How I got my wife and son back — a memoir
Wednesday, January 25, 4:50 PM, Dallas time | Thursday, January 26, 2:20 AM, Iran time
(The phone call) I am huddled over the desk of a 2nd floor office in Dallas, TX, when I hear the news. I snatch up my cell phone and furiously press the speed dial. The phone awakens my sleeping wife in Tehran, Iran. It’s the middle of the night there but bright sunlight streams through my window. I try to keep my voice even, but I don’t succeed. “Baby, you need to leave NOW! Can you pack in an hour and take the 9 AM flight?”
Her groggy, confused mumble is both reassuring and worrisome: she isn’t sure — our son is still sleeping, the airport is more than an hour away, nothing is packed. She had been planning to come back a week later. “Let me wake up my parents and see what they say.”
I heard the news that the new U.S. president had signed two executive orders regarding “building a border wall and speeding the deportation of undocumented immigrants.” The draft of one of the pending executive orders stated that some U.S. permanent residents would not be able return to their own homes in the United States! This really scared me! My wife is one of these permanent residents, and she is in Iran now, with our son.
A bit of history on us before I write further …
(Background) I met my wife for the first time at an Argentine tango dance party I was hosting (you never know where you will meet your other half). We both dance tango for fun. We fell in love on the dance floor and married. We live in Dallas, Texas, and we have a one-year-old son.
Residency-status-wise, I am a U.S. citizen. My wife was born in Iran and is now a U.S. permanent resident. Our son is Texan.
My wife just finished her Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering, and we decided she should visit her parents and grandparents in Tehran before she gets a job. She left Dallas in early January to be with them, and the plan was that I would join her two weeks later, spend a week in Tehran, and we would all come back home together. Her family had already planned a large welcome reception for us — booked a venue and ordered a huge wedding cake! We all are excited. We had packed our ski gear so we could enjoy some time in the mountains near Tehran. And on our way back to Dallas, we had also planned to spend a weekend in Dubai. One of my high school buddies is an airline pilot there, and his family is waiting to see us.
Tuesday, Jan. 23 — Dallas
10 PM (Reuters story) I run across a Reuters story saying the new U.S. president will issue an executive order that will “restrict access to the United States for refugees and some visa holders from seven countries”. That’s sad — my wife’s parents won’t be able to visit us anymore! I call my wife in Iran, and we figure since she is a US permanent resident, and I and our kid are U.S. citizens, it shouldn’t affect our current travel plans. We decide to continue as planned.
Wednesday, January 24 — Dallas
9 AM (Emirates check-In) I’m supposed to fly to Iran tomorrow morning. I check-in online for my Emirates flight. They offer a low-cost business-class upgrade, and I take it — I’m excited. I’m at work, humming and going to meetings and finishing up stuff before I leave for vacation.
2 PM (The draft!) Finally, I find a draft of the presidential executive order. Page 2, Section 3(c) says “… I hereby suspend entry into the US, as immigrants and non-immigrants, of such persons …”. My stomach dropped! Had I read it right? It says immigrants! I can’t believe my own eyes. How can you deny entry to someone to their own homeland? They live here!
To be on the safe side, I think I need to cancel my trip and bring my family back. They were supposed to come back on February 2nd on an Emirates flight. I call Emirates right away and get them booked on the next available flight. That flight will bring them back to Dallas by Friday.
Maybe this order is an early draft. It must have been drafted by someone who lacks common sense. When you’re in denial, you try to make logic in your own head to support your belief, not the actual reality. I’m trying to justify in my mind that this draft is not possible. I call my high school buddy whom I’ve trusted all these years to help me brainstorm what to do. He brings me to my senses — this could be possible!
3 PM (Border wall) I heard the news that the president has signed two executive orders regarding “building a border wall and speeding the deportation of undocumented immigrants.” Wow. All of a sudden, I feel like we are in a different world.
I no longer have any trouble believing the draft meant what it said. Everything that I deeply value can be taken away by a simple whim. Images of a suddenly silent home, and the empty crib flash in my head. I start to panic.
The Emirates flight will bring my wife back on Friday — but what if the order goes into effect before she reaches home? All I can think is that I need to get her back as soon as possible, and this Emirates flight isn’t going to work.
I frantically start searching for flights leaving Tehran in the next few hours. Google shows a Qatar Air flight leaving in an hour, but there’s no way she can make that. The rest of the flights are 12 to 18 hours later. That can’t be all there is. Maybe Google has left something out? I start combing the individual airlines’ sites.
4 PM (Find flights) I find it: British Airways flight 152 leaves Tehran at 9 AM local time, which puts her in London Heathrow at noon. Then American Airlines flight 79 leaves for DFW at 2:20 PM!
I could feel my hands shaking and my pulse rising: I need to be calm, but it’s almost impossible to think. Thursday 2:20 PM London time is Thursday 9:20 AM Washington, D.C. time. I’m now keeping track of four time zones in my head:
- my Dallas Central time
- our president’s Washington D.C. time (one hour ahead)
- London time (six hours ahead)
- my wife’s Tehran time (nine and a half hours ahead).
