In his suburban Los Angeles home, Robert Garrison is going round in circles. It’s been almost a year since this Californian teacher last saw his partner David, a Frenchman living in Perpignan with whom he has a long-distance relationship. “Usually we try to see each other every six weeks, either in the US or in Europe,” he explains. “But it hasn’t been possible since Trump closed the borders to European tourists.”
The American president made the decision last March after accusing Europe of spreading the “foreign virus” of Covid-19 in the United States. A few days later, the European Union responded by closing its external borders to travellers from the United States. Robert and David are one of thousands of unmarried binational couples who have seen their lives upended by these measures.
Last June, of group of them launched an international social media campaign called Love is Not Tourism aimed at bringing their situation to the attention of their respective governments. “We should be able to benefit from the same exemptions as married couples,” says Garrison, who explains that he feels ‘invisible’ in the eyes of the American administration.
On 17 September, the French government gave binational couples a new reason to hope when they announced the pending introduction of special exemptions. On the American side, however, “there’s no chance we’ll be able to obtain an exemption,” Garrison says. Tired of these obstacles, he is considering immigrating to France in the coming years. “The other way around would be too complicated for my partner. Obtaining an American visa was already difficult under Obama, but since Trump was elected it’s become practically impossible.”
Blocked by the travel ban and impacted by the sanctions against Iran
The closure of American borders to foreign tourists is only one of many restrictions on migration adopted by the Trump administration since the Republican billionaire arrived in the White House in 2017.
In the spring, the American president suspended temporary work visas to “protect American jobs” in the face of the economic crisis triggered by the pandemic. According to an estimate by the think tank Migration Policy Institute, this ban affects some 167,000 people.
More than three years since its controversial enactment, Executive Order 13769 to “protect the nation from foreign terrorist entry,” referred to as the ‘travel ban’ or the ‘Muslim ban’ by its detractors, continues to prohibit nationals of six majority Muslim countries, including Iran, from entering American territory.
In the United States, home to the world’s largest Iranian diaspora of roughly one million people, tens of thousands have been separated from their loved ones because of this executive order. One of them is Sepideh, a 32-year-old Iranian-American who lives in Atlanta, 11,000 kilometres from her husband Saeed who lives in Tehran. The couple (whose names have been changed to protect their anonymity) have known each other for several years and were married in Iran in September 2018, despite the ‘travel ban.’
“We were planning for Saeed to join me in the United States because I couldn’t see myself returning to live in Iran where women’s rights and human rights are trampled on. Since we’re married, we didn’t think the executive order would be a problem,” explains Sepideh.
A special waiver process does exist for people separated from their families and those who are ill and require emergency care. The Trump administration put this compromise into place in order to convince the Supreme Court to validate the ‘travel ban’ in 2018 while the order was being challenged in court. But since the waiver process was put into place, few visas have actually been granted. “We contacted a lawyer, sent a letter to the administration, but we haven’t had any news for months,” explains Sepideh. “In the meantime our lives are suspended. We’ve had to put off buying a house or having children.”
In addition to being separated, the young couple is also heavily impacted by the restoration of US sanctions against Iran, which include a freeze on financial transactions and imports of raw materials. “My bank account was frozen by the American government on the grounds that I am Iranian and therefore not allowed to possess funds in the United States,” says Sepideh. “But it’s absurd because I’m also a US citizen and work and get paid in the United States. For several months, I was unable to repay loans or pay my bills. I had to turn to relatives for help.”
In Iran, “the rial lost 70 per cent of its value in two years and inflation is at an all-time high. American sanctions have had an enormous impact on the country’s economy,” explains Saeed. For Valentine’s Day, he tried to send flowers to his wife via an American delivery site. “The price of a bouquet of flowers in the United States is equivalent to roughly a third of my Iranian salary,” says the engineer, who makes a relatively good living in Iran.
Sepideh and Saeed are pinning their last hopes on a Joe Biden victory in the November presidential election. The Democratic candidate has promised to reverse the ‘travel ban’ if elected, referring to it as a racist abuse of power targeted in particular at “immigrants with black or brown skin.”
Green card lottery winners in uncertainty
But not all of the families separated by Donald Trump’s migration policies can wait for a possible Biden victory. This is particularly true for immigrants who have won a green card under the Diversity Immigrant Visa, better known as the green card lottery. The programme was temporarily halted by the Trump administration in spring, leaving tens of thousands of winners in uncertainty. “If the lottery winners don’t complete the entire administrative procedure by the end of December, their green cards will be cancelled and permanently lost. This would be a terrible waste since, in Iran, participants have less than a 1 per cent chance of being selected,” explains Heidi Mehrmand, an Iranian-American living in the Los Angeles area.
Her sister was about to immigrate to the United States with her husband and son, who has Crohn’s disease, when the green card she won in the lottery was suspended. “Benyamin needs two types of medicine: one is no longer allowed to be imported to Iran because of US sanctions and the other is extremely expensive due to the very high import taxes,” explains Heidi.
Like hundreds of others, she has paid thousands of dollars for legal assistance. In early September, Heidi’s family received a glimmer of hope when federal judge Amit Mehta rejected the freeze on the lottery programme, which Donald Trump would ultimately like to see eliminated. But despite this judicial victory, nothing has been won yet. As there is no American consulate in Iran, “my sister now has to go to Armenia where the American embassy is conducting visa talks. But all her documents are in Abu Dhabi where they were previously processed. Our lawyers are now trying to get her file transferred,” she explains.
“Heidi is very close to her sister and nephew. This separation weighs heavily on her. She is very concerned about Benyamin’s health,” explains Katherine Cash, a family friend. “One day she told me that she would rather be put into an artificial coma and woken up when her sister is here rather than continue to suffer from the situation.”