Biden Revoked the Travel Ban. California Immigrants Hope to Reunite With Families

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Armin Deroee (left) and his father, Ebrahim, on a trip to the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, on Jan. 15, 2021. Deroee, an American citizen, has for years petitioned the U.S. government to allow his dad, who is from Iran, to move to the U.S. (Courtesy of Armin Deroee)

For six years, Armin Deroee has been trying to bring his elderly father to live with him in California.

But Deroee’s 82-year-old dad is in Iran, and the Trump administration's travel ban created an obstacle the family struggled to surmount, despite hiring lawyers, applying for a waiver and persistently writing to U.S. officials.

“Too much time, too much emotion ... and we do not have our dad here yet,” said Deroee, 42, a naturalized U.S. citizen who is an anesthesiologist living in the Central Valley city of Visalia. “It’s been a rough six years for us.”

Now that President Biden has revoked the travel restrictions for people from 13 Muslim-majority and African nations, Deroee and others feel hopeful they’ll finally be able to reunite with relatives from those countries.

Biden’s proclamation, signed on his first day in office, labeled the ban discriminatory and detrimental to national security. But it represents just the start of a long process to fully reverse the restrictions, according to advocates who fought the Trump-era policy.

“The rescission of the ban is an important first step, but it does not actually fix the situation for people,” said Aarti Kohli, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco.

“We will be watching carefully, working with the administration to make sure that all these people who've been separated from their partners, from their children ... can be reunited with family and in a timely manner,” she added.

Biden has ordered the U.S. State Department to resume processing pending visas for people from the countries targeted by the travel ban: Iran, Eritrea, Libya, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Yemen and North Korea, as well as certain government officials from Venezuela.

In a statement, a State Department spokesperson said the agency will provide guidance to embassies and consulates on how to prioritize processing those pending applications. But the official added that delays may continue for several months as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic continues to severely impact the number of visas our embassies and consulates abroad are able to process,” the spokesperson said. “We do not expect to be able to safely return to pre-pandemic workload levels until mid-2021 at the earliest.”

Under Biden’s order, the State Department must draft a plan within a month for reconsidering visa requests that were denied under the travel ban, and decide whether those applicants should pay additional fees to reopen their cases.

Mohammed Albarak, 26, with his daughter, Amira, on her first birthday on June 20, 2020 in Ibb, Yemen. Albarak, an American citizen who lives in the Bay Area, has asked the U.S. government to allow his Yemeni wife and their daughter to move here. (Courtesy of Mohammed Albarak)

The State Department denied more than 41,000 visa requests due to Trump’s travel restrictions, most of them from Iran. But civil rights groups and immigrant advocates say many more people were impacted by the policy, including those who were discouraged from applying.

Trump's Ban

Shortly after taking office in January 2017, Trump suspended the entry of nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations and indefinitely banned refugees from Syria, arguing the measure was necessary to protect the U.S. from terrorist threats.

The order sparked large protests at airports throughout the country and was challenged in the courts, forcing the administration to twice amend the language.

After the U.S. Supreme Court allowed its implementation, the ban went into full effect in December 2017. Last year, Trump expanded the restrictions to include some citizens from six mostly African countries.

Mohammed Albarak, a Yemeni American man who works at his father’s corner store in San Francisco, is another U.S. citizen whose family was affected by the ban. Albarak said he didn’t even bother applying to bring over his wife from Yemen until recently.

“Since the travel ban was there, I knew I would have to spend so much time on getting nowhere,” said Albarak, 26, referring to the difficulty of obtaining a waiver, something reserved for people who could prove they suffered “undue hardship.”

Albarak returned to Yemen in 2018 for his wedding. Last September, he came back to the U.S. to apply for his wife’s visa — and to vote for Biden, in hopes he would end the travel ban.

Albarak said he believes his family now has a better chance of reuniting in the U.S, though he expects the application to take more than seven months. In the meantime, his wife and 1-year-old daughter are stuck in a country engulfed in war.

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“I can't imagine, like in three or four years when my daughter grows up, how would she even function psychologically and intellectually?” said Albarak, a graduate of UC Davis. “There's no schooling ... the situation is so desperate, you can always hear gunshots nearby.”

‘What’s Going to Happen Next?’

Meanwhile, Deroee, the anesthesiologist, fears for the well-being of his father, an ear, nose and throat doctor. The years-long struggle to get his dad a visa has taken a toll, he said.

“I can definitely see some depression, anxiety and the feel of hopelessness in my father,” Deroee said.

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Deroee recently flew to Turkey to accompany his dad to a medical exam at the U.S. Embassy. The exam is a required part of the visa application, but it couldn’t be done in Tehran, since the U.S. has no embassy in Iran.

He hopes this is the last step his father must complete for an application that began in 2015, when Deroee’s sister requested visas for both of their parents. U.S. officials granted his mother's visa the following year, but required his father to undergo additional screening. Before that was completed, Trump imposed the travel ban.

Eventually, the family won a waiver to the ban, but then faced another barrier: a Trump proclamation that suspended certain visas to protect American jobs during the pandemic. Though that is still in effect, Deroee’s family succeeded in circumventing it after they joined a successful lawsuit.

“When I look back at what we’ve been through, I don’t think it’s imaginable for whoever has not been through that process,” said Deroee. “All of us have been in this sense of suspense, of, ‘What’s going to happen next?’ ”

Deroee said his father, who was 77 when the visa process started, has gone through several rounds of background checks, each of which can take months to complete. He hopes Biden’s administration makes that vetting process less onerous.

Biden’s proclamation revoking the travel ban also orders the State and Homeland Security departments to recommend ways to improve the screening of people who seek entry into the U.S.

“I understand it’s a necessary process, but it needs to be more efficient,” Deroee said. “The time and energy of these staff in government can be used in better ways, and they are being paid from our tax money.”