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Ending the Muslim ban is just a start

Lifting the ban will change lives, and save them. But some of its damage can never be undone.

In June 2018, demonstrators rallied in Boston against the ban on Muslim immigrantion.
In June 2018, demonstrators rallied in Boston against the ban on Muslim immigrantion.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The Muslim ban, that great stain, is no more.

On his first day in office, President Biden undid his predecessor’s xenophobic edict barring those from some predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.

Lifting the ban will change lives, and save them. But here, as with so many Trumpist abominations, it will take a great deal more than an executive order and good intentions to undo the damage done. Nor does ending the ban deal with the intolerance that made it possible in the first place.

Between December 2017 and March 2019, 42,650 people were denied entry to the United States simply because they were from Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Iran, according to an analysis of State Department data by the Brennan Center for Justice. That includes almost 4,000 people who would otherwise have been allowed to join their spouses or partners in the United States, 1,545 children kept from their parents, and 3,460 parents kept from their American children.

“There’s so much trauma from what happened these last four years,” said Mahsa Khanbabai, a Massachusetts immigration attorney. “Unfortunately, Biden can’t snap his fingers and make what happened go away.”

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Khanbabai represents a woman who has been separated from her Iranian husband for several years, who had to face a complicated pregnancy and difficult childbirth without him, and who is now raising a baby who doesn’t know her father. The attorney has been trying to help a Boston doctor bring his elderly mother here because there is nobody left in Iran to take care of her. She battled to get a visa for an Iranian man who wanted to donate bone marrow to his brother, a US citizen suffering from a rare form of blood cancer (a waiver was finally granted after the story became public).

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To see how much this ban has cost us, take stories like these and multiply them by thousands. Look to the children who never got to kiss parents before they died; the weddings and funerals missed; the students barred from attending our colleges and universities. See the thousands of doctors trained in countries on the list who would otherwise be doing their residencies here, and tending to folks in underserved parts of this country, desperate for their care.

Look beyond them, to those who lost hope in refugee camps waiting for this country to accept them, and to those who spent years and life savings applying to come here, only to meet dead ends solely because an American president decided to turn hateful words into deeds. Look to those who never bothered to apply at all, convinced this country — built by immigrants, lost without them — would never want them.

All of that pain and loss must be laid beside the joy and possibility for which Biden’s reversal paves the way. It will take months, or longer, to make whole those to whom this bastion of religious freedom shut the door purely because of how they worship. But eventually, some lucky share of those stranded by the ban will be given chances to remake their lives in this country.

What kind of welcome will they find when they get here?

When the ban was first enacted, we saw massive protests at airports as immigrants and others were detained or turned away by border officials whose worst instincts were unleashed by Donald Trump. But polls showed just under half of Americans supported him. A recent Morning Consult poll showed 37 percent still support the ban.

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“Four years later, we’ve barely moved the mark,” said Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Boston-based Muslim Justice League. “The ban is just a symptom of how deeply anti-Muslim and Islamophobic this country is.”

It’s hard to argue with that view after the past few weeks. For two decades, and with public support, this country has laid down a massive system of policing and surveillance of Muslims in the name of national security. Meanwhile, the country has barely shrugged in the face of repeated deadly attacks from white supremacists, an indifference that helped bring us the deadly siege of the US Capitol three weeks ago.

“For Muslims, we see rescinding the ban as the bare minimum,” Ahmad said.

After that, the real work begins.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.