Opinion: Biden should open the door for Trump-denied diversity visa winners

Joe Biden
President Biden, shown speaking in the East Room of the White House, must help winners of diversity visa lotteries who were denied entry under former President Trump’s so-called Muslim ban.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

There’s a fairly wide universe of people who were damaged by inhumane policy decisions by the Trump administration, particularly immigrants and would-be immigrants whose dreams of becoming Americans were, for powerful Trump officials, personal nightmares.

The Biden administration has begun unscrambling some of the worst of those policies, but it’s not going to be easy. And it’s not going to be a complete success, either.

A case in point: Diversity visa lottery winners who lost their shot at the American Dream when the Trump administration denied entry to people from more than a dozen nations, many of them home to high proportions of Muslims (which is why critics called it a “Muslim ban”). President Biden rescinded the ban shortly after taking office and directed the State Department to come up with a plan for dealing with some 40,000 people who had been excluded.


Republicans stick their heads in the tar sands by suing over Biden’s directive that federal agencies consider the social costs of carbon emissions in crafting policy.

March 9, 2021

On Monday, the department announced that people from the banned countries whose visas had been denied or rescinded prior to Jan. 20, 2020, (a year before Biden took office) could reapply, but would have to pay a fresh round of application fees to do so — hundreds of dollars, depending on the type of visa sought. Those denied after that date could seek a review of the government’s decision without going through the process again.

But winners of the “diversity lottery” — a pool of 50,000 visas a year set aside for immigrants from countries that historically send few people to the U.S. — affected by the ban are out of luck because of a quirk in immigration law that requires lottery winners to obtain their visa within the fiscal year for which they were selected.

Now those folks have no recourse other than to again try their luck in the lottery — or pursue refugee status, also a long shot.

The decision to not offer a reprieve to the barred diversity visa winners “threatens to forever prevent thousands of Black and Brown immigrants who meet all of the legal requirements to immigrate to the United States from doing so, perpetuating the effects of the discriminatory ban,” said Manar Waheed, the ACLU’s senior legislative and advocacy counsel.

This is a situation in which doing the right thing — helping those damaged by an inhumane policy — runs up against the shoals of what seems to be clear immigration law. But there are some steps the Biden administration can take.


One would be to work with Congress on legislation that would grant special permission to immigrate to those for whom the U.S. opened the door only to slam it shut in their faces, presuming they pass the usual background checks and clear other established hurdles. But getting such a measure through even a (slightly) Democratic Congress faces tough odds.

The government also could use its existing authority to grant humanitarian parole to the denied lottery winners, a mechanism that some immigrant rights advocates say would allow them to move to the U.S. legally. It’s an impermanent status, and an impermanent solution, but it would give them a foot in the door and the chance to pursue other avenues for permanent legal status, such as through employer-sponsored visas, seeking asylum, or other parts of our broad and byzantine immigration statutes.

This is about more than just undoing a Trumpism. It is about the U.S. fulfilling broken promises.