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Muslims exult in Biden's order voiding travel ban

by DECLAN WALSH THE NEW YORK TIMES | January 24, 2021 at 3:49 a.m.

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Few foreigners welcomed President Joe Biden's election victory as enthusiastically as the tens of thousands of Muslims who have been locked out of the United States for the past four years as a result of the Trump-era immigration restrictions popularly known as the "Muslim ban."

By one count, 42,000 people were prevented from entering the United States from 2017-19, mostly from Muslim-majority nations like Iran, Somalia, Yemen and Syria. Immigrant visas issued to citizens of those countries fell by up to 79% over the same period.

But the human cost of then-President Donald Trump's measures, stitched into the fabric of disrupted lives stained with tears and even blood, can hardly be counted -- families separated for years, weddings and funerals missed, careers and study plans upended, lifesaving operations that did not take place.

Biden said in his order revoking the restrictions that Trump's measures -- a lattice of one executive order and three presidential proclamations whose stated aim was to keep terrorists out -- undermined U.S. security, jeopardized its global alliances and presented "a moral blight that has dulled the power of our example the world over."

For some, the reversal simply came too late.

Iranian Negar Rahmani, a graduate student of neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island, set aside plans to return home after the first immigration directive in January 2017 targeted her country. She urged her parents to make do with video calls until a new American president had been elected.

But then the pandemic struck, and in November, Rahmani's 56-year-old mother in Iran was hospitalized with covid-19, leaving her daughter with an agonizing dilemma. If Rahmani, 26, flew home, she risked being shut out of the United States for good. But her mother's condition was deteriorating rapidly.

Torn, she wavered for two weeks until the disease intervened, and her mother died.

Now Rahmani is wracked by different feelings, she said in an interview: regret at not going home while her mother was alive and a deep contempt for Trump and the immense pain his policy had caused her.

"I feel like I have been in a cage for four years," she said, breaking into sobs. "I could have gone back every summer. My mom could have visited me. I feel the travel ban in my bones and skin."

By the end, after more than 100 court challenges and several iterations, Trump's "Muslim ban" had become an African one, too. It barred entry to most citizens from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria and Yemen; halted immigration from Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Burma and Nigeria; restricted selected people in Tanzania; and included Venezuela, too.

Burma is often called Myanmar, a name that military authorities adopted in 1989. Some nations, such as the United States and Britain, have refused to adopt the name change.

The ban was upheld in the Supreme Court, which said that despite the president's incendiary words about Muslims, the ban was justified as an anti-terrorism policy. But the ruling came with a searing dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who likened it to the 1944 Korematsu v. United States decision that upheld the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Since the doors were flung open this past week, many prospective visitors have been picking up the pieces to try again. A travel agent in Libya said there had been a sudden interest in U.S. visa applications. In Nigeria the Biden election will likely "flood the visa offices," said Olajumoke Yacob-Haliso, a political science professor at Babcock University in Ogun state.

Despite the worldwide backlash over the ban, America still holds an immense global appeal, especially to citizens of fragile nations. "It's oof, relief, an optimistic feeling," said Nizar Asruh, a Libyan in San Diego who said he hoped his mother could now get a visa to visit.

As well as expediting outstanding applications, Biden has ordered an immediate review of all visas rejected under Trump's measures and an assessment of contentious "extreme vetting" security procedures that include screening an applicant's social media feeds.

But immigration advocates warn that a return to the pre-Trump system will not be a panacea.

"Even before, the system was discriminatory and not welcoming to Muslims," said Gadeir Abbas, a staff attorney for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "It was under the Obama administration that you had the expansion of a terrorism watch list to over a million names that, as far as we can tell, is essentially a list of Muslims."


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