Separated by travel ban, couples plead their case
Sitting in her office in Rockville Maryland, high-school teacher Jessica Breitschwerdt Monfared checked the image on her cell phone to make sure she was centered on the screen. She took a breath and pushed the record button.
“Hi, my name is Jessica Monfared,” she said, raising a photo up to the camera showing her and a man, smiling, their arms around one another, “and I married my Iranian husband this past March, in Denmark.” She and her husband, Pouya Monfared, applied the next month for a spousal visa so he could join her in Maryland. “We are going through this process to follow the rules and bring him here properly,” she said on the video.
“With the travel ban in place,” she added, “we’re just not sure that he’ll be able to come, or at least not any time soon — which, as newlyweds, is really frustrating, because we just want to be together.”
Monfared’s video is one of more than a hundred posted over the past few months on the web site in-it.com by American citizens, permanent residents or prospective immigrants who are being kept apart from their wives, husbands, betrothed, children, or other family members by the Trump administration’s travel ban. The most recent version of the ban has been in effect since December 2017, and mostly targets Muslim-majority countries. The video campaign, organized by several immigrants from Iran, opens a window into the desperation of what one libertarian think tank estimated is more than 10,000 people from five Muslim-majority countries who have been kept from their loved ones since the ban took effect.
Many say they feel trapped in a bureaucratic limbo, hoping against hope to be granted one of the ban’s waivers or exceptions. In practice, the State Department grants few waivers. According to data released by the department in February, during the first 11 months of the ban, through last October, only 5.9% of visa applicants were given a waiver, while another 29% were waiting in “administrative processing.”
The State Department declined interview requests from CNN, but emailed a response stating, in part, that as of the end of January, “2,673 applicants were cleared for waivers after a consular officer determined the applicants satisfied all criteria and completed required processing. Many of those applicants already have received their visas. The bases on which an applicant may be excepted from the Proclamation or qualify for a waiver are clearly explained in the Presidential Proclamation itself.” Those waivers include ones for both immigrant and non-immigrant applicants, such as students and researchers — a total pool of tens of thousands a year.
The department didn’t respond to questions about the process for issuing waivers. However, in a February 22 letter to Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, an official wrote that “The burden of proof is on the alien to establish that they are eligible for a visa and a waiver to the satisfaction of the consular officer.”
A revised ban takes hold
After Trump repeatedly said during his campaign that he would ban all Muslims from entering the US, federal courts cited his words in blocking the first two versions of his travel ban in 2017. In December 2017, the Supreme Court allowed a third version of the ban to go into effect, and it ultimately upheld the ban last June. That version severely restricted visas from a list of Muslim-majority countries — Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen — along with Venezuela and North Korea. Chad was removed from the list last April, after the White House said the country improved security measures.
Under the ban, the State Department rejected more than 37,000 visa applications from citizens of the affected countries in 2018, compared with fewer than 1,000 such rejections a year earlier. About four out of ten of those rejections were for immigrant visas, according to federal data.
On April 10, Democrats introduced a bill known as the “No Ban Act” in the House and Senate to overturn the ban, but the measure is not expected to pass the GOP-controlled Senate. Meanwhile, lawsuits challenging the ban continue.
One key argument is that so few waivers are granted that “the process has not been implemented in good faith,” said Sirine Shebaya, interim legal director of Muslim Advocates, a Washington-based civil rights group involved in the litigation. “I think Trump’s animus towards Muslims continues to be strong evidence of discriminatory intent of policy,” she said. Legally, however, she said, “It’s a weird landscape right now. We’re not sure how it’s going to play out.”
The White House, which declared after the original January 2017 proclamation that “this is not a Muslim ban,” has continued to claim that the ban is purely a national security measure. “In this era of worldwide terrorism and extremist movements bent on harming innocent civilians, we must properly vet those coming into our country,” Trump said in a statement after the Supreme Court upheld the ban.
The State Department does not typically release data on visa applications or visa waivers by country, nor does it say how many people cleared for waivers actually get visas. CNN spoke to more than 40 applicants or spouses who said they’d gotten no answers in their individual cases either.
“You have to wait. How long? No one knows. Why? No one knows. Give me a time? A year? Five years? Ten years?” said Ashkan Ghafari, 30, by phone. He works at a retail computer store in Tehran, Iran. He’s been waiting 16 months for news about the visa he applied for in December 2017, just after he married his childhood friend Maryan Asadi Tari. The two had stayed in touch after she emigrated to Nashville, Tennessee, more than 12 years ago. “Every day, I wake up and check for an email from the embassy regarding my case, but there’s no news at all,” he said.
