SF federal judge orders Biden administration to ease restrictions on victims of Trump travel ban

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Upon taking office, President Biden immediately lifted the ban on entry into the United States imposed by Donald Trump on anyone from a group of predominantly Muslim countries. But Biden has done little for tens of thousands of people who applied for visa waivers under former President Trump’s program and were denied, and a federal judge in San Francisco says that it was time to act.

Trump’s order, which went into effect in December 2017 and was upheld by the Supreme Court in June 2018, would have allowed residents of affected countries to seek admission in order to join close family members or respect their commercial and professional obligations if they could prove that their exclusion caused “undue hardship” and their entry was in the national interest. But immigrant advocates say the Trump administration has granted less than a third of visa waiver applications, and most of those denied entry are still waiting.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge James Donato ordered the Biden administration to meet with representatives of those seeking admission and develop new rules to allow entry for those whose visa applications have been denied under the previous administration.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit “have demonstrated that their visa applications were denied without the opportunity to apply through a properly administered waiver process,” Donato wrote. “Even if they are allowed to reapply, they will incur undue financial and other transaction costs that they should not have to bear a second time.”

The decision was made in a class action lawsuit filed in March 2018 by more than a dozen plaintiffs, some living abroad and others in the Bay Area and elsewhere in the United States with families. family members seeking entry. Lawyers for the groups said tens of thousands of people would be affected.

“We are delighted that the court has heard the pleas of our plaintiffs and seen through the government’s attempts to dismiss the very real harms inflicted by the Muslim ban, which continues even after it was overturned,” the lawyer said. Shabnam Lotfi, using a common reference to Trump politics.

The decision “forces the Biden administration to finish what it started and create a real pathway to reuniting the thousands of families who have been unlawfully and cruelly separated,” said Chris Godshall-Bennett of Muslim Advocates, who also participated in the case. It should also mean applicants won’t have to pay new fees when they reapply for the waiver, said another attorney, Eric Evans of Perkins Coie in Palo Alto.

Trump, who pledged as a presidential candidate to halt all Muslim immigration, issued several versions of his travel ban after taking office. The final version barred entry to five predominantly Muslim countries – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen – as well as North Korea and officials from Venezuela.

In the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision upholding the ban, Chief Justice John Roberts said Trump’s campaign statements cast doubt on his goals. But Roberts noted that the final order said nothing about religion and applied to nations with only 8% of the world’s Muslim population and ruled it was legal under the president’s authority on immigration and national security. Trump extended the ban in January 2020 to apply to most travelers from Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and four African countries, Nigeria, Sudan, Eritrea and Tanzania.

Biden announced the end of the policy on the day he took office in January 2021, saying the exclusions “are a stain on our national conscience and are inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith. “.

But for those who had previously requested a visa waiver from the Trump administration, Biden initially only allowed those who were denied after Jan. 20, 2020, to reapply, according to the lawsuit filed in Donato’s court. . The administration lifted that restriction in January but still refused to consider applications from more than 28,000 people seeking temporary entry, such as students, visitors and short-term employees, according to the lawsuit.

Reapplying for a waiver under the current rules will take years and cost applicants thousands of dollars in fees, travel expenses and costs for required medical exams, the lawsuit said. And Donato said the administration left in place “unduly narrow and restrictive limitations” on U.S. visa eligibility.

He ordered government officials to talk to the complainants’ organizations about changes to these rules.

Bob Egelko is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @BobEgelko

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