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Legacy Of Travel Ban Will Be Hard For Biden To Erase

NOEL KING, HOST:

President-elect Joe Biden is expected to sign a bunch of executive orders when he takes office tomorrow, including one rolling back the so-called travel ban on immigrants from majority-Muslim countries. But that policy's legacy won't be easy to erase. Here's NPR's Joel Rose.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: After fleeing civil war in Syria, Haitham Dalati and his wife made it to the U.S. in early 2017. They hoped their daughter and her family would soon follow. But when I talked to Haitham Dalati a year later, the rest of the family was still stuck in Lebanon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HAITHAM DALATI: This is so horrible for us. So I don't know now whether America is good or bad.

ROSE: Dalati and his wife got into the U.S. during a brief window when the first version of President Trump's travel ban was put on hold. In the months that followed, legal battles raged until the Supreme Court ultimately upheld a slimmed-down version of the ban. It wasn't until November of last year, though, that Dalati's daughter, son-in-law and four grandchildren were finally allowed in as refugees.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ROSE: The family hugged and wept at the airport gate in Pennsylvania. When we spoke again this month, Dalati said he sees America with new eyes.

DALATI: Much better than before when my daughter is with me with her children and husband. Really, it's another America.

ROSE: Now, tens of thousands of families are hoping for similar reunions. Legally, experts say it should be easy for President-elect Biden to end the travel ban on day one as he's promised. The policy was created by executive order, and it can be reversed much the same way. But immigrant advocates say the hard work is still ahead.

AVIDEH MOUSSAVIAN: It's not just what they can do with the stroke of the pen. As important as that is, it's just simply step one.

ROSE: Avideh Moussavian is with the National Immigration Law Center, one of many nonprofit organizations that have fought what they deride as the Muslim ban. Moussavian says the Biden administration needs to assure immigrants that they will be treated fairly and that immigrants who've been rejected for visas and green cards under the travel ban should get another chance - people like Pamela Raghebi.

PAMELA RAGHEBI: I miss him. I need those arms holding me tight, making me laugh.

ROSE: Raghebi has been separated from her husband for more than two years. Her husband Afshin Raghebi was born in Iran and lived in the U.S. illegally for years. They met in Seattle, where she lives as a U.S. citizen. After they got married, he applied for a green card, but his application was denied.

RAGHEBI: At that point, we were devastated.

ROSE: Under the rules, Raghebi's husband had to fly to Abu Dhabi for an interview at the U.S. consulate. They knew it was risky because of the travel ban, but she says they were trying to do the right thing. Now he's stuck overseas.

RAGHEBI: It's an insult, but we will keep trying.

ROSE: Immigration hard-liners, though, say it would be a mistake to end the travel ban completely. Jessica Vaughan is with the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for lower levels of immigration. She says the travel ban puts pressure on foreign governments in countries like Iran, Syria and Libya to improve their own security vetting for travelers to the U.S.

JESSICA VAUGHAN: The burden should be on these countries to show that their systems are adequate, and their situations haven't changed all that much.

ROSE: But even some national security experts say banning all travelers from a country wasn't the answer. It just fueled a narrative that the U.S. discriminates against Muslims. Elizabeth Neumann was a top counterterrorism official in the Trump administration until she resigned last year.

ELIZABETH NEUMANN: These bans damaged our nation's reputation. They were an unnecessary distraction from the actual security enhancements that were needed.

ROSE: Neumann says the travel ban tarnished the U.S.' image around the world - one more part of the ban's legacy she hopes the Biden administration will begin to undo.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "BLUE DREAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.