Apparently, our new president comes to his office at 9:00 AM in the morning. Even if he signs the executive order first thing Thursday morning, my wife would already be on AA flight 79 on its way to DFW.
I need to get her on that plane.
My mind is racing. UK requires a “direct airside transit visa” for travelers from certain countries, even if you are only changing planes. Since we hadn’t planned for her to fly through London, my wife doesn’t have that transit visa. Searching through the uk.gov site, I find a list of exemptions. “You don’t need a visa if you have: a valid USA permanent residence card issued by the USA.” She has that card. She can pass through London without a visa. In theory at least, she can take that plane.
Right now, it’s 2:20 in the morning in Tehran. Everyone is sleeping there. I call my wife’s cell phone — no answer. I call her mom’s cell phone — no answer. Dad’s cell, land line, FaceTime, FaceTime audio — COME ON PEOPLE, PICK UP THE #$% PHONE!
After 15 minutes of non-stop trying, I finally get my wife on her cell. “Baby, you need to leave NOW!”
5 PM (Tickets) Now that I know she can get to the airport in time, I need to buy the air tickets. I fill in the form and click “buy” — but instead of a confirmation, I get a notification: “Waiting to be ticketed”. The airline system sometime takes few hours before they issue the actual e-ticket. We’re running out of time!
I have another problem — since our son is less than two years old, he’s categorized as an infant, and the system won’t let me buy his ticket online. I have to call American Airlines directly. My wife is already in the car rushing to the airport. And I don’t have my son’s ticket! If I cannot get my son and my wife on this flight, I don’t think that I will ever be able to forgive myself.
8 PM (Heathrow) After two hours of multiple phone calls to both airlines (call holds and call drops), I have both of their ticket numbers. Yay! My wife arrives at the airport just in time to make the flight to Heathrow.
Wait — she has to change terminals at Heathrow.
That airport is one of the worst designed in the world. I myself have suffered there many times. She has to go from Terminal 5 to Terminal 3 — it’s a 30-minute bus ride, another security screening, then at least a 20-minute walk to the gate… Even Heathrow’s online travel planner says it will take 90 minutes. She only has 120 minutes, and she’ll be corralling an active one-year-old.
This is one eventuality I can’t fix. All I can do is give her a heads up. “Don’t gate-check the stroller, or you’ll have to wait for it. When the plane lands at Heathrow, just run.”
10 PM (Cancel my trip) I’m pacing, thinking of what else I can do. I realize in the rush, I haven’t even canceled my own ticket yet. I call Emirates.
11:30 PM (On board) My wife and son have boarded British Airways flight 152. They take off from Tehran, headed toward London.
I could hardly sleep in the night. I miss my wife, more than ever. My high school friend, who has been giving me moral support via text this entire time, is also up at 2 AM, researching the legality of banning entry to green card holders.
Thursday, January 26 — Dallas
6 AM (Landed in London) My wife and son have landed at Heathrow.
7:41 AM Text from my wife: “We made it love”. They are inside their next plane. I check the time zones in my head. It’s 8:41 AM in Washington, D.C., the “immigrant ban” executive order is not signed yet. Most probably, our president has not come to the office yet.
8:38 AM American Airlines flight 79 takes off from Heathrow toward Dallas with my wife and son aboard. They are scheduled to arrive at 6:45 PM.
9 AM (Canada) Now that I am sure my wife and son are landing in DFW this evening, my mind moves on to other worries. What if the president signs that executive order in the next nine hours? Will the immigration police deport her when she lands? Where will she go?
U.S. permanent residents can travel to Canada without any restrictions. My younger brother lives in Toronto. I call my brother and explain everything. His response: “Ok, getting the guest bedroom ready for sis.” Wow, my family is really fantastic. He assures me he’ll be at the Toronto airport to pick them up whenever I need him.
Next, I search direct flights from DFW to Canada. There’s an Air Canada flight leaving tonight at 7:25 PM. If she lands at 6:45 PM, there’s no way she can make this flight. There are no other flights to any port in Canada tonight. She’d need to fly out tomorrow. Fine. I’ll get on the same flight and fly out with them. Looking at the fare, it’s $908 one way. It will be another $2,000+ for all of us. F#@%, the amount of money I am draining because of this s$^%. Breathe — at least they are safe for now.
My mind wanders further. If they’re stuck in Canada, maybe I should sell the house and get a job there until things settle down. Montreal is flourishing with investments in my current field, deep learning and artificial Intelligence. It’s a good time to be in Montreal. Wait! Slow down. These are thoughts for the future. You need to deal with now.
10 AM (Detention?) I’m still thinking. OK, if my wife and son have to take the next day’s flight to Toronto, they’ll have to spend the night at DFW airport after taking a 20-hour flight. Where? In a detention center? With a one-year-old child who (like all one-year-olds) has a special diet? I don’t know what the procedure is in DFW. How will the immigration police treat them — like some kind of criminal?
A scene from a Hollywood movie flashes before my eyes: my wife thrown in a bare interrogation room with no windows, only a table and two chairs. Child protective services is called to take away our son …
I start Googling: immigration attorney near DFW airport.
