AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: One week after former President Donald Trump took office, he announced an executive order banning people from several Muslim majority countries from entering the U.S.
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DONALD TRUMP: I'm establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America. We don't want them here.
CHANG: This was Trump's so-called Muslim ban, a promise he had made during his election campaign.
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TRUMP: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.
NASER ALMUGANAHI: At the time, I was in the United States, in Queens. And I was kind of sad. I heard it on the TV. I heard the speech by President Donald Trump. And when I first heard it, I didn't think it would be something serious.
CHANG: This is Naser Almuganahi (ph). He's an American citizen from Yemen.
ALMUGANAHI: I was thinking it's, you know, it's not going to have a lot of effect on a lot of people or on a lot of families, you know. I wouldn't think - it kind of got escalated. And it got serious.
CHANG: Almuganahi's his wife had been in Yemen for years at this point. He had started the visa application process to bring her to the U.S. long before Trump ever took office. And now Yemen was one of the countries on Trump's banned list.
ALMUGANAHI: I thought it wouldn't have affected my case. And, you know, and I thought this ban might not even take effect because it's outrage.
CHANG: But Almuganahi and his family were affected, along with tens of thousands of others. This ban shut out travelers who were already on their way to the U.S. Visas were canceled. People were detained and sent back home. Chaos erupted at airports around the U.S. Americans protested for days across the country.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Protests at airports in the Bay Area and across the nation...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Thousands of demonstrators descended on Philadelphia International Airport today...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: ...Filling five different McNamara terminal locations with full-throated anger...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Air lines reporting delays due to flight crews and passengers being stuck in the traffic...
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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Immigrants are welcome here.
CHANG: Lawsuits were filed against the ban. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which upheld the policy. This ban remained in place throughout Trump's term.
ALMUGANAHI: This is not what this country was built for. It's not this country, what is meant about. This country stands about welcoming and actually providing safe for every family, you know, that come here for asylum. Whatever the case might be, for a better life, United States always stands for that.
CHANG: CONSIDER THIS. Five years after President Trump instituted the so-called Muslim ban, hundreds of families separated by it are still waiting to be united. From NPR, I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Friday, March 4.
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CHANG: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. 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.
ALMUGANAHI: I thought everything would be over. All the wait would be over. The separation will 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 al-Azar (ph), 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, you know...
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 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 al-Azar's story. They were from the same village in Yemen.
ALMUGANAHI: I think I knew her by face (laughter). She'd always pass by, like, our house. Even now, I'd 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 a few bodegas in New York City. And he traveled back to Yemen to visit his family. That's when he reconnected with al-Azar. 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 al-Azar'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.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: 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 rushed to the appointment. The immigration officer at the window hands Almuganahi a letter, and it informs them that al-Azar's visa has been rejected because of Trump's travel ban.
ALMUGANAHI: I was speechless. I did not know what to say. I'm a U.S. citizen. I feel like they were telling us this time we can be together, you know? And 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's like, wow. I mean, you are an American citizen. Your whole life is over there. Why can't we be together?
CHANG: Almuganahi and al-Azar 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 ABDELAZIZ: In more than a hundred of those cases, people reported some sort of medical hardship. In about a third of the data, the person impacted faced 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 the 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, it makes me even more sadder because I feel also what they feel, because I'm going through it.
CHANG: That was Naser Almuganahi and HuffPost reporter Rowaida Abdelaziz.
It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ailsa Chang.
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