It was January 27, 2017, a Friday night, and the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) was expecting two clients at John F. Kennedy International Airport. One was Hameed Khalid Darweesh, an Iraqi man who had worked for ten years as an interpreter for the United States military. After years of waiting to join his wife in the US and after extensive vetting, he was handcuffed after getting off the plane. Protests swamped the airport and many others around the country.
This was the beginning of the Trump Administration’s travel ban, which many opponents refer to as the “Muslim ban,” for its predominant inclusion of majority Muslim countries.
At that time, IRAP didn’t even have a litigation department, but they sprung into action that Friday night – calling fellow advocates at Yale Law School, the National Immigration Law Center, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We were in court Saturday morning,” says Mariko Hirose, litigation director for IRAP. The team was able to block the president’s first executive order, and Darweesh was released from detention after 19 hours in custody.
Almost four years later, after a confusing litany of iterative policies and litigation against them, the travel ban is still barring the travel of millions around the globe, dividing American voters, and impacting Muslim Americans.
A protest against Mr Trump's 'Muslim ban'. Source: AAP
The current list of countries with travel restrictions includes Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Chad, North Korea, Venezuela, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania.
“It’s really been expanded to be an ‘Africa ban,’” says Hirose.
There is a mechanism for nationals of these banned countries to get a waiver to enter the US, but it is considered by critics, including US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in his on the court’s June 2018 upholding of the ban, as “window dressing.”
The rate of approval for these waivers is very low. The number of immigrant visas granted to nationals of 48 Muslim-majority countries fell 30 per cent between 2016 and 2018, according to a of US Department of State data. The ban has barred entry to an estimated 3,742 spouses and 5,542 adopted children of US citizens.
The COVID-19 pandemic has driven the government to further restrict immigrant and nonimmigrant visas to the United States–in effect imposing a “double ban,” Hirose says.
“If you can even get through one waiver process, there’s a second one,” she says, calling the process a “black box.”
“Despite this theoretical existence of a waiver, the ban as it exists has just continued to harm tens of thousands of people who are not able to come to the country to unite with their family, or to pursue their studies, or whatever else they otherwise would have been able to come to the United States to do.”
Though the ban does not currently apply to refugees, complementary Trump Administration policies have slowed down refugee entry substantially. Muslim refugee admissions dropped 91 per cent from 2016 to 2018, according to from the US Dept. of State.
People protest against the so-called Muslim Ban. Source: AAP
In February, the ACLU of Washington reached a settlement in a civil rights lawsuit that requires the federal government to process refugees who were halted by the travel ban.
“They’ll be under a settlement agreement and reporting to us until they’ve processed all 317 of our folks,” said Tana Lin, board president and cooperating attorney for ACLU-WA.
But the process has dragged.
“There are a lot fewer people than we thought there would be by now,” Lin says. “Of course everybody’s trying to be sensitive to the fact that COVID hit everywhere, but we’re disappointed in how slow the process has been to get our folks in.
Inside the US, beyond the minutiae of litigation, the impact of the travel ban is still felt broadly. , Muslim Americans were subject to 15 per cent of religion-based hate crimes, despite making up just 1 per cent of the US population. In the lead up to the election, American views of Islam continue to divide voters backing Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, according to a .
Likewise, the travel ban divides lawmakers along party lines. The National Origin-Based Antidiscrimination for Nonimmigrants Act (the NO BAN Act) was introduced in April 2019 as a set of bicameral companion bills. It aims to dissolve the travel ban, gain transparency and accountability for the visa waiver process, and prevent discriminatory bans in the future. It also includes steps to strengthen the Immigration and Nationality Act. It has passed in the majority Democratic House, but it’s seen no such luck in the Republican-dominated Senate.
Respentative Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who introduced the bill to the House, wrote in a statement: “The Muslim Ban is a cruel policy intended to isolate and demonize Muslims. And it is having a terrible impact on families who are being forced apart. Partners are separated, and family members have missed weddings, graduations, births, and funerals. It’s clear these bans were always about cruelty and not national security.”
Biden’s campaign to “rescind the Trump Administration’s Muslim Ban on day one and urge Congress to pass the NO BAN Act to ensure future administrations cannot restore Trump’s Ban.” The platform also includes a promise to “fix long-standing issues with how the government reports and deals with hate crimes.”
Trump’s second term agenda does not mention the travel ban explicitly. However, amidst the platform’s bullet points, there are oblique references to it. He promises to “end illegal immigration and protect American workers”; “block illegal immigrants from becoming eligible for taxpayer-funded welfare, healthcare, and free college tuition”; and “wipe out terrorists who threaten to harm Americans.”
An official Trump website––lists the travel ban as an accomplishment. “Protecting Americans from terrorists with Travel Ban, upheld by Supreme Court,” it says, next to the date.
“I think what we can expect if there’s no administration change is just continued attacks on immigrants and on refugee populations,” Hirose says. “And our continued need to keep litigating these cases, and to bring additional cases to continue to push back on these policies that have already devastated the refugee program.”