In 2016, Ghazaleh was preparing for some significant changes in her life. The Iranian scientist (who requested her last name not be used to ensure her privacy) was planning to move to the U.S. She had an offer to do a postdoc at a prestigious university, and her husband was already there. After President Trump introduced his sweeping immigration restrictions against people from Muslim-majority countries, though, Ghazaleh’s plans began to fall apart.
She’s not alone. On January 27, it will be two years since Trump enacted the travel ban–which ended up, in its final form, including Venezuela and North Korea along with Muslim-majority countries Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Lebanon. In that time, thousands of people, from those seeking asylum from violence in their home countries, to people like Ghazaleh looking to study or work in the U.S,–have met with a closed border.
While Trump frames the travel ban as a protective measure for the United States, Ghazaleh’s story illustrates how it’s actually harming the American economy. “We now have restrictions on five countries, where talented Muslim programmers and others could be receiving H1B visas and contributing to the American economy,” says Robert McCaw, director of government affairs at the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “You have countless students who can’t finish up at their universities, and new students who might want to come to the United States, but can’t,” he adds. “These are people that could’ve joined the American workforce and further contributed to the economy, and their absence is being felt.” According to CNBC, at least 57% of workers in Silicon Valley are not born in the U.S., and industries like tech and science, especially, are beginning to worry about the effects of choking off a crucial talent pipeline through the ban.
McCaw adds that the ban is not only restricting talent from the countries enumerated in the ban. “A number of Muslims from Europe to Southeast Asia now do not want to come the U.S., because they think the environment here will be more hostile to them,” McCaw says. Tied to the two-year anniversary of the ban, CAIR has launched a digital campaign to raise awareness that the policy is still in place, and to mobilize people to take action against it.
To McCaw, the travel ban is the manifestation of white-supremacist beliefs and policies that have found an outlet in the Trump administration. Since January 2017, the travel ban against people from Muslim-majority countries has been enforced to varying degrees. Initially, the Supreme Court struck down the first version of the ban, which unilaterally barred travelers and migrants from Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen, and reduced the cap on refugees to 50,000 from 110,000 the previous year. Trump continued to push for the ban throughout the year, introducing another version in the spring that remained in place for 90 days. The final version was introduced in December 2017 and upheld by the Supreme Court in June 2018; this ban is still in effect now. Travel ban 3.0, as it is called, added North Korea and Venezuela to the list of banned countries, but removed Iraq and Sudan and granted exemptions to people with current visas and green cards.
The 3.0 ban also lays out a robust set of conditions, which vary country by country, under which people from banned countries could apply for waivers and receive a visa. If denying a person a visa would cause them “undue hardship” and the person poses no threat to the U.S., they’re supposed to be entitled to a waiver. Also, if someone’s arrival would benefit the U.S., they could qualify for a visa. That has not been playing out as promised, though, as Ghazaleh’s story illustrates. Reuters reported that the State Department has only processed around 2% of the 27,129 requests for waivers.
Every year, the State Department releases a tally of the number of visas issued in the previous 12 months. Looking at those numbers tells you all you need to know about the impact of Trump’s travel ban. In 2016, the U.S. issued 7,727 visas to people from Iran; in 2018, that number dropped to 1,449. The number of people admitted for work dropped by around half, from 225 to 136. The number of immigrants admitted from Syria dropped from 2,633 to 838 in the same time frame.
For people seeking asylum in the U.S., or hoping to join family members who have already immigrated, the travel ban has been ruinous. The National Iranian American Council has been communicating with people, like Ghazaleh, who are stuck in their home countries due to the ban, as well as people in America whose loved ones cannot join them. Lisa, an American woman who married an Iranian man, filed a petition to bring her husband to the U.S., and doubts that will be possible. “The new Muslim ban is indefinite and now even bona fide relationships will not suffice to obtain a visa,” she says. “There seems to be no end in sight.”
McCaw, though, does see an end: the 2020 presidential election. “Our greatest hope for undoing the ban is for whoever replaces Trump in office to erase it via executive order,” McCaw says, and essentially reverse the course of action Trump took to get it in place. No candidates have yet announced an intention to do so, but McCaw feels that as the presidential race ramps up, someone will take a stance. “If it means I have to take out a full-page ad in The Washington Post, we’re going to see a promise from a candidate that they will take action,” he says.