President Biden inherited a Muslim ban from his predecessor, and promptly rescinded it on Day One of his administration. However, the U.S. State Department’s visa and refugee processing was slow to recover, which was further inhibited by the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last year, the importance of ensuring that Iranians at risk can secure refugee status or visas and get to safety was underscored by the outbreak of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement. One of the National Iranian American Council’s core recommendations to the Biden administration amid the nationwide protests in Iran was to speed up visa and refugee processing. The administration succeeded in this goal with respect to Iranian visitor visa issuances (B1/B2) and refugee admissions in Fiscal Year (FY) 2023. However, the Biden administration continues to lag behind processing that was achieved under the Obama administration, and some other important visa categories for Iranians saw notable declines.
Refugee Admissions Surge
After their de facto elimination under the Trump administration, Iranian refugee admissions began to bounce back beginning in March 2023, six months after the outbreak of nationwide protests that saw more than 500 Iranian citizens killed and tens of thousands of protesters and activists arrested.
Very few Iranians had been admitted as refugees in recent years. FY 2021 saw a total of 184 Iranian refugees admitted to the United States, for an average of roughly 15 Iranians per month. There was a very slight uptick in FY 2022, when 255 Iranian refugees were admitted, or nearly 26 per month. In March 2023, refugee admissions for Iranians finally surged, when 149 Iranian refugees were admitted. This was followed by 110 in April, 126 in May and 103 in June.
In total, 743 Iranian refugees were admitted in FY 2023, for an average of nearly 62 individuals per month. This shattered the totals across Biden’s first two full fiscal years, and represents a near tripling of the total Iranian refugees admitted from FY 2022.
Particularly in light of the increasing threats facing Iranians amid the protest movement, extending refugee resettlement to Iranians forced to flee the country is a tangible way to demonstrate support for the Iranian people. Each refugee resettled has a chance to begin anew, safe from threats of Iranian state reprisal and the often desperate circumstances facing refugees who resettle in Turkey or other nearby states.
Still, these numbers continue to lag far behind the totals accumulated before the Trump administration gutted visa processing and refugee resettlement. In FY 2013, the Obama administration admitted 2,578 Iranians as refugees – more than three times the number of Iranians admitted in FY 2023. The Obama administration increased processing in each subsequent year, processing 3,750 Iranians as refugees in FY 2016, or more than five times as many Iranians admitted in FY 2023. Clearly, much more can be done to ensure that Iranians seeking asylum have an ally in the United States.
Visitor Visa Surge Highlights FY23 Processing
Visitor visa processing for Iranians was hugely impacted by the Muslim ban and COVID-19 pandemic. While the State Department managed to process more than 23,000 visitor visas (B1/B2) for Iranian nationals in FY 2016, or 1,920 per month, these numbers cratered under Trump. Only 1,027 visitor visas were issued to Iranians in the entire Fiscal Year 2019, while Fiscal Year 2020 saw a further decline to just 718 amid the onset of the global pandemic. Given that visitor visas are the visa of choice for visiting families to catch up, meet new members of the family and celebrate special occasions like weddings, this drop had a demonstrable impact on Iranian Americans and their loved ones.
Nevertheless, processing of visitor visas was slow to recover under Biden. In FY 2022, Biden’s State Department managed to process only 4,306 visitor visas for Iranians, for an average of roughly 359 issued per month. However, these numbers jumped in FY 2023. Processing of visitor visas for Iranians crossed the 1,000 mark in four separate months, leading the State Department to finish with 11,101 visas issued for the year. This represents an average of 925 visitor visas issued to Iranians per month.
There is a human element to these numbers, as Iranian Americans reunited with their families at levels that had not been seen in years.
Trends across other visa categories are worth noting. Student visas (F1/F2) continued to be issued at a strong clip, with 4,386 processed for Iranians in FY 2023, a 4% increase over the total of 4,211 in FY 2022. However, as we have noted, many Iranians admitted to U.S. universities have continued to report long administrative backlogs that have prevented them from securing visas and beginning coursework, leading to deferrals, risks of losing their spot and significant hardship with their future hanging in the balance. The State Department must redouble its work to clear the backlog of students seeking visas to secure their place in U.S. institutions.
Two significant visa categories we examined also saw notable declines: diversity visas and family preference immigrants.
The diversity visa program has been troubled in recent years, including by the unjustifiable failure to make amends to those cruelly selected for diversity visas under the Trump administration, only to be barred from securing those visas due to the broader Muslim ban in place. Many of those individuals expended significant resources to attend visa interviews, including – for Iranians – traveling abroad in an economy still plagued by sanctions and hyperinflation. Despite some initial legislative efforts to make amends, those individuals were never given the visa they were promised. This year, diversity visa processing for Iranians also cratered. While in FY 2022 2,060 Iranians secured diversity visas, this year only 1,103 were issued, a 46% decline.
Family preference immigrant visas are green cards that can be issued for children and siblings of U.S. citizens or the spouse and unmarried children of a green card holder. Securing one can be a life-changing experience for Iranian Americans and their loved ones, reuniting them with close family members in the United States. This category saw an 8% decline, from 1,854 in FY 2022 to 1,703 in FY 2023. Whereas many visa categories have seen a steady increase in processing, this drop off is notable and will be worth tracking in FY 2024.
FY 2024 is the last full fiscal year that the Biden-Harris administration is guaranteed, and it will take place under the threat of another Muslim ban. Donald Trump is polling as the likely Republican nominee for President and has promised to reimpose, and possibly expand on, the Muslim ban he imposed in his first term in office. Particularly given that Iranian citizens were a target of Trump’s first ban, every visa and refugee status issued to Iranians over the next year carries extra significance. There isno guarantee that it will even be an option for Iranian Americans to reunite with their loved ones in a little more than a year.
Thus far, the Biden administration has made progress in restoring visa processing in key categories. In FY23, this was most notable for refugees – extending a lifeline to Iranians fleeing state violence – and visitor visas – helping ensure Iranian Americans reunite with their families. However, overall processing still lags behind the totals set under the Obama administration. More can be done, and we will continue to urge the Biden administration to do so.Back to top