Wherein lies my predicament. I am in Ivory Coast, holding a valid, use-it-or-lose-it immigrant visa scheduled to expire before March 31 — that is, before my family and I can use it to travel to the United States. Others are in the same position. In line, but in limbo. Legal, but not. Afraid that our once-in-a-lifetime chance is about to vanish.
Unless Biden takes action now: He pledged to restore humanity and fairness to America’s immigration system, but so far he’s left Trump’s 11th-hour extension in place.
Biden has been president for less than a month, of course. He’s leading a country confronting an array of problems, and immigration is only one pressing issue among many. But he could rescue our hopes with the stroke of a pen by issuing an order countermanding Trump’s original proclamation. Biden could restore normal immigration rules, even while pandemic-related travel precautions remain in place.
As the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Justice Action Center and Innovation Law Lab outlined last year, Trump’s suspension is “unprecedented in scope,” affecting an estimated 525,000 people. These include workers, innovators, entrepreneurs and consumers whose lives and plans have been thrown into uncertainty and confusion, many who have jobs or families waiting for them in the United States. According to these organizations, some estimate that the suspension will mean that as many as 20,000 employers won’t be able bring needed employees to the United States — many of them in health care, with lifesaving skills to fight the pandemic.
Then there are those of us holding so-called diversity visas, distributed by lottery to people from underrepresented countries. It’s an ingenious American initiative to strengthen and enrich itself through broader inclusion. For instance, according to the American Immigration Council, in 2015 over 40 percent of diversity visas were granted to people, like me, immigrating from African nations.
Congress created the visa lottery as part of the Immigration Act of 1990, reflecting its judgment, in keeping with America’s status as a nation of immigrants. And as Carly Goodman wrote in 2017 for The Washington Post, the lottery has become “a vital source of goodwill toward the United States” in countries around the world. But Trump’s suspension rejected the judgment of Congress and his last extension attempted to tie the hands of his successor. Karen Tumlin, founder and director of the Justice Action Center, said Trump’s suspension takes “a wrecking ball to our nation’s legal immigration system.” Like his border wall, “Muslim ban” and hateful remarks about immigrants from “shithole countries,” Trump’s orders last year reflected his administration’s obsessive effort to turn a nation of immigrants into a colder, crueler, less inclusive place.
I’m grateful to America. It remains a place of promise and hope. Although my husband and I have built decent lives for ourselves in Ivory Coast — I am a chemist by training and he runs his own businesses — we’ve been unable to put our professional credentials to the best use here. We’ll be able to contribute so much more as U.S. residents. We also want greater educational and economic opportunities in America for our young daughters. And we’ve been lucky, so far. After first applying in 2018, we won the golden ticket in 2019: a diversity lottery visa that was approved in 2020. Congress allocates only around 50,000 of them in an ordinary year, and many more apply across the globe.
The State Department had issued only about 12,000 diversity visas in 2020 before Trump suspended the program in April. I was among an additional several thousand lottery winners who received visas after a federal court ordered the State Department to resume issuing them in September.
Diversity visas normally have to be used within six months. So as 2020 drew to a close, I was hopeful that with Biden taking office, we would be able to immigrate. We sold our properties, I resigned my job, my husband turned down long-term work contracts, and we prepared to move.
But then Trump extended the suspension. That means visas from September, including ours, will expire before the Trump suspension ends. My heart is breaking, and I’m not sure what to tell my daughters about the dwindling prospects for our American Dream. There’s a solution, however, to our predicament: Biden could rescind the suspension before these visas expire.
This would not be a drastic step; it would merely restore the status quo: the U.S. system of lawful immigration based on family ties, employment and diversity. It would let normal visa processing resume, with all the protections that Congress built into the system to vet immigrants and bar them if necessary to protect national security and public health.
Biden campaigned on putting a stop to what he called Trump’s “unrelenting assault on our values and our history as a nation of immigrants.” This is his chance.
The author is a plaintiff in Gomez v. Trump, a lawsuit challenging the Trump immigration suspension, which will be heard before the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia on Thursday.