January 27, 2022

Memo: The Muslim ban Hangover

President Biden made good on his promise to end the Muslim and African bans on Day 1 of his administration, calling them a “stain on our national conscience.” Yet, recovering from the bans has been painfully slow for many families that hoped rescission would deliver near-term relief. 

The State Department has cited the pandemic as the primary reason that processing of visas has not come close to recovering from the Trump years. Undoubtedly, the pandemic has had a major impact, as all three consulates that typically process visas for Iranians in Yerevan, Ankara and Abu Dhabi have not yet restored full consular services. Aside from the pandemic, the State Department – including the Bureau of Consular Affairs – had its staff gutted throughout the Trump administration. 

There are also other impacts that may explain the failure to recover from the ban. For example, it is unclear to what extent nationals of countries impacted by the ban are being deterred by America’s hostile immigration policies under the Trump administration. For Iranian nationals, as well, the hyperinflation in Iran’s economy, triggered by crushing sanctions, has likely made the uncertain and tremendously costly process of flying abroad to interview for a visa far less attractive.

However, there are a number of steps that the Biden administration can and must take to restore processing of Iranian visas – and all those impacted by Trump’s discriminatory bans – to numbers approaching that of the Obama administration. 

Below is a snapshot of how the Biden administration did in processing visas for Iranians, according to State Department data:

Visitor visas decimated:

  • The State Department processed more than 23,000 visitor visas (B1/B2) for Iranian nationals in FY16, or 1,920 per month. This represented more than half of all immigrant and nonimmigrant visas processed for Iranians that year. These numbers only recovered from a nadir under Trump to 652 total in Biden’s first year in office, or 54 per month. This represents a huge number of families who can’t reunite with their loved ones.

Immigration visas still lag

  • Despite prioritizing immigrant visas over non-immigrant visas, the former still lagged behind FY20 levels in important categories. While FY20 accounted for 2,335 immediate relative visas and 1,991 family preference visas for Iranian nationals, Biden’s first year only resulted in 1,876 immediate relative visas and 1,421 family preference visas. It remains unclear why these totals were significantly lower than both FY20 and FY16.

Diversity Visas barely processed

  • The plight of diversity visa recipients continued, as hardly any were processed in Biden’s first year in office. The administration did exceed the paltry FY20 total of 106, but only thanks to a flurry of approvals in September that led to 193 being processed throughout 2021. By contrast, an average month in FY16 would result in 226 diversity visas processed for Iranians, or 2,722 total.

Student visas rebound

  • On the bright side, student visas were processed successfully, effectively recovering to pre-Trump levels. The Biden State Department processed 3001 student visas in 2021, compared to 3,139 student visas in FY 16. While technically exempt from Trump’s final Muslim ban, in FY 20 only 655 student visas were processed. Hopefully the Biden administration can seek to restore all other visa categories as well.
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