Sitting in limbo
The near impossibility of getting a waiver has led desperate visa applicants to think creatively about how to press their cases.
Shiva Farrokhi came to the US from Tehran six years ago to get her master’s degree in industrial design. She and her husband, also an Iranian immigrant, got their green cards in November 2016, shortly before Trump took office. They live in Portland, Oregon, where for the past two years she has worked to launch a start-up video crowdsourcing site for collective action, called in-it.com.
“We wanted to do a campaign, and what inspired me was the travel ban,” Farrokhi said. “I wanted to gather some video stories, but it was hard; people wouldn’t really respond.” Many feared that if they posted something, they might not get their visas, she said.
Then Farrokhi saw a Facebook post about her old school friend Fereshteh Abbasi, who’d earned her Ph.D. in the US, gotten an H1B work visa, and married an American. Abbasi had moved with her husband to the Caribbean island nation of Grenada for him to attend medical school, only to be caught by the travel ban. Her immigrant visa application has been stuck for nine months in the limbo of administrative processing. Now her husband is close to finishing his degree, but she has no visa to return to the US with him.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, her case is so awful,'” Farrokhi said. “I contacted her, asked, ‘Do you know others?’ She said, ‘Yes, so many others, all on [the app] Telegram, they all communicate there and no one gets to see what they are saying, there’s no exposure.'”
Abbasi confirmed this account. Starting last May, she said, she spent many hours on Telegram, helping other prospective immigrants with their questions, assisting them with translations for their visa applications. She took part in a letter-writing campaign to the justices on the US Supreme Court about the impact of the ban. Abbasi said she agreed to post a video herself and help Farrohki recruit for more.
Soon afterward, Abbasi helped Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian connect with another member of the Telegram group, Yahya Abedi, in Tehran. Abedi ran one of the three chat groups on Telegram, in Farsi. He, too, was involved in the letter-writing campaign. And he, too, was in limbo.
After a courtship that started on Instagram, in February 2016 Abedi had married Olivia Cross, an American pre-med student at the University of Michigan. Before the travel ban, he’d likely have received his spousal visa after about a year. But at that point, in January of this year, he’d been stuck in administrative processing for 18 months.
On January 29, the Post published an opinion piece about the plight of the separated, with a video that profiled Cross and her frustrating wait. Nine days after it ran, the State Department abruptly granted Abedi an exception and issued him a visa. Two weeks later, he arrived in the US.
Word spread by Telegram like wildfire.
“After that article, we got like 30 videos posted to the site in two days,” said Farrokhi.
Today, the Telegram and in.it communities remain eager for media attention, hoping it might spur the State Department to take action on individual cases. At my request, Abbasi put out word on Telegram that a reporter from CNN was reaching out about the ban. In less than 48 hours, I received 100 emails and messages from people desperate to tell their stories:
Shamim Darchini, 25, says she’s a US citizen whose husband, a dentist in northern Iran, has been waiting 21 months since his visa interview in Dubai. Darchini is set to start pharmacy school this fall at University of California San Diego, but she said she’s struggling with the ever-longer separation. “I don’t know,” she said, “it’s hard for me to manage these things. Right now, I’m crying and depressed.”
Mohammed said he’s a US citizen from Syria. He asked that his last name not be used because he works for the US military as a trainer and wants to avoid any risk to his wife, a Syrian refugee in Turkey. They married in Beirut in May 2017, and they have been seeking a visa for her since then. He said he expects little change unless Trump is voted out of office in 2020. “If I think about two more years, I think I will die. Without hope, it’s not possible. I am hoping for a miracle,” he said.
Emad Kazerani, who said he’s a US citizen and a software developer at Bank of America who lives in New Jersey, met his Iranian fiancee, Raziyeh Aghakhanikhanghah, through her sister. After eight months of getting to know each other online, he traveled to Shiraz, Iran, in July 2017 to meet her in person. They became engaged that August and filed for a visa in October. Before her visa interview in Ankara, Turkey, in July 2018, they put together 624 pages of documents to support her case for a waiver — but she remains in administrative processing. “We want to marry, but we can’t,” Kazerani said. “Our fiance visa application would become void and we’d have to start the whole process again. We want to have kids, but we can’t until we’re married.”
Others separated by the ban include a Baha’i couple who say they fled religious persecution in Iran (she’s in the US; he’s a refugee in Turkey); a gay couple who married in South Africa (one is a permanent resident in the US, the other awaits a US visa in Iran, where same-sex relationships are punishable by death); and many, many more.
