A year into the Biden administration, it’s time to assess what they have accomplished following their promises to welcome refugees. According to a recent RCUSA report card, the administration’s efforts have been mixed. The Biden administration has failed to rectify the harm done to refugees by the previous administration’s anti-immigrant policies, especially when it comes to reuniting families and instituting fair and transparent refugee vetting. While President Biden took swift action to rescind the Muslim ban the day of his inauguration, the ban continues to keep primarily Muslim and Black refugees out of this country—in impact if not in name.
Today, IRAP is releasing data obtained through one of our lawsuits, which shows that refugees affected by the Muslim ban continue to suffer under the Biden administration. This data was first published by The Washington Post.
One Family’s Story
Take the example of Anisa, whose family’s story is featured in the Washington Post article. Anisa is a Somali woman who resettled in the U.S. with her sister ten years ago. Since then, they have been waiting for their mother and brother to join them here, working multiple caregiving jobs in the meantime to support the family. They were on the cusp of that joyful day on October 24, 2017, when their mother and brother, with an approved refugee application in hand, boarded a flight that was supposed to bring them here. Unbeknownst to them, however, while they were in flight, the Trump Administration issued yet another ban. On a planned layover in Turkey, they were stopped from boarding their connecting flight because they were Somali—and refugees from Somalia had just been banned from entering the United States. After being sent back to Uganda, their case was put on hold without any explanation. Now, over four years later, they’ve been told that their case is denied “as a matter of discretion.”
Government Data Shows a Much Bigger Problem
The enduring impact of the bans is not just anecdotal, as evidenced by today’s release of the settlement reporting from IRAP’s lawsuit Jewish Family Service of Seattle v. Trump, a challenge to the October 2017 iteration of the ban—the ban that stopped Anisa’s family from traveling to the United States. That ban suspended the admission of refugees from 11 countries and family members of refugees who are already resettled in the United States (known as “follow-to-join refugees”). A judge blocked the ban in December 2017, and after learning that the Trump Administration failed to follow that court order, IRAP reached a settlement with the government in February 2020. Under the settlement, the government must expedite the resettlement applications of over 300 refugees affected by the ban, including all individuals who challenged the ban and any other refugee who was in the final stages of processing in October 2017, when the ban went into effect.
The settlement data makes it clear that Anisa’s mom and brother are not outliers. In fact, the majority of refugees who were on the cusp of coming to the U.S. in October 2017 still have not arrived. On the day the ban came down, there were 104 refugees who were cleared as “ready for departure”—a designation in the government’s records that the refugees had completed all security, medical, and other requirements and clearances and were authorized to travel to the United States. Only 19 have actually arrived in the U.S. in the nearly two years since settlement was reached. On the other hand, 53—more than half—have had their applications denied, notwithstanding the fact that the U.S. government had already cleared them to board a plane—and some, like Anisa’s mom and brother, were already in flight—when the ban came down. Twenty-seven more have not received a decision (again), despite the settlement’s requirement that these cases be moved to the front of the line.
Also deeply troubling is the standstill of follow-to-join refugees seeking to be reunited with their U.S.-based family members. Of the 69 “FTJ” family members covered by the settlement agreement who were in the last stages of processing, only 14 have received final decisions in their cases. Meanwhile, fifty-two—over 75 percent—are still waiting, indefinitely separated from their spouses, parents, and children. Refugees have the statutory right to reunify with their spouses and children, and the four-plus year delay undermines this right.
These are all refugees who would have arrived years ago if not for former President Trump’s bans – the bans that he successfully implemented after repeatedly and unabashedly saying that he wanted to ban Muslims from the United States, that he wanted to keep Somalis out, and that he didn’t want migrants from the “shithole countries” of Africa and Haiti. And the impact is much bigger than the hundreds of refugees covered by our settlement: in 2016, nearly half of all refugees admitted to the United States hailed from Muslim-majority countries, but refugees from these countries represented less than thirty percent of refugee admissions in 2021.
View the JFS settlement data here.
Undoing the Ban’s Grip on the Refugee Program
These delays and denials all tie back to Trump’s Muslim bans. His tactics included not only a suspension that blatantly discriminated against Muslim and Black migrants, but also policies largely hidden from public scrutiny, like extreme vetting and the decimation of agency resources. These efforts have worked in tandem: as the Trump Administration expanded the use of the U.S. government’s most problematic vetting techniques, the government agencies running the refugee program were overburdened with vetting results of questionable quality, and refugees from Muslim-majority countries found themselves trapped in endless cycles of new vetting requirements and increasing backlogs.
Five years ago, many of us rushed to airports to protest the xenophobic venom behind the former President Trump’s Muslim ban, and one year ago we celebrated its repeal. But the ban continues to harm Muslim and African migrants because it has seeped into every part of refugee and immigration processing. We must not and cannot be complacent until all aspects of the ban have been dismantled.
This duty begins with President Biden. In February 2020, he took an important step by calling for a review of all actions taken as a result of the bans, which would include changes made to security vetting procedures. A year later, in solidarity with Anisa, her family, and the countless others affected, we call on the Biden Administration to see its commitment through and bring the Muslim bans’ lasting impact to an end.