[Feb 01 edit: the detention process of green card holders at airports was not far from what I imagined. Here is what happened at Chicago O’Hare]
11 AM (Finding attorney) I start calling a list of immigration attorneys. Of course, they are all busy and there are no appointments within the next few days. I try to explain the situation to them — even they don’t believe “immigrants will be denied entry”. One paralegal said something like: “Green card rights are protected by Congress; a president cannot override them”. But the president is planning to do just that — how? I start emailing them the link to the draft of the executive order.
My question to them was simple: if, for whatever reason, the immigration police detain my wife at the airport, can you help? I did not get a clear answer.
1:30 PM (Blueberries) While I call attorneys, from time to time I also check the news. I see a news clip that the president is in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for an annual GOP policy retreat. Also in the news: Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto has canceled his upcoming trip to D.C. If our president is busy in Philadelphia and there is so much chaos with the US-Mexico relationship, maybe he won’t have time to sign any orders today!
I feel hopeful. Maybe my wife and son will come home tonight. I remember, my refrigerator is empty — as it should be for a temporarily semi-single life. What am I going to feed them once they are home? At Costco, I make sure to toss few boxes of blueberries in the cart — my son loves blueberries.
2:30 PM (President’s schedule) The whole day, I’ve been checking my wife’s flight path. It’s comforting to see her tiny plane getting closer to me every hour. By now, I can see they’ve reached North American airspace.
While I’m still at Costco, my friend texts me a bombshell — the president’s schedule for today. “4:30 PM — Signs an executive order.” That’s 3:30 PM my time! My heart sinks.
All my efforts have been in vain. She will arrive 3 hours after the order is signed — only 3 hours! This is my fault. I should have put her on a flight to Boston or New York. She would have landed safely 3 hours earlier — before this executive order!
3 PM (Prayer) This is a down moment for me. I feel how insignificant my efforts are — my deeds alone cannot change the inevitable. I feel helpless.
I return home and start praying. When everything fails, you turn to God. I pray to Him for their safe return.
3:30 PM (Attorney call) One of the attorneys I called earlier calls me back. He says he read the draft I sent, and I have “every right to be concerned”. This is something that has never been done before, he says, and he is not even sure how the immigration police will enforce it. I can feel his sincerity. He gives me his cell number. “Call me from the airport if things go wrong.”
I hang up, feeling simultaneously comforted and more anxious, and then I remember that attorneys usually need a retainer fee before they agree to represent someone. I need cash. I call my friend. “Do you have $5,000 — in cash?”
4:30 PM (Leave for airport) My friend picks me up, $5,000 cash in hand. I feel very fortunate to have such friends. What else might she need if they keep her overnight? I pack my U.S. passport (will they let me in?) and portable phone batteries.
6:03 PM (Flight lands) I get a text from my wife: “We just landed baby :-* can you please buy a banana or fries. He did not eat much dinner”.
I do not tell her that the president may have just signed an executive order deporting her from the country in spite of her green card. I don’t want her to worry — I’m doing enough worrying for both of us at the moment.
My friend and I check the news sites. No news of the executive order signing yet. Apparently, the White House spokesman has told reporters that the president could sign several executive orders on Friday (tomorrow).
6:54 PM (Immigration & Customs) My wife and son come out of the international arrival door! What a relief! I run and grab them. I kiss them both. We head to the parking lot — I am the happiest person in the earth.
The immigration officer was friendly and stamped her passport just fine, she says. As it should be. But the customs officer held her up when he noticed her passport. “I could see in his eyes, he did not want to let me in,” she says. But she wasn’t carrying anything illegal, and after checking all her luggage, he had to let her pass.
8 PM (Home finally) We are home at last. The kid is running around the kitchen with his books and toys. A bit later, we are all cuddling together. I’m so happy to have my family home. How close I came to not having them here!
We took the simple fact like our family being together for granted, but a new president can take all that away in a moment’s notice!
Friday, January 27 — Dallas
4 PM (The Order) I see in the news that our president has just signed the executive order. Section 3(c) still reads “… I hereby suspend entry into the United States, as immigrants and nonimmigrants, of such persons …”
My wife and son have been sleeping since noon due to jet lag. I come downstairs to our bedroom and watch them sleep in peace.
I have tears running down my face. Thinking how lucky we are, I feel grateful and humbled. I think of the journalists and people in government who gave us the heads up about what was coming — they have my greatest respect and thanks.
Saturday, January 28 — Dallas
2 PM We have been in a kind of shock the last two days — a mixture of relief, jet lag, and continuing anxiety as more news reports pour in.
But for now, there is a moment of peace. My son is sleeping by himself in his room. My wife and I are finally alone together.
The gravity of what could have happened to her begins to sink in, and she gets emotional. “How can I thank you?” she asks through her tears.
I consider pouring out all my fears at the thought of losing her. All the frantic planning I went through. The sinking terror that I might never see her again.
However, as I gaze at her glowing, tear-stained cheeks, all I can do is grin. I am a guy, after all. I give her a wink.
Thanks to my friends who read the early drafts and provided feedback — especially to the two educators who polished my raw emotions in the current form.