and funerals are human experiences that are irreplaceable, and they’ve all been subjected to extreme vetting and cruelty of the U.S. immigration process towards the MENA population.
Without a doubt, watching European families reunite literally by November 9th was a joyful and glorious experience. However, MENA visa applicants and their families in the U.S. remain largely separated. The impact is staggering. Imagine having to tell a 75-year-old Iranian/German -dual national grandmother that our government has not yet concluded its background checks on her immigrant visa application she interviewed for in 2016. Imagine the heartbreak of the Iranian fiancé waiting years with no end in sight for a visa appointment to reunite with her U.S. citizen fiancé in the U.S. The impact of this continued de-facto ban on MENA applicants is devastating.
It has been nearly four years since the implementation of the Muslim ban and nearly a year since it was lifted. It may look like the bans are gone on paper, but they continue to be in place in practice. This is unfair and unjust and deeply harmful to all of those affected.
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