Four years ago, Murad Awawdeh and the immigration advocacy organization he now leads were helping direct dozens of lawyers and translators who flocked to New York City’s JFK airport to aid travelers who arrived in the U.S. in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban.” Individuals were being detained at the airport by officials, despite possessing visas and even green cards, says Awawdeh, a Palestinian American Muslim and co-executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. Protesters demanded the release of those detained and shortly afterwards a federal judge in New York halted the measure.
But it was only on Wednesday, after multiple iterations of the ban—including the latest version which the Supreme Court upheld in 2018—that Awawdeh finally felt relief as Biden followed through on his promise to swiftly sign an executive order reversing the measure in its entirety. “It’s remarkable to see it was one of the first things Trump enacted and it was one of the first things Biden undid, which is really symbolic,” Awawdeh says. “It demonstrates the power our communities have built to demand justice.”
Even after Biden’s reversal, advocacy groups are continuing to push for congressional action to ensure no future president can revive the ban.
The most recent version of Trump’s ban included more countries than the original, and drew scrutiny for its inclusion of six African countries, leading critics to call it the “Muslim and African ban.” It placed varying degrees of restrictions on U.S. visas for citizens from a large group of countries, including Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea, Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan and Tanzania.
More than 42,000 people have been unable to enter the U.S. because of the travel restrictions since 2017, according to the Brennan Center for Justice’s analysis of state department data. Between Oct. 1, 2015 and Sept. 30, 2019 there was a 79% decrease in visas issued to Iranians, 74% for Somalis and 66% for Yemenis, according to The Bridge Initiative, a research project based in Georgetown University that focuses on Islamophobia. The stringent measure has kept thousands of families separated by creating roadblocks for American citizens to bring over their non-citizen relatives.
Biden’s executive order targeted towards “ending discriminatory bans on entry to the United States” specifically took issue with the Trump Administration’s measures to prevent entry to individuals from several Muslim-majority and African countries. “Those actions are a stain on our national conscience and are inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all,” the order said, also pushing back against the rationale put forth by supporters of the ban that it would strengthen national security. “Our national security will be enhanced” by lifting the ban, and the normal “rigorous” vetting procedures applied to every visa application would still remain, it said.
Families won’t be reunited instantly, advocates say. It may take weeks or months for the processes to be put in place, says Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist and executive director of MPower Change, a Muslim grassroots movement that has been advocating to overturn the travel restrictions for years. Strict COVID-19-related travel restrictions will further complicate the timeline of when exactly families can reunite.
Many Muslims and immigration advocates applauded Biden lifting the ban, but say their work is not over. Sarsour hopes community and service organizations will ensure whatever information comes next out of the Biden Administration is shared with communities in languages that they understand. “The executive order is just the first step,” she says. “It’s the intention to make a wrong right. But there’s also work that comes with that.”
In order to ensure no president has the power to enact such sweeping restrictions again, they are continuing to pressure Congress to pass the No Ban Act. The law would limit executive authority to prevent any future presidents from issuing similar bans. Such restrictions would only be allowed to apply to cases in which the Secretary of State has identified particular circumstances and credible facts that justify exclusion.
The bill passed the House last July but then stalled in the Senate. With Democrats recently taking control of both chambers, the measure is more likely to be successful. The No Ban Act is part of a sweeping immigration bill—which Biden sent to Congress Wednesday—that also includes creating pathways to citizenship for undocumented people, cracking down on family separation and providing new funding intended to help immigrants and refugees integrate into the U.S.
“The rescinding of the Muslim ban is temporary and it’s based on the philosophy, the ideology of the current president,” Sarsour says. “We need the No Ban Act because we need this to be on the record forever because we do not know what’s going to happen in 2024 or 2028.”
Sarsour says many of the family members separated by the ban were U.S. citizens who were trying to bring over non-citizen relatives from Yemen, where a civil war continues. Many had already been displaced by the conflict when their relatives were trying to get them to the U.S. “People were already victims of war. They were in unfamiliar places and also separated from their families,” Sarsour says. “It was trauma upon trauma.”
Grassroots organizations have been working tirelessly to advocate for legislation to overturn the ban and assist families impacted since the first iteration of the ban went into effect four years ago. Ismahan Abdullahi, executive director for MAS PACE National, a grassroots Muslim-American advocacy organization, remembers organizing a community town hall attended by more than 300 people in January 2017 to explain what Trump’s vague and confusing executive order entailed to confused and worried community members. They invited lawyers from the ACLU to work through the legal jargon. “Since then, it’s been nonstop organizing,” she says.
Abdullahi says community organizations like hers have struggled to find a way to reunite families or give them clarity about when they could be together again. “There’s nothing more heartbreaking than telling (these families) we don’t have an immediate answer to this,” says Abdullahi, a Black Muslim Somali refugee whose family arrived in Colorado in the early 1990s. “To have the President of the U.S. rescind that, I was crying all day yesterday. We have an answer again.”
And while the lifting of the ban is being celebrated by Muslims across the nation, many community leaders caution that their concerns extend beyond the measure. The ‘Muslim and African ban’ is not the only issue Muslims care about, says Awawdeh. “It’s great that (Biden) did this, but we need you to fix the broader issue—being the immigration system. Trump didn’t create the immigration system; he used it in its current form to do the harm he did to the Muslim and undocumented community.”
Sarsour says progressive Muslim groups like hers are calling for comprehensive immigration reform, noting that many Muslims are undocumented, in detention centers and deportation proceedings. “Our community has been put in a fringe category—that we are the Muslim ban end of it—but we hope in the future when the administration is talking about immigration, Muslim communities are part of that conversation.”