Washington, DC – Arafat al-Dailam says he spent most of January 20, Joe Biden’s first day as United States president, glued to news reports and social media.
The 30-year-old father of three had a lot at stake: he has been separated from his wife for five years due to former President Donald Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban” on citizens from several Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen, where she is waiting.
But while al-Dailam, an American citizen, said he was initially relieved to see Biden sign an executive order overturning the ban, the decision so far has done little to change his family’s reality.
His wife’s US visa application, which he submitted in 2015 shortly after they were married, is still in “administration processing”. She and the couple’s one-year-old son remain in war-torn Yemen, while al-Dailam lives with their two daughters, aged three and five, in Dearborn, Michigan.
“The reversal did not erase that or change anything about it,” al-Dailam told Al Jazeera. “It’s a horrible feeling because I miss my wife and my young son,” he said, “and my daughters miss their mother.”
After promising during his election campaign to enact a “complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the country, Trump in 2017 signed an executive order that restricted citizens from several Muslim-majority countries from travelling to the US, prompting widespread outrage and protests.
Amid a slew of court challenges, the policy was revised to include a waiver process which enabled applicants who are blocked under the ban, to apply for an exception. It also added several African countries, including Nigeria, Eritrea and Sudan, for a total of 13 countries. The US Supreme Court upheld the third iteration of the ban in 2018.
Immigrant advocates who decried Trump’s ban for separating families, denying people work and study opportunities, and preventing some from accessing health care – have welcomed Biden’s revocation of the policy.
“For so many of my residents, especially those who have family members in Yemen and other countries – they have been separated for years,” said Rashida Tlaib, a Congresswoman from Michigan, adding that an end to the ban has been “long awaited”.
“I just hope that they are able to come and be reunited with their family members quickly,” she told Al Jazeera.
Added difficulties for Yemen
Two weeks into his administration, Biden has already signed nine executive orders to reverse some of Trump’s most hardline policies on border security, asylum and family separation. But immigration advocates say it may take time for the humanitarian effects of those policies to ease.
The Muslim ban was especially devastating for people from Yemen, which has been ravaged by a continuing civil war since 2014. According to US State Department records, more than 10,000 Yemenis have been blocked from entering the US due to the ban.
Adding to the difficulty is the fact that there is no US embassy in Yemen, after Washington closed it in 2015 due to the escalating conflict.
Yemenis who want to apply for a US visa have had to travel to Djibouti to access US consular services. Many have been forced to take a treacherous boat ride to access the northeast African country, as fighting made the airport inaccessible. Thousands of Yemenis are still living in Djibouti under precarious conditions as they await the outcomes of their US visa applications.
“Many Yemenis were in Djibouti waiting for months for their US visas to clear, even before the ban,” said Sirine Shebaya, executive director of the National Immigration Project, a Washington-based immigration rights group.
“Meanwhile the situation in Yemen was very dangerous,” she said. “The ban forced people back into extremely dangerous circumstances or left them stranded in third countries where they didn’t have firm status and could not stay safely.”
Long waits expected
Curtis Morrison, al-Dailam’s lawyer, said none of the 5,000 families he represents in court cases against the ban or assists in applying for waivers, had seen any development in their applications since Biden’s order.
No one is expecting a relative to arrive to the US any time soon, either.
“I have some concerns about how quickly relief will come to these families that have suffered,” Morrison told Al Jazeera. “I think it’s going to take one to two years before what Trump has done to the immigration system is undone.”
Crucially, he said many applicants who were subjected to the ban are still being blocked by an order Trump put in place in April that restricts the issuance of green cards to protect US jobs during the coronavirus pandemic. Biden has not said whether he intends to lift that measure.
In a written statement a US Department of State official said many of the delays in visa processing are due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has slowed down the ability of embassies to process applications.
The department “will develop a proposal for individuals whose immigrant visa applications were denied … and seek to have their applications reconsidered”, the official told Al Jazeera. But, they added, “we do not expect to be able to safely return to pre-pandemic workload levels until mid-2021 at the earliest”.
‘Hope is slim’
Meanwhile, families remain divided as they wait for their applications to be processed.
Al-Dailam, who previously worked at a steel company in Detroit, is currently unemployed. He says he constantly worries about the future.
He is unsure how he will be able to afford another trip to Djibouti for an appointment at the US embassy there – he has already made the lengthy and costly journey twice. He also does not know when or if his wife will get an appointment.
“I became optimistic when I heard the news,” he said of Biden’s reversal of the ban. “But after the decision, I got into contact with the embassy but I found that their response was the same as before,” al-Dailam said.
“So hope is slim.”