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Immigration advocates want Biden to do more to prevent discriminatory policies

On his first day in office, President Biden rescinded the Trump-era so-called “Muslim Travel Bans,” which affected travel from several Muslim-majority nations. And while immigration advocates praised the reversal of what they called discriminatory policies, NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano reports on the call for the Biden administration to go even further.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    On his first day in office, President Biden issued an executive order that rescinded the Trump-era travel restrictions on majority-Muslim and African countries, popularly known as the Muslim Travel Bans. Immigration advocates praised the reversal of what they saw as discriminatory policies. But as NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano reports, while those impacted breathed a sigh of relief, they say Biden policies must go further, and their work is far from over.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    In January of 2017, Sarvin Hahghighi was gearing up to head back to her home in Chicago, Illinois after visiting family members in Australia. But two days before her flight, she got the news that in his first executive order, Donald Trump had banned foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from visiting the U.S. for 90 days. Hahghighi was not a U.S. citizen, and her native country of Iran was on the list.

  • Sarvin Hahghighi:

    I cannot tell you the feeling, just this feeling of not knowing what's going to happen. The feeling that you're not welcome to go back home to your husband, to your home and to your friends.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Hahghighi moved to the U.S. in 2013, and had a U.S. green card when the ban was implemented in 2017. Nevertheless, her lawyer warned her that in the immediate aftermath of the executive order, there was chaos at U.S. airports, with many travelers being detained, despite possessing visas and green cards. She waited for another week before flying home, and canceled her layover in Texas.

  • Sarvin Hahghighi:

    I wanted to land in Chicago just in case something happens. I wanted to have access to my lawyer.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    The stress of the situation took its toll.

  • Sarvin Hahghighi:

    After that, once I got back here, I had to do therapy for a few sessions because I didn't sleep or really eat. At some point we were even discussing to move to Canada and it was just heartbreaking

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    As a U.S. citizen herself, Libyan-American Anwar Omeish was more worried about her family living under threat in Libya, which was in the midst of a civil war.

  • Anwar Omeish:

    Conditions in Libya have been so unstable, and so it was almost like a double strike, right. Where it's like on the one hand, we can't see them. And that's sad enough. And on the other hand, we can't even offer them safety if they need it. One of my cousins, like, wasn't able to come back for her, for school. And she was one of the people who was turned back at the airport.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Omeish protested in Boston, where she lives, and at the capitol building in Washington D.C., demanding an end to the so-called Muslim ban.

  • Anwar Omeish:

    It was a very scary and difficult time. I'm like a visibly Muslim woman. I grew up after 9/11. I am not a stranger to Islamophobia and feeling unsafe or uncomfortable in a lot of spaces, but I would say the fact that that was validated at the highest levels in that period was definitely scary.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Aarti Kohli is executive director of the civil rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus. It is a core member of the No Muslim Ban Ever Campaign, a coalition of more than 100 organizations that formed in the weeks following Trump's executive order.

  • Aarti Kohli:

    Many people come here, I'm an immigrant, for the freedoms that America, you know, espouses, right. The freedom of religion, that you will be judged as an individual, not by your ethnicity or race. For Muslim and immigrant communities, this was a political awakening.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    A cascade of grassroots activism and lawsuits led to several blocks of the ban by Federal court judges. That was followed by Department of Justice appeals, and multiple iterations of the ban.

    Then in 2018, the Supreme Court upheld a third-version of the ban. It largely restricted citizens of predominantly Muslim and African countries from emigrating to the United States, and barred them from working, studying or vacationing here.

  •  Aarti Kohli:

    Thousands of people have been impacted for four years and have been suffering these consequences.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    In 2018, the State Department reported an 80 percent drop in visas for citizens of the five countries consistently on the travel ban list, including Iran and Libya, compared to 2016, when no ban was in place.

    In 2018, five years after starting the naturalization process, Sarvin Hahghighi obtained her U.S. citizenship. But under the new restrictions, her elderly parents, back in Iran, weren't able to come visit her in Chicago. In 2019, she gave birth to her first baby in Australia, so that her parents could join her, and meet their grandchild.

  •  Sarvin Hahghighi:

    Every time that I talk about it, I just think about all these months that my parents could be here with my son and the fact that my son cannot really experience the love of his grandparents up close and personal, that that's something that I can never, you know, get back.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Back in December, members of the No Muslim Ban Ever Campaign met with President Biden's transition team, outlining specific steps that they want the administration to take in the coming months, such as expediting the denied visa applications from people in the countries impacted by the bans under the Trump administration.

  • Aarti Kohli:

    They applied, they paid fees. So now we asked them to ensure that the State Department would identify those people and create a process that was accessible so that those people could continue their visa application that had been so unfairly stopped.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Kohli is hopeful about the Biden administration's response. Biden included a "No Ban Act" in the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 unveiled in Congress last Thursday. If passed, the Act would prevent any future administration from imposing similar bans to the one imposed by Donald Trump.

    For Anwar Omeish and Sarvin Hahghighi, a "No Ban Act" would be just one step toward healing a wounded relationship between the U.S. and its Muslim community.

  • Anwar Omeish:

    For me, and like a lot of other immigrant families and advocates, this is the baseline. We really want to be doing better than this. Undoing what Trump did is not necessarily progress. It's just fixing the regress.

  • Sarvin Hahghighi:

    It doesn't matter that now, we have a president that is standing with us and supporting us. But what if what if somebody like Trump comes back again? We need to make sure that we have the right policies in place to avoid anything like that happening again to anybody. I think that's when we can have the United States of America, because no matter where you're from, what religion you follow, what color your skin is, you all can live together.

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