What Lies in the Rubble of the Muslim Ban?

From the Series: The Damage Wrought: Immigration Before, Under, and After Trump

A map of dangers as resources made by a young Mexican border crosser.

On January 27, 2017, I was returning home from Khartoum to New York City anticipating the signing of an executive order that would ban citizens of Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen from entering the United States. I arrived at JFK airport a few hours after the ban went into effect, with my Sudanese passport in hand, and was detained alongside a group of Iranian and Iraqi citizens. The officers who detained us repeated the words “standard procedure,” as they explained why we were being handcuffed and body searched, before being transferred to a 24-hour holding area. The phrase struck me because it implied that hundreds of travelers passing through JFK are subjected to these procedures on a daily basis, as part of a dehumanizing process that has become routinized and standardized, over the course of decades. What made our particular detentions and their aftermath different was the exceptionalism that had surrounded the Muslim/African ban; the ways it passed through news cycles and moved people to turn airports into sites of protest, and the fact that it was explicitly named a ban by the U.S. administration. This exceptionalism served to set the ban apart from similarly dehumanizing immigration policies and from the history and broader legacy of genocide, racism, xenophobia, and classism that has shaped and structured U.S. immigration policy from its very inception.

With each iteration of the ban, new African countries were added, some of which were not Muslim-majority countries, putting the U.S. administration’s anti-Black racism on full display. This criminalization of African immigrants became one of the primary trade-offs for walking back the ban’s initially explicit exclusion of Muslims. While adding a layer of unpredictability to the ban’s ongoing evolution for anyone with an African passport, the exceptionalism surrounding the ban also gave those impacted by it rare avenues for engaging with U.S. advocacy groups and the broader public. Rescinding the ban without redressing the harm and damage it caused foreclosed such engagements and produced new forms of racialized exclusion and dispossession.

Years after my detention, I connected with Anwar, a father of two from Sanaa, Yemen, who worked as a bank teller before winning the U.S. diversity visa lottery in 2017. He had entered the lottery sixteen years in a row before finally being selected. In June of 2018, after quitting his job and selling his belongings, Anwar and his family traveled from Sanaa to the U.S. embassy in Djibouti to begin the lengthy process of migrating to the United States. For months, they found themselves in a state of limbo with dwindling resources, as U.S. embassy staff asked them both to prepare for departure and to wait for news from Washington granting them permission to travel. Before June, waves of Yemeni diversity lottery winners had been allowed to enter the United States while the ban was being challenged in U.S. district courts. Anwar and his family had arrived in Djibouti around the time the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the third iteration of the ban. By August, it was clear that only a new administration could change this reality, but the U.S. embassy failed to disclose this to visa applicants. Instead, Anwar told me, they were handed a piece of paper informing them that Yemenis were prohibited from entering the United States. “We were told, but wait Ya'ani, maybe if we receive news from the United States, maybe they will resolve your problem.” In December of 2018, Anwar and his family refused to continue waiting and returned to Yemen where they began rebuilding their lives in the midst of a U.S.-backed war. Anwar has since joined a WhatsApp group of 250 Yemenis scattered across the globe who won the U.S. diversity lottery but were subsequently denied entry into the United States due to the ban. In January of 2021, the Biden administration rescinded the ban, but failed to redress the extensive damage it caused. They failed, for instance, to reinstate the more than one hundred thousand visas that were annulled the day the ban was instituted. Diversity lottery winners were told that their visas had a time stamp on them that had expired and that they were welcome to re-enter the lottery in 2021. People have lost livelihoods, life savings, and the ability to reunite with their loved ones. Even groups like the ACLU, who had advocated for Anwar before the ban was reversed, now feel like their hands are tied because the visas that lottery winners were entitled to have been deemed invalid.

To refuse to wait within this context signals a rupture in the relationship between those being forced to wait and those with the power to require others to wait. For Anwar and others, refusing to wait and getting organized in a collective manner to question the legality of their visa rejections allows them to begin challenging the power dynamics that have long shaped the relationship between U.S. visa applicants and those granting them visas. According to data from the Department of Homeland Security, only 1 percent of all U.S. non-immigrant visas granted between 2006 and 2016 went to African citizens. By contrast, 39 percent were granted to European citizens. While the diversity lottery was initially conceived as “an alibi for the creation of an immigration portal for the Irish,” it has evolved over the decades to become one of the primary ways people from Africa and poorer parts of the Middle East enter the United States (approximately 55,000 a year). In more recent years, the eligibility criteria for the diversity lottery have become narrower and more classist by requiring a specified level of educational attainment and English language skills. The Biden administration’s refusal to re-offer the opportunity to migrate to visa lottery winners from banned countries must be understood within this context. Not only does it temporarily reduce the number of people from Africa and the Middle East who are entering the United States at its airport borders, it also reflects a broader trend toward tightening these borders, restricting entry for poor and working-class non-Europeans, in particular.

For people like Anwar, the Muslim/African ban persists, despite its un-naming. Its long-awaited “reversal” has simply made it more difficult for him to leverage the interest and support of the U.S. public and advocacy groups, whose attention is now focused elsewhere. But Anwar continues to organize alongside other banned citizens, who through their legal and media advocacy are taking control of the narrative surrounding the Biden administration’s rescinding of the Muslim/African ban.