Washington, DC – When Ahmad, who is Syrian, won the diversity lottery – and a chance to get a visa to the United States – in May 2018, he was in disbelief at what he described as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”.
It was the 33-year-old’s third attempt applying for the Diversity Visa Program, which gives up to 50,000 people out of millions of applicants the chance to apply for a US green card every year. A native of Damascus, Ahmad left the war-torn country in July 2019 for Jordan to do his medical tests and an interview at the American embassy as part of his application.
He was told to wait for a response. He never heard back.
“We have been treated unjustly. I had an opportunity, but because of the ban and where I am from – it’s not my fault, I didn’t choose to be born here,” Ahmad, who asked Al Jazeera to use only his first name to protect his privacy, said in a phone interview. “I am just like everyone else, I have the right to travel and get a better future.”
Ahmad is among thousands of foreign nationals and US citizens, whose lives were upended by former President Donald Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban“, which barred entry into the country for citizens from several Muslim-majority nations.
The ban had an immediate, dramatic impact. Around this date five years ago, when it first came into effect, Trump’s order stranded hundreds of travellers who were already en route to the US and caused chaos at airports as people had their previously issued visas cancelled, were detained and sent back home.
Now, despite President Joe Biden’s decision to reverse the ban on his first day in office last year, Muslim Americans, rights advocates, and immigration experts say the policy continues to have a lingering effect on American citizens, as well as on people in far-away countries who remain separated from loved ones.
“I am very angry, I feel this is unjust,” said Ahmad, who added that the visa application fee, as well as travel and medical test expenses, cost him a year’s salary. “On top of the injustice that we have here, there is another loss.”
Nationals from blocked countries were able to continue applying for the diversity visa while the ban was in effect. But most were never allowed to enter the US – or, like Ahmad, never given an answer.
The US Department of State said last March that applicants who were denied entry during the 2017-2020 fiscal years as a result of the ban would have to reapply to the programme, despite the slim chance of being selected again.
“Us Syrians, Yemenis and Libyans – people from countries who were on the ban – we are the most rightful people for a chance to change our circumstances,” said Ahmad, who is among a group of 18 Syrian diversity visa lottery winners from the same year demanding that their applications be decided on without having to reapply. “We are the people who are in the 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 gone to great financial risks, including quitting jobs and going into debt, in order to apply.
“Thousands of people who won their diversity visa lottery ended up giving up their lives back home to navigate the system, and then the system rejected them,” Awawdeh said. “Just because the ban has been rescinded, it doesn’t mean that the impact is still not felt to this day.”
Hiba Ghalib, an immigration lawyer based in Atlanta, Georgia, added that many people have missed out on one-time opportunities to study or work, or could not attend important personal events such as weddings, funerals or births, as a result of the ban.
“Reversing [the ban] on a forward basis doesn’t address the harm to the people who were impacted by it during the Trump administration,” Ghalib told Al Jazeera, adding that in embassies there remains a “culture” of looking with suspicion at applicants from the previously banned countries. “And that is actually very difficult to reverse.”
Trump, who promised during his first election campaign to enact a “complete shutdown” on Muslims entering the country, signed the first executive order on January 27, 2017, that restricted citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from travelling to the US.
The decision drew immediate court challenges, which prompted the Trump administration to revise the policy to include a waiver process enabling applicants to apply for an exception. Several African countries, including Nigeria, Eritrea and Sudan, were also subsequently added to the ban. In total, 13 countries were eventually on the list, and in 2018, the US Supreme Court upheld that third iteration of the policy.
According to statistics compiled by the Department of State, more than 40,000 visa applications were denied under the ban. Apart from denying entry for people outside the US, the policy had a serious effect on American Muslims, too.
Pouria Mojabi, who is Iranian American, petitioned in 2017 for his elderly parents to come from Iran to live with him in California because he wanted to spend more time with them, as well as monitor his father’s worsening health.
He said the applications were nearly complete when the final ban came into effect, bringing their plans to a halt. His mother, now aged 70, got a waiver several months later, while his father, aged 71, was put under administrative processing, where he has been ever since. Amid additional pandemic travel restrictions, his mother did not wish to leave her husband behind. By then, she would also have needed to redo her medical exams.
“We haven’t heard anything, they just keep saying it is going through the processing,” Mojabi, 40, told Al Jazeera. “Even with the Muslim ban gone, we are still struggling to figure out a visa for my dad.
“I email the embassy and they just give me their cookie-cutter response that this is going under administrative processing. It’s just unreal how long we have been waiting.”
The Department of State has said that applicants sometimes require “additional assessment to determine whether they are eligible for a visa” and the term “administrative processing” may refer to various additional steps that must be taken.
“Before issuing any visa, we must ensure that applicants do not pose a security risk to the United States and otherwise are eligible for a visa. If an applicant requires additional screening for whatever reason, we will not issue a visa until that screening is complete,” a Department of State spokesperson told Al Jazeera in an email.
Amid continuing criticism of the toll the ban continues to take, the Department of State announced on January 20 that nationals from Burma, Eritrea, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Nigeria, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Venezuela and Yemen who were previously denied a visa under the ban would be exempt from paying immigration fees on future applications.
One of @POTUS’ first acts was to revoke what were known as the Muslim and Africa travel bans. Now we’re taking an additional step to remedy the damage of these discriminatory bans by exempting 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, aimed “to remedy the damage of these discriminatory bans”.
Avideh Moussavian, director of federal advocacy at the National Immigration Law Center, a group that is a member of the No Muslim Ban Ever coalition, said the Biden administration should be working on restoring the trust that was eroded by the ban.
“Part of what was so pernicious about the ban was the fact that they were intended to send as much a political message as to institute new policy,” Moussavian said. “And the political message was, ‘You are not welcome here.’”
That is a feeling affected visa applicants and their families say continues to linger. Pouria said he has little hope of being reunited in the US with his parents, who he had 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 realised that we are a different type of citizen than your average US citizen. We’re in a different bucket, completely marginalised and we are not important,” he said. “And now under Biden, it just feels like empty promises.”