POLITICS

Visa Lottery Winners From Muslim Countries Still Can't Get Into The U.S.

The Biden administration has unraveled much of Trump's travel ban. But many past diversity visa winners still have no way to actually enter the country.

The Biden administration is allowing thousands of people turned away by former President Donald Trump’s travel bans to reapply or seek a revised decision on their visa applications. But the State Department’s recommendations leave out one group: those who had previously obtained a diversity visa but were barred from entering the U.S.

The diversity visa program grants up to 50,000 people from countries with low levels of representation in the U.S. an opportunity to come here. But Trump’s travel bans barred people from several majority-Muslim and African countries from entering the U.S., including to visit family, attend school and receive crucial medical care. While people from those countries could still enroll in the lottery for the last four years, those lucky enough to win a coveted slot were never actually allowed to come to the U.S.

President Joe Biden signs a series of orders after being sworn in as president on Jan. 20, including one that rescinded Donal
President Joe Biden signs a series of orders after being sworn in as president on Jan. 20, including one that rescinded Donald Trump's travel ban.

The State Department’s latest memo, announced Monday, reverses much of the damage of the Trump travel bans, but does not include entry for people who were previously awarded the diversity visas. There isn’t a clear estimate on how many people this decision affects, but it is likely that several thousand of those previously awarded applicants will now have to reenter the lottery and may never get the chance to come to the U.S.

“I didn’t know that Trump would affect my once-in-a-lifetime chance,” said Aref, a 39-year-old emergency room doctor from Iran who was awarded a diversity lottery in 2019 but was not allowed to enter the country. “It was this great chance, winning the lottery. I was hopeful that something would happen.”

Aref, who is being referred to by a pseudonym due to fears of retaliation, was one of nearly two dozen diversity visa winners who reached out to HuffPost to express their disappointment and anxiety about the Biden administration’s decision. Many of them described a long and tedious interview process, spending their life savings on paperwork, fees and travel to other countries to interview at consular offices if their countries did not have one, and all the medical and security screenings they had gone through.

The majority of these past recipients are from Iran and Yemen, which were affected by Trump’s bans, and want the Biden administration to provide some kind of pathway to pursue a visa.

In this Jan. 27, 2018, file photo, a group holds the Islamic midday prayer outside the White House during a rally on the one-
In this Jan. 27, 2018, file photo, a group holds the Islamic midday prayer outside the White House during a rally on the one-year anniversary of the Trump administration's first travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries.

A State Department official told HuffPost that the agency “explored every possible avenue under the law for providing relief to those applicants previously denied under the Proclamations 9645 and 9983” ― two iterations of Trump’s ban ― and that “only Congress may provide an alternate remedy.”

Applicants from travel-ban countries who didn’t receive visas due to the bans “are statutorily barred from being issued visas based on their selection as Diversity Visa applicants in those fiscal years, as the deadlines for visa issuance in those fiscal years have expired,” the spokesperson said.

Previous and eligible applicants may reenter the program for the upcoming year, the spokesperson added, noting that prior refusals due to the bans would not negatively affect their applications. The American Civil Liberties Union is lobbying for the Biden administration to find other ways to offer relief, such as humanitarian parole.

“The opportunity to ‘win’ a diversity visa is a rare and life-changing opportunity that was snatched away from thousands of people because of President Trump’s hatred and discrimination,” Manar Waheed, the senior legislative and advocacy counsel at the ACLU, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Instead of restoring this opportunity, President Biden just dusted off Trump’s ‘CLOSED’ sign and locked the door behind him.”

Aref and other diversity lottery winners have already been waiting for years. He had applied for the diversity lottery every year for two decades, hoping to work as a doctor in the U.S.

We are fluctuating, me and others, between periods of hope and periods of disappointment. Aref

In 2019, he finally received an email informing him that he was awarded a diversity slot. He was scheduled for an interview at an American consulate, but because the U.S. Embassy in Tehran has been shut down since 1979, Aref was forced to travel outside the country for an interview. He drove 12 hours from his home in Iran to Yerevan, Armenia, and paid over $1,000 in travel, lodging and other fees for the trip, he said.

Despite making it through the entire process, the consular office eventually denied him a visa, citing Trump’s travel ban. 

Aref has been watching the 2020 election and changes to the American immigration system closely, thinking Biden’s election meant he could finally come to the U.S.

“We are fluctuating, me and others, between periods of hope and periods of disappointment,” Aref told HuffPost. “You became hopeful and after those two months, were disappointed. … They proposed this opportunity to you, and then after, they take everything away from you.”