The Biden administration this week will determine the fate of people who were impacted by the Muslim ban, which ultimately targeted a large number of African countries. Rescinding the ban was a critical step toward restarting our immigration system and providing equitable access to Black and brown immigrants. But what about the people who would have received visas during the past four years—some of whom spent their life savings on the process but were nevertheless denied simply because of a discriminatory ban? Trump created this catastrophe, but it’s now Biden’s responsibility to remedy it.
In President Biden’s proclamation rescinding the ban, he directed the State Department to send him a report in 45 days. That deadline is Saturday. This report will advise on many things, including how to address Trump’s rampant denials of immigrant visas—that is, visas intended for people to come to the United States, become permanent residents, set down roots, and eventually become citizens.
The Biden administration must do everything possible to undo the Trump administration’s harms, including reopening previously denied cases to fairly reassess their claims, waiving fees (especially for those who would have to pay a second time), expediting their cases, and ensuring people are not penalized for the previous administration’s visa denials. There are glimmers of this hope in Biden’s order, as these issues are explicitly outlined for consideration.
The critically unknown question is how the Biden administration will help people and their families who were denied opportunities through our diversity visa program. This program was codified in the Immigration Act of 1990 in an effort to ensure that people with fewer opportunities to come to the United States through other parts of our immigration system—like family relationships or employment—would have a chance to “win” the lottery, affording them a shot to become American. It helps to ensure that the U.S. continues to reflect the diversity of our world, and winning the “lottery” to become eligible often represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
In recent years, the program has predominantly benefited people from Africa and Asia due to the dearth of other immigration opportunities for people in those regions. That’s why, following Trump’s slander of people from African countries in reference to our immigration system, members of Congress and other leaders have prioritized this program in proposed immigration reforms, and Biden’s immigration bill would in fact raise the number of available diversity visas. These proposals, in part, acknowledge the racism in our systems, and the need to ensure opportunities for Africans, Muslims, African Muslims, and others who lack opportunities through our immigration system.
From beginning to end, the countries listed under the Muslim ban completely overlapped with countries eligible for America’s diversity visa program. As a result, people who spent their life savings traveling with their partners and children—often through war zones—to embassies for interviews and processing found themselves ultimately denied because of Trump’s ban. Yemenis have been particularly impacted by Trump’s ban. Yemen is in the midst of war, which makes the physical process to get one’s visa approved arduous. It also makes leaving the country even more critical when such an opportunity is received.
For example, Anwar “won” the diversity visa lottery. He then traveled through militant-controlled regions and checkpoints to get the documentation he needed. He had to travel to Djibouti with his family because there is no embassy in Yemen, borrow money from family and friends, and wait an extended period of time there, only to be informed that his visa was denied because of the Muslim ban. Anwar, his wife, and two children had an opportunity to come to the United States, leave the dangers of Yemen, and build a future as a family—until Trump ripped it away. Their fate hangs in the balance, along with many others in Yemen, other countries in the region, and African countries as well.
It is now Biden’s decision as to whether Anwar, his family, and others like them will get back the opportunity they lost, this once-in-a lifetime chance that was destroyed by a president intent on discriminating against Black and brown immigrants. Biden must honor the invitation people were given by permitting them to come to the United States now. And that is just the start. People also deserve the opportunity and citizenship that the diversity visa would have given them.
Biden made the end of the Muslim ban a Day One priority. Now, he must ensure that people like Anwar and his family get the golden tickets they were promised.