ON Jan 20, 2021, an elderly man sat down at a desk in the Oval Office in Washington, D.C. With a stroke of his pen, America’s new (but old) president did away with what was effectively a ‘Muslim ban’. With the signing of the executive order titled ‘Proclamation on Ending Discriminatory Bans on Entry to the United States’, citizens from countries like Iran and Yemen could now travel to the United States if they possessed valid visas.
The stupidity of the ban as an alleged effort to keep Muslim terrorists from showing up in the United States to harm Americans was always obvious, and now with the end of the ban it was especially so. Weeks earlier, decidedly home-grown American terrorists had stormed the United States Capitol. The era of Muslim bans thus was, once and for all, over.
The end of the Muslim ban does not mean the opening of America. Even as this ban was lifted, a new kind of ban, one that had been unthinkable a few years ago, was introduced. People from South Africa who were not US citizens were banned altogether. New restrictions (which were in place until the Trump administration suddenly removed them in its last days) on travellers from the UK, Brazil and various other countries were re-implemented.
The boundaries and limits of this new world are even more stringent than before.
The content of these restrictions all suggested the shape of immigration restrictions to come; countries with inadequate vaccinations or safeguards against Covid-19, and countries with virulent variants that may or may not be stopped by the current vaccines, are all likely to face bans in the future. Even as vaccines become widely available, their quality and the extent of the spread of the virus in the home country are likely to become huge hurdles to travelling in a way that they never were before.
In another early move, the Biden administration sent out a sweeping new immigration bill to Congress. The priorities in this immigration bill reveal the same hesitation against incentivising labour from abroad. The Trump administration, for instance, did not appreciate the large number of H-1Bs that certain tech companies were importing. To counter this, the Trump administration installed various procedural obstacles, banning the issuance at one time and then reinstating it at another. The thorny question of whether workers from abroad could take jobs that middle-class Americans should have remains just as problematic as it was for the Trump administration.
Perhaps because of this, the entire focus of the Biden immigration policy seems to be focused on legalising the 11 million undocumented individuals in the US. As promised, the Biden administration will provide amnesty and a pathway to citizenship to all of them and also provide some permanent solution to those who were brought illegally into the US as children. The restrictions that the Trump administration placed on asylum claims at the border and the detention of children separated from their parents are no longer the law.
Biden’s America is not going to be one that once again throws open visas so that the world’s best and brightest can easily immigrate and eventually get citizenship. The two huge challenges facing the US currently are the pandemic and the economic downturn it has brought in its wake. The travel restrictions based on where the virus is and what it is doing are one way to thwart new pandemic challenges and retain some control over the health challenges posed by unrestricted borders.
Similarly, the jobs crisis means that it will be difficult to justify jobs and immigrant visas for foreigners. With the amnesty for the undocumented producing millions of new American citizens, the waiting time for immigrant visas will increase, likely punishing those who chose to file the legal way rather than simply get to America and then overstay their visas.
The Biden administration has rejoined the World Health Organisation and the Paris Climate Agreement. These and the moves to legalise the undocumented and to end the travel bans are all examples that aim to reintroduce the US to the liberal global order. However, a closer look at the other policies introduced by the Biden administration, from new travel bans to untouched restrictions on visas for foreign workers, all reveal an America that may never be as open to the best and the brightest from around the world than it was.
The end of the Muslim ban is undoubtedly welcome news, as is the end to the Islamophobic tenor of Donald Trump’s America. At the same time, Joe Biden’s America may not be as different in effect as it is in ideology. The changed circumstances of the world, notably a pandemic that has shrunk the world, means that there is no normal, no past that can be restored. The boundaries and limits of this new world are, it seems, even more stringent than they were before.
With the virtual world providing cheap and easy access to other people without provoking disease or the use of resources, it is likely that much intellectual labour will be done via this medium. This means a markedly different world with far fewer opportunities to migrate based on one’s intelligence and skills.
Pakistan needs to prepare for this world where ideas move virtually and people stay put. With Covid-based travel restrictions here to stay, even as terrorism-related restrictions such as the Muslim ban in the US fade, the country will no longer be able to remain a remittances- based economy. To offset this change, heralded by new travel policies in the Gulf as well as the US, Pakistan needs to develop capacities or remote work such that the engineers and computer scientists that were once exported to Gulf countries and the Western world at large can work remotely without the hassle of restrictions and visas.
The world is at the cusp of transformative change, the pre-Covid world is forever gone and whoever adapts the fastest is likely to benefit the most from the new order that will take its place.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2021