Think about Afshin Raghebi, a 52-year-old man of Iranian origin stranded in Turkey after his application for a green card — and bid to be reunited with his American wife — was thrown into limbo by Trump. “The U.S., I loved that country. I still love it,” he told my colleagues. “They’re playing with our lives.”
Think about Rand Mubarak, an Iraqi refugee whose father worked as a translator for the U.S. military in Iraq. Their family had fled their homeland to Egypt following death threats and believed they were in line to relocate to the United States given her father’s service. But by 2017, their hopes took a severe blow after Trump announced his ban and slowed refugee resettlement to a standstill. Mubarak’s father developed a heart condition that required specialized treatment in a U.S. hospital, my colleagues reported. But no special dispensation came, and her father died last year.
Think about Negar Rahmani, a 26-year-old Iranian-born graduate student at the University of Rhode Island who stayed at her academic institution after Trump’s executive actions went into effect, aware that a trip home would mean she could be denied reentry to the United States. Then the pandemic hit, and her mother died after contracting covid-19. “I feel like I have been in a cage for four years,” Rahmani told the New York Times. “I could have gone back every summer. My mom could have visited me. I feel the travel ban in my bones and skin.”
These are just a few names from a vast pool of people whose lives were thrown into disarray by a flick of Trump’s pen. The former president had campaigned on the extremist promise of “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Soon after taking office, he issued an executive order temporarily banning entry and freezing refugee applications from seven Muslim-majority countries. Activists and legal groups mobilized against what many decried as the “Muslim ban”; after a series of challenges in lower courts, Trump’s executive order was found to be discriminatory.
But it was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2018 after Trump reissued his proclamations, adding a handful of countries that were not Muslim-majority. By the end of the Trump presidency, citizens from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, Tanzania and North Korea were all subject to broad bans on obtaining U.S. visas.
Trump invoked national security to justify these sweeping prohibitions. Critics argued that there was little to no evidence refugees and immigrants from the targeted countries posed a greater security risk than the overall population. In a 2018 dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that Trump’s ban “masquerades behind a facade of national-security concerns” and that “a reasonable observer would conclude” that it was “motivated by anti-Muslim animus.”
“Overall, at least 42,650 people — including students, parents, siblings, tourists, children, and businesspeople — have been barred from the United States because of their country of origin, rather than any warning signs in their files,” noted a report by the Brennan Center for Justice in 2019, which tracked State Department data starting in 2017.
President Biden repealed the ban on his first day in office. “This ban, which restricted issuance of visas to individuals from many Muslim and African countries, was nothing less than a stain on our nation,” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said in a briefing with reporters. “It was rooted in xenophobia and religious animus and [Biden] has been clear that we will not turn our back on our values with discriminatory bans on entry to the United States.”
“The Muslim ban showed us America at its worst: nativism, xenophobia, Islamophobia,” wrote TV anchor and columnist Mehdi Hasan for MSNBC. “Hundreds of Muslims detained; thousands denied entry; families torn asunder. The much-touted waivers which the Trump administration had promised, and which [Supreme Court Chief Justice John] Roberts had relied upon for his ruling, never materialized while studies suggested this was, in fact, an explicit attack on Muslim immigrants.”
For myriad noncitizens, as well as the Americans with whom their lives were intertwined, there’s no reversing Trump’s actions. “There will be no regaining what was lost: the moments with loved ones, the money spent on visits to stranded partners or far-flung consulates, the opportunities to live in the United States that were dangled, then dashed or delayed,” my colleagues wrote.
And for what gain? It’s impossible to prove that America was made safer by inflicting this torment on whole communities abroad. But it’s also hard to say that Trump paid much of a political price for doing so. According to an ABC-Ipsos poll, 55 percent of Americans approve of Biden repealing the travel bans — a slender, partisan majority that suggests tens of millions of Americans either have no qualms exacting such pain on strangers, or no idea about the misery the travel bans caused and the severity of the immigration system that was already in place before Trump took office.
Nevertheless, advocates are calling for the Biden administration to press ahead with a more liberal agenda. Beyond simply scrapping Trump’s policies, they want Biden to expand refugee resettlement, in coordination with other wealthy nations, to reckon with the unprecedented size of the global refugee population. They also are urging Biden officials to revise older immigration protocols they believe show bias against Arab and Muslim applicants.
“We don’t want to simply roll back to the status-quo pre-Trump,” Diala Shamas, a human rights lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, told the Middle East Eye. “Many of us have been working really hard to remove all sorts of discriminatory aspects of our immigration system before Trump ever came along.”