In July 2017, MohammadReza Mirzaeian and his wife, Sousan Ashkiani, went to an interview in the United Arab Emirates to obtain a visa to the United States.
Their son, Sawyer Mirage, had been in the United States for years. Mirage, an engineer at Qualcomm in San Diego, became a U.S. citizen in February 2016 and petitioned to bring his aging parents from Iran later that year.
Ashkiani’s visa was approved that day. Roughly 20 months later, she is now a lawful permanent resident, living with Mirage in La Jolla.
But Mirzaeian,75, is still waiting – alone. He’s had a heart bypass surgery, a prostatectomy, suffers from poor eyesight and cataracts and arthritis. He can no longer drive, and his health conditions have made even routine daily tasks difficult for him.
Ashkiani had six months before her visa expired and waited as long as she could for Mizraeian’s visa to come through. But Mizraeian didn’t want her to lose the opportunity, so she eventually went without him. It’s the first time she and her husband been separated in their 42 years of marriage.
It’s not clear why Ashkiani’s visa was granted that day, while Mizraeian’s has remained in limbo.
“I worry about him my entire waking day because I can barely know how he spends his hours every day,” wrote Ashkiani in a declaration. “I do not know if he takes all his medication on time and correctly. I am worried if he eats healthy food since he is not well equipped to prepare food. He spends most of his time alone and seldom contacts anyone.”
Shortly after the family’s interview, in September 2017, President Donald Trump announced the third and final version of his travel ban, which among other restrictions, effectively banned most Iranians from obtaining visas that would allow them to permanently settle in the United States and from many temporary visas.
The policy severely restricted nationals from Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria and Yemen from coming to the United States. Some government officials and their families from Venezuela were also included in the ban.
Immigrant visas that allow people to permanently settle plummeted from most of those countries, according to an analysis from the Migration Policy Institute. Immigrants from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen got 72 percent fewer immigrant visas a month in 2018 than they did in 2017.
Nonimmigrant – or temporary – visas crashed as well, falling on average 51 percent per month from 2017 to 2018. They plummeted dramatically for Iranian nationals, from 1,650 a month in 2017 to just 501 per month last year.
Those unable to obtain a visa under the ban can request a waiver. They must show they’ll face undue hardship if they can’t enter the country, pose no national security threat or that letting them in would be in the country’s interest.
But in practice, there isn’t a clear process in how to obtain a waiver, nor clear standards for how they’ll be granted – though documents obtained by Vox last year revealed it may be more difficult to get a waiver than the administration has implied. The most recent data available shows that they don’t seem to be given much at all.
“It is very vague,” said Jessica Bolter, one of the authors of the Migration Policy Institute analysis. “It’s unclear the rate at which they are being adjudicated. It seems like there is a high level of discretion that can be used by consular officers, which makes it even more vague.”
In June 2018, Reuters reported that the U.S. government was issuing travel ban waivers at a rate of 2 percent. As of August 2018, 1,607 waivers had been granted, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
A class action making its way through the courts claims the government uses a “sham” process to deny waivers, especially from the five Muslim-majority nations under the travel ban.
Mirzaeian now finds himself hoping to be among the lucky few granted a waiver. But no one at the embassy has given him or his family’s immigration attorney, Tammy Lin, any guidance on how to apply.
“There’s no form,” Lin said. “There’s no standard of evaluation.”
Lin argues that Mirzaeian fits the qualifications for a waiver. In a document she’s put together requesting the waiver, she lays out the ways the separation has caused him – and the entire family – undue hardship on emotional, financial and health grounds.
The separation from his wife is causing Mirzaeian emotional distress.
“We, since being together, have never been separated,” he wrote in legal declaration. “We lived a life with a full house with our four children. This is the loneliest period of my life and it is affecting my mental health greatly.”
It’s taken a toll on Ashkiani, too.
“We love each other intensely and I never left his side until now,” Ashkiani wrote in a declaration. “It makes it even more painful for me to be separated from him given that he is now so much older and deals with health problems. I spend almost all my time thinking and worrying about him.”
Ashkiani and Mirzaeian are among thousands of people separated from their spouses or children as a result of the travel ban.
The entire family believed Mirzaeian and Ashkiani should immigrate to the United States so they could be closer to family members who could care for them as they aged.
One of Mirage’s sisters lives in San Francisco. His other two siblings live in Iran, but they live too far from their father to provide care. Mirzaeian can’t move to Tehran, where they live, because the air quality there could worsen his already poor health, according to the waiver request.
Not having family members to help care for him, he wrote in the declaration, “prevents me from doing the most routine daily tasks. I used to have Sousan to help me. But, she is now in the United States and I just wait for my case to be approve.”
Meanwhile, new issues have emerged since the family has been separated. They’re struggling financially to maintain separate households.
Finally, Lin argued Mirzaeian would not pose a threat to the national security of public safety of the United States. The most clear evidence of this, she notes, is that Mirzaiean was able to obtain a visa to visit Mirage in the United States in 2014.
“He would not have been able to enter the United States in 2014 if there was any threat to the United States’ public safety less than five years ago,” Lin writes.
For Mirage, a U.S. citizen, the whole process and resulting family separation has been devastating.
“The travel ban against my father for simply being born in the country of Iran is hard for me to rationalize, especially working as a professional in the engineering field where logic and reason reigns supreme,” he wrote in a declaration to support his father’s waiver. “Despite being a U.S. citizen, the travel ban and my inability to bring my father to the United States like all other U.S. citizens made me feel that I was still an Iranian immigrant. I feel like this travel ban strips me of the natural right to be with my family.”
The declarations spell out how that feeling of helplessness plays out on a sad feedback loop: Mirzaeian is distressed by the absence of his family; meanwhile his son feels guilty over his father’s distress.
“The very thought that I would never be able to see my wife or children in the ‘land of the free’ that is the United States is a heavy burden on me,” Mirzaeian writes.