Somia Elrowmeim brought her 75-year-old mother from Yemen to the U.S. just before the Yemeni Civil War began in 2014. She’s been living with her daughter in New York City ever since and received her green card six years ago, but the rest of her family remains in Yemen. She has spent years trying to bring her children and grandchildren over to the U.S., to no avail.
Ever since the Trump Administration instated a racist, Islamophobic, and xenophobic travel ban targeting nationals from 13 African and predominantly Muslim countries through executive orders in 2017 and 2020, applying for and receiving an immigrant visa has been impossible. President Joe Biden repealed the ban on his first day in office, but advocates and Muslim Americans say nothing has been done to mitigate the damage, loss, and separation caused by the ban.
“[My mother] dreams about spending the rest of her life with her children and grandchildren,” said Elrowmeim, who is the founder of the Union of Arab Women. “It’s been a miserable life. She cannot sleep at night; she keeps crying every single day.”
Elrowmeim says it took her two years to apply and bring over her mother from Yemen prior to the Muslim ban, but now the process can take up to 10 years due to a combination of complications from the ban and the embassy in Sanaa being closed since February 2015. Saudi forces’ continuous turmoil and bombing in Yemen has caused extreme emotional and mental strife for Elrowmeim’s family. They went five days during the most recent attacks without hearing from their family because telephone lines were down. Her mother would travel to Yemen to see her family, but conditions remain unsafe.
“She doesn’t know what to do. This ban has made our lives miserable,” Elrowmeim said. “We are banned and bombed. Our country is bombed by the Saudi coalition with support from the U.S., and our family is banned from bringing them to this country.”
Elrowmeim’s family joins the more than 40,000 people whose visa applications were denied during the Muslim ban. According to Hammad Alam, staff attorney and program manager for Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s Asian Law Caucus, many visa applicants had mortgaged their houses and sold their property to afford the application process. Intimate family gatherings were missed, like weddings, holiday celebrations, and funerals. The U.S. even denied and deported Iranian students whose visas were valid.
“Families directly impacted are at the center, but there’s also the communities that they come from, that they’re a part of,” said Alam. “Yemeni American communities have felt a stigma, Iranian American community, Syrian American communities, many of whom have been in this country for a very long time and have really deep histories, have felt a stigma.”
When the Biden administration repealed the ban in January 2021, advocates, Muslim Americans, and their families abroad were thrilled. The ban, which according to a report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, caused Muslim hate crimes to increase by 15% in 2017. Of those, 35% came directly from federal government agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the FBI, ICE, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
“The first thing that we need from Customs and Border Protections is an apology to the Iranian and Iranian American community,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, human rights attorney and legal and advocacy director for Project South. “After they had subjected the Iranian Americans and Iranians in January 2020 to discriminatory treatment for a long time, they refused to acknowledge that there was any type of discrimination or targeting going on.”
The U.S. Department of State issued a statement last year shortly after repealing the ban saying that immigrant visa applicants who had been denied entry on or after January 2020 could seek re-adjudication. Filing fees would be waived for reapplication, and they would not have to resubmit their applications. But, immigration advocates say the message lacked clarity and a roadmap for the people most impacted. The statement did not mention whether applicants would be contacted and gave no specific direction for applicants to follow. Even more arbitrary and confusing, the adjudication process leaves out a majority of denied visa applicants from 2017-19 and does not address the non-immigrant visa applications.
“Rather than providing more clarity on the process, the State Department’s review after 45 days actually just confused the public more,” said Alam. “It punishes those who have been rejected for such a long timeframe.”
Alam says that the confusion has forced families to advocate for themselves by getting in touch with embassies on a persistent basis. But, not everyone can wait through the process.
“Over 40,000 families were rejected that we know of,” Alam said. “We don’t have enough lawyers to cover all of that, so a lot of these families are left on their own and oftentimes don’t even know how to go about addressing this, and many have given up on the process.”
As families continue to wait for clear guidance from the administration, advocates say they want to see community accountability for those who implemented and designed the ban in the first place. According to Shahshahani, one form would be people’s tribunals which would see the Trump administration as the defendants and document the pain and damage caused to the communities impacted by the Muslim ban.
“There will hopefully be an opportunity for everybody who was harmed by the Muslim ban to talk in depth about what happened to them,” Shahshahani said.
Alam hopes the Biden administration will consider providing humanitarian parole for people from Muslim nations. Additionally, the National Iranian American Council and over 100 organizations have written a letter to the Biden administration detailing 13 policy proposals that would help redress the harm caused by the ban, including waiving application fees, outlining steps for families whose applications will be adjudicated, and accounting for the travel expenses and other incidental expenses that come with applying for a visa.
“The more time that we take in delaying justice and remedies for these families,” Alam said, “the more this legacy will continue to be a dark side of American history.”