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Biden undoes ban on travelers from some majority-Muslim countries

The executive order will restore the country’s reputation as a religious freedom champion, faith leaders say

Police officers block demonstrators from marching on the lower roadway during a protest against President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, at Los Angeles International Airport on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017.
Ryan Kang, Associated Press

Hours after taking office, President Joe Biden issued an executive order overturning the Trump administration’s ban on travelers from a handful of majority-Muslim countries in a move that some faith leaders see as a victory for religious freedom.

The order, released alongside other executive actions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and the economy, is part of the new administration’s broader push to ease immigration restrictions.

Religious leaders from a variety of denominations thanked Biden for his swift action, noting that the order will enable families who were separated by the ban to reunite.

“We have fought tirelessly for this moment,” said Iman Awad, the legislative director for Emgage Action, a Muslim civic advocacy group. “While its dark legacy will remain and must be remembered, we are hopeful to celebrate an end to this horrific ban, once and for all.”

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, who is president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugees Services, said the executive order will restore the country’s reputation as a refuge for people in need around the world.

“The Biden administration has renewed our faith in America as a welcoming nation by ending this harmful, racist ban. We look forward to resuming the lifesaving work of resettling refugees, regardless of where they were born or how they worship,” she said.

It will also make it clear that Americans do not stand for religious bigotry, said Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

“Religious freedom is threatened when our leaders use fear and othering to exclude entire groups of people from our country based on their religious identity,” she said.

The new order is a testament to the many people of faith who fought against the travel ban over the past four years, said Farhana Khera, the executive director of Muslims Advocates, a Muslim civil rights organization.

“This is an unprecedented victory for Muslims and allies, who flocked to airports to protest this ban and never stopped fighting and organizing to bring it to an end,” she said.

As Khera noted, protesters flooded airports across the country in protest in the days after Trump released the first iteration of his travel ban in January 2017. It barred travelers from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from entering the United States for 90 days.

Within days, advocacy groups challenged the order in court and several federal judges blocked its implementation. But, rather than drop their effort, the Trump administration issued a second version of the travel ban a few weeks later, which amended the list of affected countries.

This second ban, like the first, was held up by lawsuits soon after it was signed.

In September 2017, Trump updated the policy, issuing a presidential proclamation barring travelers from six majority-Muslim countries, as well as North Korea and Venezuela. They justified the move by highlighting the countries’ failures to keep American officials updated on potential terrorist threats.

Once again, advocacy groups challenged the travel ban in court and one of the cases, Trump v. Hawaii, made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

Opponents of the ban argued that the president lacked authority to make such a change to immigration policy. They also said Trump was guilty of religious discrimination.

“Any reasonable observer who heard the president’s campaign promises, read his thinly justified orders banning overwhelmingly Muslim populations and observed his administration’s persistent statements linking the two would view the (travel bans) as the fulfillment of the president’s promise to prohibit Muslim immigration to the United States,” wrote attorneys for the state of Hawaii in their Supreme Court brief.

In June 2018, the Supreme Court upheld the third iteration of Trump’s travel ban, explaining that the president has broad authority to act to protect the country from potential security threats.

“The proclamation (on travel) is squarely within the scope of presidential authority,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority opinion.

Although the 5-4 ruling kept the travel ban in place, immigration advocates did not stop fighting against the policy. They pushed for legislation that would limit the types of travel policies a president could put forward, which the House of Representatives passed in July 2020.

Several Muslim groups highlighted that legislation, known as the No Ban Act, in their statements on Biden’s executive order, calling on lawmakers to do what they can to ensure that future presidents can not reinstate Trump’s travel ban.

Faith-based immigration advocates also asked the new president to take additional action to ensure that Muslim families can quickly reunite.

“This executive action is only step one. People harmed by the ban will still need to navigate a bureaucratic minefield,” Khera said. “The Biden administration must take sweeping executive action to clear away those hurdles and reunite families as soon as humanly possible.”

Although there is much work yet to be done, there is still much cause for celebration today, Vignarajah said.

“This feels like the light at the end of a very long, very toxic tunnel,” she said.