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Hundreds of families remain separated 5 years after Trump's travel ban

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On his very first day in office, President Biden reversed former President Trump's travel ban and opened the U.S. back up to people from several predominantly Muslim countries. And that afternoon, Naser Almuganahi heard the news on TV at home in New York City.

NASER ALMUGANAHI: I thought everything would be over; all the wait would be over, separation would be over.

CHANG: What Almuganahi wanted over were the years he had been forced to live apart from his wife. He's an American citizen from Yemen, but his wife, Om Alkheir Alazzar, has been stuck in Yemen since they married 11 years ago. For 11 years, he's tried to get a visa for her to live in the U.S.

ALMUGANAHI: Just on the wait, wait, wait.

CHANG: Which means 11 years of missing all the milestones - the little ones and the big ones - the birthdays, the wedding anniversaries.

ALMUGANAHI: I've always had dreams that one of them will be celebrated under my roof in the United States.

CHANG: Now, getting a visa for a spouse to come to the U.S. can take a long time under any administration. But Trump's travel ban has added years to Almuganahi's wait. And even though the ban has been revoked, he is still waiting. We're going to explain why, but before that, I want to tell you a little more about Almuganahi and Alazzar's story. They were from the same village in Yemen.

ALMUGANAHI: I think I know her by face (laughter). She'd always pass by our house. Even now, I'll be like, do you remember me when I was a little - you know, when we were kids before this? We could have sworn we saw each other. We knew each other. It's very beautiful.

CHANG: Years later, they met again. Almuganahi was by then the owner of the few bodegas in New York City, and he traveled back to Yemen to visit his family. That's when he reconnected with Alazzar, and they got married in 2009. Almuganahi eventually had to return to New York for work, and he immediately began the visa application process for his wife.

ALMUGANAHI: So I was like, OK, hopefully, you know, it wouldn't be that long. In my head, I'm expecting, like, maybe a year.

CHANG: That year turned into six years. The embassy in Yemen closed due to conflict there. The case was then transferred to Egypt. And finally, in 2016, his wife got a visa interview.

ALMUGANAHI: I was so happy. I cannot explain how happy I was. What can I tell you? It was like a dream come true.

CHANG: Now, Donald Trump had just been elected president at this point. There wasn't a travel ban yet, and Almuganahi was thinking, my wife's visa process is finally moving along. He hopped on a plane to Cairo for his wife's interview. And at the embassy, the officer asked his wife some questions and told her to raise her right hand.

ALMUGANAHI: He looked at us in both our eyes and said, hey, congratulations. Welcome to the United States.

CHANG: The officer said they'd have Alazzar's visa in about two weeks. But a few minutes later, he called them back to the window and said he was sorry, but there had been an administrative delay. No other reason was given.

Months passed. Almuganahi watched Trump take office on January 20, 2017, and one week later, President Trump issued the travel ban.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER ALEXANDER: Overnight, another surge of protests against President Trump's controversial executive order.

CHANG: At first, Almuganahi didn't quite understand how this might affect his wife's case. He just kept on waiting for nearly a year and a half. And that - that is when an email arrived from the embassy offering another interview appointment for his wife. Hope comes back to him.

They rush to the appointment. The immigration officer at the window hands Almuganahi a letter, and it informs them that Alazzar's visa has been rejected because of Trump's travel ban.

ALMUGANAHI: I was speechless. I feel like they were telling us this time, we can't be together. And I was like, no, I'm not going to accept this. I told them, this is impossible. Why are we being treated as a second-class citizen?

CHANG: How did your wife react when she found out this news?

ALMUGANAHI: She felt heartbroken. She was like, wow. I mean, you are an American citizen. Your whole life is over there. Why can't we be together?

CHANG: Almuganahi and Alazzar remain apart today, like tens of thousands of other people whose visas were rejected under the travel ban. Now, there was some glimmer of hope when President Biden lifted the ban on his first day in office. A lot of families thought, this is it; we can finally be reunited. But that - that hasn't really happened. All those people who had been shut out have now joined a huge backlog of other immigration cases.

We wanted to better understand the obstacles that families like Almuganahi's still face. So we reached out to Rowaida Abdelaziz, who's a reporter for HuffPost and covered Almuganahi's case. She's actually documented 900 cases just in the last year of people who are still suffering the effects of the travel ban.

ROWAIDA ABEDELAZIZ: In more than 100 of those cases, people reported some sort of medical hardship. And about a third of the data, the person impacted, more than one extreme hardship because of the ban. So this could have meant family separation and an economic loss, or they weren't able to get a loved one in time to seek medical treatment. And so these are the examples of impacts people have been feeling, and there are thousands more.

CHANG: And let's be very clear - the fact that the travel ban has been lifted under the Biden administration, that fact does not mean everyone who was denied a visa can now automatically get a new one, right? There's a long backlog.

ABDELAZIZ: That's absolutely right. The State Department announced that visa applicants who were denied due to the ban could request to be reconsidered without having to resubmit their applications or pay additional fees and that a denial would not negatively impact their new applications. But like you said, a backlog of nearly half a million has since piled up, and people are still waiting for a solution.

CHANG: And how has the pandemic, on top of all these factors, exacerbated the backlog?

ABDELAZIZ: The pandemic has made all immigration-related issues tenfold. A system that was already broken is beyond decimated at this point because of issues like lack of staff in U.S. consulates and embassies across the world. The embassies are struggling to not just work remotely but also maintain national security practices, issues like having to come in person and giving your fingerprints, medical and health checks and backgrounds. There's also just the fact that the system had already been so backlogged, and so all of the challenges that we're now seeing caused by COVID-19 are impacted, not just embassies and staff here in the U.S. but literally the entire world.

CHANG: Dozens of immigration organizations have sent a letter asking the Biden administration to address this backlog with more urgency. A State Department official sent us an email acknowledging the backlog and said the administration is working to speed up visa processing.

Meanwhile, Almuganahi has sued the secretary of state and consular officials in Egypt for, he says, unlawfully withholding his wife's visa. He now has three daughters who are 12, 10 and 3. They live with their mother in Yemen. And, sure, they're constantly on the phone. They're on FaceTime several times a day. But living as a scattered family all these years has been unbearable.

ALMUGANAHI: I can't focus. It's making me really, you know, weak. And I don't want to give up. I want to get my voice heard. Now that I know that my voice is just one of thousands of people like me, this makes me even more sadder because I feel also what they feel because I'm going through it.

CHANG: So Naser Almuganahi just keeps on waiting. He's gotten terribly used to it by now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.