All Naser Almuganahi wanted was to live with his wife and three daughters, together under one roof.
The 32-year-old bodega owner and U.S. citizen from New York has been in immigration limbo since 2010 when he first filed for a visa for his wife in Yemen.
It took nearly six years just to secure his wife, Om Alkheir Alazzar, an interview at a U.S. consulate. The November 2016 interview went smoothly, and Almuganahi was told his wife would have a visa in no time and would be able to join him in Queens.
But then, days became months. Donald Trump was elected and quickly instated a ban on travel to the U.S. from several Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen. Months of waiting became years, and in May 2018, the couple finally received an update: Her visa had been denied.
Even five years later, families like Almuganahi’s are still dealing with the aftermath of that policy. While President Joe Biden rescinded the final version of the ban on his first day in office last year, many families have not yet been reunited — including Almuganahi’s.
Last week, more than 100 organizations sent a letter to the Biden administration urging it to do more to relieve ongoing family separations, delays and a backlog that has likely deterred many people from even applying for U.S. visas.
“[I]t is crucial that this administration fulfill its promise to right the wrongs of the Trump administration by providing relief to those who applied for but either never received or were denied visas that they would have qualified for but for these bans,” wrote the groups in an effort led by the No Muslim Ban Ever Campaign and the National Iranian American Council.
The letter also detailed 13 policy changes the groups would like to see the Biden administration make to rectify the impact of the ban, including expediting all immigrant and non-immigrant visa applications for individuals subjected to the ban and ending extreme vetting policies for people from those impacted nations.
They also asked the administration to grant entry to people who won a visa through the diversity lottery program but were not able to use it because of the ban; the program awards up to 50,000 diversity visas a year to people from countries that have low numbers of immigrants to the U.S.
“We need swift and tangible action to correct the harm inflicted on our communities by Trump’s Muslim and African ban,” Linda Sarsour, the executive director of MPower Change, a Muslim advocacy group, said in a statement last week. “The time to reunite families and restore due process to those impacted is now and if the White House fails to do this, the rescindment becomes nothing more than a broken promise.”
A State Department spokesperson told HuffPost on Wednesday in an emailed statement that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in “profound reductions” in the department’s visa-processing capacity.
“The Department of State will continue investigating ways to creatively reduce wait times for visa interviews in collaboration with our interagency partners while ensuring a secure and efficient visa process,” the spokesperson added.
“I feel like my body is here, but my mind is with my family. My family’s life is in danger and I can’t do anything.”
When Almuganahi began the arduous process of petitioning for Alazzar to join him in Queens in 2010, she was pregnant with their daughter. He traveled back and forth between Yemen and the U.S. to be with them. She gave birth to another daughter in 2012, and shortly thereafter, they were able to secure American passports for their girls. All that was missing was a visa for Alazzar.
They were still waiting for that when the U.S. embassy in Yemen shut down in 2015 due to the ongoing civil war. The couple had their case transferred to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. When they finally got an interview in 2016, Almuganahi flew in from New York, and his wife and children flew in from Yemen. The family thought then that the wait would finally be over.
“I was really happy. I was just amazed,” he said. “I remember stepping out with my wife and hugging her. We were very excited.”
Almuganahi waited in Cairo with his family for several months, checking the State Department website every morning for a status update. But with no timeline in sight, he had to return to the U.S. to work. He hoped his wife would be granted a visa sooner rather than later.
But by then, Trump’s presidency was in full swing. Opponents had challenged the ban in court, and Almuganahi held out hope that their case would not be affected since it predated the ban.
When the official rejection, citing the ban, came in 2018, he lost that hope.
“I didn’t feel like I was a U.S. citizen,” Almuganahi said. “I looked at my passport and my daughters’ passports, and I remember giving them to [the officer] and telling him, ‘If you’re not going to treat me equally and give me my rights, then what do I need these passports for?’”
Almuganahi’s older daughter, who briefly lived with him, struggled in school and begged for her mother back in Yemen, where she eventually returned. Almuganahi reached out to both his representatives in Congress and in the Senate for help, with no success.
HuffPost documented 800 cases like Almuganahi’s in which the ban separated partners from spouses and parents from children. The analysis is the first of its kind and provides an in-depth glimpse into the physical, mental and economic toll of the bans, which also included medical hardships and deaths. For many of those families, the ban has caused irreparable damage.
As one of his first acts as president, Biden signed the executive order ending the Trump administration travel ban. The U.S. State Department later announced that people who had been denied visas due to the ban could seek a revised decision or reapply.
Last week, Ned Price, the State Department’s spokesperson, tweeted that the agency was taking additional steps “to remedy the damage of these discriminatory bans by exempting payment of immigrant visa fees for those previously refused under these policies.”
Almuganahi’s hope was briefly restored, but his application entered a backlog of nearly half a million cases. Almuganahi said he doesn’t feel like his family is any closer to a solution. He has contemplated leaving the U.S. for another country where he and his family can live together. He’s not sure how much longer he can tolerate being apart, especially as the war in Yemen rages on.
“I feel like my body is here, but my mind is with my family,” he said. “My family’s life is in danger and I can’t do anything. What else is in my hands to do? I’m left with no solution.”
“It’s one thing to issue a proclamation that revokes the Muslim ban, but we have to undo the harms,” said Ahmed Mohamed, the legal director of the New York chapter for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who is now assisting Almuganahi with his case. “To do that, we have to bring these families together, and to make sure that we can do that is to create a process that it’s fair, that is timely, and allows these families to live together here in the United States so they could achieve the American dream as a family.”
Almuganahi and his family deserve that opportunity, Mohamed said: “They’ve gone through hell under the Trump administration and they are continuing to get treated in the exact same manner as they go through the reconsideration process that the Biden administration created.”