January 29, 2019 9:47AM

Travel Ban Separates Thousands of U.S. Citizens from Their Spouses & Minor Children

President Trump announced the first version of his “travel ban” 2 years ago this weekend. The policy has already separated thousands of U.S. citizens from their spouses and minor children. In its current form, the travel ban blocks visas to nationals of five majority Muslim countries. By the end of this fiscal year, the government is on pace to separate an estimated 15,000 spouses and adopted minor children of U.S. citizens.

While the State Department has not publicly revealed the exact figures, prior trends in visa issuances indicate that as of January 1, 2019, the travel ban had already prevented 9,284 spouses and adopted minor children from uniting with their U.S. citizen spouse or parent. By the end of Fiscal Year (FY) 2019, the separations will hit 15,165.

  • Spouses of U.S. citizens: As of January 1, 2019, the travel ban had kept out an estimated 3,742 spouses (or fiancés) of U.S. citizens. By October 2019 (i.e. the end of the FY 2019), this figure will reach 6,070.
  • Adopted minor children of U.S. citizens: As of January 1, 2019, the travel ban had kept out an estimated 5,542 adopted children of U.S. citizens. By October 2019, this figure will hit 9,095.

Figure 1 breaks down the estimated separations by country of origin, as of January 1, 2019. A majority (57 percent) of the separated family members are Yemenis; 16 percent are Iranians; 16 percent are Somalis; 9 percent are Syrians; and 2 percent are Libyans.

The State Department has not published official statistics on how many applicants the travel ban has affected, and even if it did, it could not estimate how many applicants have chosen not to apply because they are now presumptively ineligible. This post estimates the number of separations by taking the difference between the average visa issuances prior to President Trump—during the five years from 2012 to 2016—compared to the numbers in Fiscal Years (FY) 2018 and 2019, when the travel ban had full effect. 

Figure 2 documents the decline in visa issuances for nationals of the five majority Muslim countries still subject to the travel ban, showing an 83 percent decline in visa issuances for children and an 80 percent decline for spouses and fiancés of U.S. citizens. In FY 2017 and earlier, the numbers for spouses, fiancés, and minor children of U.S. citizens were above 9,000, but the number of issuances suddenly plummeted to about 2,000 in FY 2018, and the trend has fallen further so far in FY 2019.

Spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents have also been affected. As of January 1, 2019, an estimated 1,191 spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents from the five majority Muslim travel ban countries have already been separated. There was a 68 percent decline in visa issuances for spouses and minor children from the five affected countries compared to the pre‐​Trump average. The policy is on pace to separate 1,928 spouses and children of legal permanent residents by the end of FY 2019.

President Trump’s series of travel bans started on January 27, 2017, but due to court rulings, only the third iteration—Proclamation 9645—was allowed to take full effect. Portions of the travel ban were in effect in FY 2017 starting in June 2017 but close family were exempt. Since December 4, 2017, the five majority Muslim countries—Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen—have been subject to the restrictions on visa issuances. Chad appeared briefly on the list but was removed.

Immigrants can apply for waivers from the travel ban restriction, but the president’s proclamation explicitly states that being a close family member of a U.S. citizen—including a spouse or child—is not a basis for a waiver. Rather, immigrants must prove that “the denial of entry would cause the foreign national undue hardship.” The State Department has defined undue hardship to mean “an unusual situation” that “compels immediate travel by the applicant and that delaying visa issuance and the associated travel plans until after visa restrictions imposed with respect to nationals of that country are lifted would defeat the purpose of travel.”

This standard is very difficult for spouses and children of citizens to meet because, in theory, traveling later to reunite with their families would not “defeat the purpose of travel.” Of course, the “temporary” nature of the travel ban is extremely dubious given that the criteria for being placed on the list are not objective and so are impossible to meet. For this reason, family members of U.S. citizens may be separated for as long as President Trump remains in office.


The Washington Post published an oped based on this research and produced this short documentary about separated families.