Still, news media attention is no guarantor of success. Ricky Smith, a civil engineer in Milwaukee, was featured in the same Washington Post story and video as Olivia Cross. But he and his wife, Mona Khorasani, who married in March 2018, are still waiting for her visa. Smith said his attorney told him that “one of the best things I could do is generate publicity because the State Department doesn’t like attention being brought to these difficult situations.”
Smith reached out to a local Milwaukee TV station. Their story led to a front-page feature in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “and that’s how the Washington Post ended up finding me,” Smith said.
But, so far, it hasn’t helped. Smith noted that before the ban, Khorasani had traveled to the US repeatedly on tourist visas. She has lived for six years in Canada, where she works for a pharmaceutical services company in Toronto.
“We file a joint return,” Smith said. “I am paying taxes for my wife’s income to a country she’s banned from.”
“It’s sad. It’s upsetting,” he added. “I can’t believe that my own government is preventing me from having a life with my wife because of the place she was born in, and that the Supreme Court said that was OK. That’s really what I find hard to deal with.”
Fereshteh Abbasi, too, thought being featured in The Guardian on March 1 might give her case a boost. “I was hoping … but no,” she said. “His medical school ends May 17. We were scheduled to move back to the US May 29.” Her visa for Grenada expires in July. “I’m really screwed if I have to live here longer,” she said.
Like many of those waiting, Abbasi assiduously tracks whatever data she can glean on the waivers. She called the process “sketchy.”
A waiver process that some call a ‘sham’
Some former State Department officers who’ve seen the process from the inside are even more critical than that. When the Trump administration issued its first travel-ban executive order in early 2017, more than 900 State Department officials signed a dissent memorandum opposing the policy, saying it “will not achieve its aim of making our country safer,” and “runs counter to core American values.”
Chris Richardson, who subsequently resigned as a foreign-service officer in March 2018, submitted a sworn affidavit last year in one federal lawsuit challenging the ban. In that affidavit, he said that consular officers understood they were to prevent people from applying for waivers, that they were not allowed to issue waivers to people who did qualify for them, and that they had to send any such cases to superiors in Washington.
“I am of the mind it is still a sham,” he said by phone. “This process is different from any other type of waiver we have” in taking approval out of the hands of officers in the field. “If you wanted to design a waiver process that was truly fair, consular officers could make those decisions themselves,” he said.
Sarah Gardiner resigned from her position as a consular officer at the US embassy in Madrid in October 2017.
“We felt pressure, if not a tacit understanding, to approve as few folks as possible for waivers,” she said. “In Spain, we didn’t deal with the numbers other posts deal with, but we dealt with enough.”
“It’s really wrecking a lot of people’s lives,” she said. Initially, she noted, there was a significant public backlash to the ban, but now “as reworked and sanitized by layers of bureaucracy, and with people distracted by next terrible thing … it can be easy to forget it’s all happening.”
Elizabeth Shackelford, who now lives in Vermont and is working on a book on South Sudan, resigned in December 2017 from her position as a State Department political officer in Somalia. The ban, she said, “made no sense. It was practically impossible to get a visa from Somalia anyway, so there was no real impact — it was just a punch in the face to our partners.”
Richardson now works as an immigration attorney in Atlanta. To him, he said, the bottom line is clear: Trump “said he was going to do a total shutdown of Muslims coming into the country, and we’re pretending he didn’t say that.”
In response to these accounts, a State Department spokesperson said that the department could not comment on litigation. “However, we would like to reiterate that the Proclamation lays out a clear set of criteria for the granting of waivers,” the official added.
On the political front, progress is slow. Farrokhi, who started the in-it travel ban project in hopes it would bring the issue to the attention of not just the public but also members of Congress, was thrilled to give a presentation on the video campaign in early February in Washington to staff members of newly elected Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota. Omar, who immigrated from Somalia with her family as a child after four years in a refugee camp in Kenya, and who became a US citizen in 2000, called the ban “a moral stain on our country’s history” at a ceremony announcing the No Ban Act. She tweeted out a link to an in-it video last week, and told CNN that she considers the video campaign “a wonderful way to … talk about the impact the ban has had on many of our community members.”
Whatever happens with the No Ban Act bill, Farrokhi said she hopes that, like her video campaign, it helps remind people about how the ban is continuing to affect ordinary people. “People talk about immigration reform, but the travel ban is not really part of that conversation, and it’s almost forgotten. We don’t want this ban to become normalized and part of US immigration laws forever,” she said.