washington d.c. – When Ahmad, who is Syrian, won the diversity lottery – and a chance to get a US visa – in May 2018, he was in disbelief at what he described as “an opportunity once in a lifetime”.
It was the 33-year-old’s third attempt to apply for the Diversity Visa Program, which gives 50,000 out of millions of applicants the chance to apply for a US green card each year. Originally from Damascus, Ahmad left the war-torn country in July 2019 for Jordan to undergo medical tests and an interview at the US Embassy as part of his application.
He was told to wait for an answer. He never heard back.
“We were treated unfairly. I had an opportunity, but because of the ban and where I’m from – it’s not my fault, I didn’t choose to be born here,” said Ahmad, who asked Al Jazeera to use only his first name to protect his privacy. in a telephone interview. “I’m like everyone else, I have the right to travel and have a better future.”
Ahmad is among thousands of foreign nationals and US citizens whose lives have been turned upside down by former President Donald Trump’s so-called ‘Muslim ban’, which barred citizens of several countries from entering the country. predominantly Muslim.
The ban had an immediate and dramatic impact. Around this date, five years ago, when it first took effect, Trump’s order blocked hundreds of travelers who were already on their way to the United States and wreaked havoc on the airports, as previously issued visas had been cancelled, detained and sent home.
Today, despite President Joe Biden’s decision to reverse the ban on his first day in office last year, American Muslims, rights advocates and immigration experts say the policy continues to have a lingering effect on American citizens, as well as people from afar. away from countries that remain separated from their loved ones.
“I’m very angry, I think it’s unfair,” said Ahmad, who added that the visa application fee, as well as travel and medical examination fees, cost him a year’s salary. “In addition to the injustice we have here, there is another loss.”
Nationals of blocked countries were able to continue to apply for the diversity visa while the ban was in effect. But most were never allowed to enter the United States – or, like Ahmad, never received a response.
The US State Department noted last March that applicants who were denied entry in the 2017-20 fiscal years due to the ban should reapply to the program, despite the slim chance of being re-selected.
“We Syrians, Yemenis and Libyans – people from countries that were banned – are the most legitimate people to have a chance to change our situation,” said Ahmad, who is part of a group of 18 winners of the lottery of Syrian diversity visas of the same year requiring their applications to be considered without having to reapply. “We are the people who most need to emigrate and improve our lives.”
Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, said many diversity visa lottery winners had taken great financial risks, including quitting their jobs and going into debt, to apply.
“Thousands of people who won their diversity visa lottery ended up giving up their home lives to navigate the system, and then the system rejected them,” Awawdeh said. “Just because the ban was overturned doesn’t mean the impact isn’t being felt to this day.”
Hiba Ghalib, an immigration attorney based in Atlanta, Georgia, added that many people missed unique opportunities to study or work, or weren’t able to attend important personal events such as weddings, funerals or births, due to the ban. .
“Reverse [the ban] on a prospective basis does not address the harm done to people who have been affected by it during the Trump administration,” Ghalib told Al Jazeera, adding that in embassies there remains a “culture” of looking suspiciously at candidates. previously banned countries. . “And it’s actually very difficult to reverse.”
Trump, who promised during his first election campaign to enact a “complete halt” to Muslims entering the country, signed the first executive order on January 27, 2017, which barred citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling to United States.
The decision prompted immediate legal challenges, prompting the Trump administration to revise the policy to include a waiver process allowing candidates to request an exception. Several African countries, including Nigeria, Eritrea and Sudan, were also later added to the ban. A total of 13 countries eventually made it to the list, and in 2018 the US Supreme Court upheld this third iteration of the policy.
According to statistics compiled by the State Department, more than 40,000 visa applications were refused under the ban. In addition to denying entry to people outside the United States, the policy also had a serious effect on American Muslims.
Pouria Mojabi, who is Iranian-American, requested in 2017 that his elderly parents come from Iran to live with him in California because he wanted to spend more time with them and monitor his father’s deteriorating health.
He said the demands were nearly over when the final ban went into effect, putting a stop to their plans. His mother, now 70, was granted a waiver a few months later, while his father, 71, was placed on administrative treatment, where he has been since. Amid additional pandemic-related travel restrictions, her mother was unwilling to leave her husband behind. By then, she should also have redone her medical examinations.
“We haven’t heard anything, they keep saying the treatment is ongoing,” Mojabi, 40, told Al Jazeera. “Even with the end of the Muslim ban, we are still struggling to find a visa for my father.
“I email the embassy and they just give me their cookie-cutter response that it’s being administratively processed. It’s just unreal how long we’ve waited.
The State Department said applicants sometimes need “additional assessment to determine if they are eligible for a visa” and the term “administrative processing” can refer to various additional steps that must be taken.
“Before issuing a visa, we must ensure that applicants do not pose a security risk to the United States and are otherwise eligible for a visa. If an applicant requires additional screening for any reason, we will not issue a visa until that screening is complete,” a State Department spokesperson told Al Jazeera in an email. .
Amid continued criticism over the consequences of the ban, the State Department announced on January 20 that nationals of Burma, Eritrea, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Nigeria, North Korea , Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Venezuela and Yemen who previously refused a visa under the ban would be exempt from paying immigration fees on future applications.
One of @POTUSThe first acts were to revoke what were called travel bans for Muslims and Africa. We are now taking a further step to address the harm caused by these discriminatory prohibitions by waiving payment of immigrant visa fees for those previously refused under these policies. https://t.co/HUzgluBKfm
—Ned Price (@StateDeptSpox) January 20, 2022
The move, the department said, was “to repair the damage of these discriminatory bans.”
Avideh Moussavian, director of federal advocacy at the National Immigration Law Center, a member group of the No Muslim Ban Ever coalition, said the Biden administration should work to restore trust eroded by the ban.
“Part of what was so pernicious about the ban was the fact that it was as much about sending a political message as it was about instituting a new policy,” Moussavian said. “And the political message was, ‘You’re not welcome here. “”
It is a feeling that visa applicants and their families continue to feel. Pouria said he had little hope of reuniting with his parents in the United States, that he wanted to spend time with his two daughters, aged three and one, whom they have never met in person.
“Obviously we felt really betrayed by the Trump administration because we realized we were a different type of citizen than your average American citizen. We’re in a different bucket, completely marginalized and we don’t matter “, he said. “And now under Biden, it looks like empty promises.”