“I have an awesome career. I have my dream job. I’m set up to be able to support my family, but I’m missing the most important thing.”
Brian Swank, an American citizen and New Jersey resident, fell in love in 2015 at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry when he met a gorgeous PhD student from Iran, Mehraneh Rayatidamavandi. After talking for hours over a cup of coffee, Brian knew she was the one. The two began dating and fell head-over-heels for each other. He taught her about Halloween, and she taught him about Nowruz — the Persian New Year. They shared their cultures, their interests, and their life stories with one another. By the time May swung around and the school year ended, they were madly in love.
“I loved and love her more than anything,” Brian said. “I didn’t want to lose this relationship we had, but she had to go back to Iran because her research visa was soon to expire.”
So, before she returned to her home country for the required two-year residency period, he proposed. Mehraneh, of course, said yes.
The couple knew long-distance was going to be difficult, but it would be worth it when the two years were up and Mehraneh could get a K-1 fiancée visa to come back to the United States. Given the number of Americans who have been imprisoned while visiting Iran and Iran’s prohibition on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men, Brian felt he could not join Mehraneh in her home country. Plus, as someone who doesn’t read, write, or speak Farsi, his job prospects and ability to provide for his family would be extremely limited. With few alternatives, they decided to tough out the long-distance for a couple of years as they began the visa process, strategically timing it so that Mehraneh’s interview at the consulate would be just days after her home residency period ended. Then, she could finally return to the U.S. and they could build the life they’d been dreaming of.
Except — their plans were disrupted.
On January 27th, 2017, just days after he was inaugurated as the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump issued Executive Order 13769, bypassing Congress to enact a ban that would prohibit individuals from the Muslim-majority countries of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from entering the United States. A battle ensued between the Trump administration and the federal courts. After the first Travel Ban was struck down, the president implemented a revised version, which was also struck down. On September 24th of that year, the third and final version of the Travel Ban went into effect. This version impacted individuals from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, North Korea, and Venezuela and provided a waiver provision that would supposedly allow entry to people from those countries on a case-by-case basis. The Supreme Court upheld this iteration on June 26th, 2018 in a 5–4 decision, largely due to the inclusion of the waiver provision.
The administration insists that visa applicants from the banned countries are automatically considered for a waiver. To qualify, one must meet the following conditions:
- Denying entry would cause the foreign national undue hardship
- Entry would not pose a threat to the national security or public safety of the U.S.
- Entry would be in the national interest
Given that Mehraneh was separated from her fiancé, had been to the United States in the past, and has a PhD, the two were sure that she’d receive a waiver. She arrived at her consular interview with a huge accordion folder containing evidence demonstrating that she meets the three waiver requirements. She had chat history, phone calls, photographs of her and Brian together, tickets and hotel receipts from trips they had taken together while living apart, notarized letters that spoke to her good character from their parents and her professors, a letter from the department chair of the landscape architecture department at their university, a 15–20 page write-up from their lawyer, and other supporting documents. These materials, however, were never even looked at during the interview and Mehraneh’s case was placed in the “administrative processing” category, where it has remained ever since.
Over 135 million people are impacted by the Travel Ban, and the majority of them are Iranian nationals like Mehraneh. Prior to the ban’s implementation, Iranians already endured some of the most stringent rules for entry into the U.S. While citizens of most other countries are either not required to obtain a visa for entry or are granted 10-year multiple-entry visas, the U.S. only permits Iranians a single-entry visa with the length of their visa determined upon arrival in the United States. In addition to that, Iranians must travel to a third country in order to have their consular interview and undergo intense months-long background checks during the vetting process. Given these challenges, it may seem surprising that so many Iranian nationals still want to visit, study in, and emigrate to the United States. Yet, among all of the nations included in the ban, Iran had the largest total number of legal entrants into the U.S. between 2006 and 2015. As a result, some are calling the Travel Ban an Iran ban. The fact that only 1.3% of Iranian visa applicants have received waiver — the lowest percentage of all the banned countries — doesn’t help to refute that argument.
“I am an ordinary Iranian citizen. I don’t have anything to do with politics,” said Mehraneh. “It’s not my fault that I was born in Iran.”
Despite the Iranian regime’s hostility towards the United States, the Iranian people hold a very favorable view of America — more so than any other country in the Middle East with the possible exception of Israel. The majority of Iran’s 80 billion people are under the age of 35, digitally connected, well-educated, and hold liberal and democratic values. They view the United States as a country that embodies freedom, meritocracy, and rule of law, making it one of the top destinations for Iranian graduate students like Mehraneh. Allowing Iranian nationals to visit the United States not only helps to advance critical fields like technology and engineering, but it also serves as an opportunity for public diplomacy and helps build a lasting affinity for America. Banning them only legitimizes the Iranian government’s claims that the United States hates Iranians, harms the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people, and keeps loved ones apart.
“We have been planning our life together for years now and I can’t believe all our dreams are being ruined by a presidential proclamation,” said Mehraneh. “I barely want to go outside and interact with people… We can barely smile or laugh. Brian is trying hard every day to help me to keep the hope.”
Despite the eight-hour time difference, Brian and Mehraneh text and Facetime every day. They also go on trips abroad when they can afford it. It’s been three years since they lived in the same country and they’ve only spent a total of 8 weeks together.
“I come home every night and I’m alone,” said Brian. “I go to bed every night and I’m alone.”
Brian says the anxiety, stress, frustration, and isolation have taken an immense toll on them — physically, emotionally, and financially. Mehraneh is suffering from stress-induced disorders resulting from their separation. According to her doctors, she must address the root causes of her stress as part of her treatment in order to avoid suffering the long-term effects of these conditions. In addition to health problems and heartbreak, the couple has spent immense amounts of money traveling to see each other in third-party countries, and Brian’s spent over $4,000 on immigration attorneys alone.
They’ve been in continuous contact with their lawyers, reached out to consular officers, spoken with members of Congress, and written to various media outlets, yet they are still waiting for a response from U.S. consular officials. Brian and Mehraneh are not the only ones stuck in limbo. Many immigration lawyers report that their clients are being out-right denied waivers or stuck in a seemingly endless loop of “administrative processing.” Two former consular officers confirm these accounts, explaining that they were instructed to find any possible to reason to deny a visa and to only pass the applications on for waiver consideration if those efforts failed. As a result, only 5.1% of applicants have received a waiver since this iteration of the ban went into effect in December 2017. Thousands of others, many of whom meet the criteria listed in the proclamation, are still awaiting a decision.
Couples are separated, marriages are put on hold, grandparents have been unable to meet their grandchildren, people are prevented from caring for family members, individuals are unable to receive dire medical treatment, and so many others have to watch their loved ones suffer from this discriminatory policy.
“I think the most important thing that makes no sense is that Mehraneh has been vetted before,” said Brian, referring to the intense vetting process Mehraneh endured while getting her student visa three years prior. “It took 3 months to vet Mehraneh for her entire life up to that point.”
It’s been over a year since Mehraneh was placed in ‘administrative processing’ for her fiancée visa. When she was studying in New York, she never violated any laws, and she has no criminal records in any country. The idea that she could possibly be seen as a threat to the United States seems absurd to Brian.
As a fourth-generation American citizen, he wonders:
“Why should I have to give up on my American dream of a family and a life in the U.S. with the person I love more than anybody and anything?”