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Voices of the banned: The Trump administration’s exclusion of Muslims seeking refuge


In January 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump imposed his first travel ban. It suspended the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program and blocked from entering the United States all individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries (including those who had green cards). Refugees International, along with untold numbers of Americans, opposed the ban as discriminatory and inhumane. Federal courts blocked the ban’s implementation, but later the same year, President Trump issued a second and then a third version of the ban.

In June 2018, the Supreme Court upheld the third version of the ban citing national security. However, as former national security officials have written, “the ban targets countries whose nationals have committed no deadly terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in modern history.” The ban currently bars all immigrants and many visitors from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen as well as some visiting Venezuelan government officials and their family members.

The Court upheld the ban in part because it includes a process for nationals from the banned countries to enter the United States by obtaining a waiver. Waivers are to be granted in cases where the applicant can meet three criteria: 1) the applicant can show that being denied entry to the United States would cause them undue hardship; 2) their entry would be in the national interest of the United States; and 3) their entry would not pose a threat to the national security or public safety of the United States.

So far, however, only some 10 percent of people from Muslim-majority countries who applied for waivers have received one. This is due largely to the narrow ways the waiver requirements are defined. “Living in a conflict zone” under “difficult conditions” is not considered “undue hardship” for the purpose of receiving a waiver. National interest is defined in the State Department’s waiver guidance as whether a U.S. citizen or legal resident or organization would suffer hardship if the applicant could not enter immediately. Many of those who have applied for waivers have had their applications stuck in the threat screening—the third waiver requirement—for months. Moreover, since January 2018, the administration has subjected refugees from the banned countries, and family members from those countries following to join refugees previously resettled in the United States, to special heightened security procedures. This has contributed to a dramatic reduction of the percentage of resettled refugees from Muslim-majority countries, despite the fact that such refugees make up a substantial proportion of refugees worldwide.

On top of the difficulty in meeting the requirements, those going through the waiver process have found it opaque and complicated. But the most troubling aspect of the ban is that is has unnecessarily put lives at risk. It has also separated families and blocked applicants’ access to education and professional opportunities. The humanitarian impact of the ban is devastating. Refugees International is one of hundreds of organizations supporting the No Ban Act, which would overturn the current ban and prevent presidents from enacting similarly broad and discriminatory bans. As part of its advocacy effort, Refugees International collected stories from individuals and the family members of individuals stranded by the ban in countries suffering war and humanitarian crises. Here are three of their stories, told in their own words.