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In love and tangled up in the travel ban

Two years since President Donald Trump promised to "Make America Great Again" by barring citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, the dreams of thousands of Americans are being shattered. U.S. citizens who have fallen in love with someone from a banned country and had hoped to build a life with their partners in the United States are being told to wait, indefinitely.

Trump said his executive order on "extreme vetting" is "about terror and keeping our country safe." For the married couples ripped apart by it, the order means worrying about fertility and not being able to start a family, postponing financial decisions such as buying a house, and anxiously wondering if they should abandon their life in the United States to live with the person they love.

There is no relief in sight.

Video: President Trump banned citizens of certain Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States two years ago. Now, U.S. citizens married to people from those countries are being victimized by the ban. This is the story of two Americans who found love in the 'wrong' place. (Kate Woodsome, Robbie Stauder, Jason Rezaian, Danielle Kunitz, Dave Marcus/The Washington Post)

The State Department says there are exceptions to the travel ban, but waivers are rarely granted, and guidance on who will get a waiver, or how long visa applicants will have to wait, is not shared. The result is anguished men and women, their relationships already strained by long distances, tested further by a bureaucratic limbo seemingly designed to make them give up on each other.

Among them is Ricky Smith, who runs his family-owned civil engineering firm in Milwaukee. Smith favored Trump in the 2016 primary, because he says he was unimpressed with the other Republican candidates. But he never thought Trump would end up in the White House. And he certainly didn't expect Trump to become the biggest obstacle to living with his wife, Mona Khorasani, whom he met while traveling in Iran nine years ago.

Smith has explored every conceivable avenue to bring Khorasani to Milwaukee so they can start their life together. He has paid lawyers and reached out to members of Congress. He even thought of buying her a passport from a Caribbean country so that she could apply for citizenship from someplace other than Iran. Their best hope, he says, is her applying for residency in Canada, where she has been pursuing a doctorate, and then eventually applying for U.S. citizenship.

Smith and Khorasani and hundreds of other couples are desperately searching for clarity on their ability to live in the United States as husband and wife.

Many of these couples share stories and updates about their cases on Telegram, a messaging app popular in Iran. They're hoping someone else's experience can shed light on their own. But most U.S. visa applicants have the same story: Their case is "undergoing administrative processing in order to qualify for a waiver under Presidential Proclamation 9645."

In August 2017, Olivia Cross, a pre-med student at the University of Michigan, was informed that her Iranian husband's visa application was undergoing "administrative processing." The letter from the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi said the process usually lasts about 90 days but could take several months. Cross and her husband, Yahya Abedi, have not heard any news in more than a year-and-a-half.

The young couple will celebrate their third wedding anniversary in February. They'll do it over Skype, where they maintain a virtual relationship, but time and distance are taking a toll.

A State Department official told The Washington Post that, as of Aug. 31, 2018, "1,607 applicants were cleared for waivers after a consular officer determined the applicants satisfied all criteria and completed all required processing." The official didn't say which nationalities received the waivers, or how many people had applied, were qualified or rejected.

The official said there is no separate waiver application, and that all visa applicants affected by the ban are considered for waivers. The applicants must prove they would not be a threat to the United States, that their entry would be in the U.S. national interest and that denying them entry during the travel ban would cause them undue hardship.

Heartbreak and financial strain apparently don't count as undue hardship.

As a candidate, Trump promised a blanket "Muslim ban," but as president, he announced, "This is not about religion - this is about terror" and vowed to "find ways to help all those who are suffering."

But tearing apart legally married couples has caused suffering for Americans across the country.

After lower courts challenged different iterations of the ban, claiming religious discrimination, the Trump administration dropped a few countries and added Venezuela and North Korea. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld the ban on travelers from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen.

From fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018, State Department figures show a modest rise in the total number of immigrant visas issued to people from Venezuela and North Korea, the latter of which previously had barely any traffic to the United States. But visas to the Muslim-majority countries have plummeted.

In 2017, the United States issued 6,643 U.S. immigration visas to people from Iran. A year later, just 1,449. For Yemen, 5,419 immigrant visas were issued in 2017. A year later, 1,195 visas were issued. That includes diversity immigrants, immediate relatives, and people with employment and family preferences.

For the spouses of U.S. citizens, the number of visas granted to Iranians sunk from 440 in 2017, to 108 last year.

The State Department reports 1,571 Yemenis married to U.S. citizens received visas in 2017. Just 372 spouses were granted entry to the United States last year. The State Department's lack of clarity and transparency about the travel ban waiver policy has created an atmosphere of confusion, shame and rumor-mongering among people going through the process. Some fear the United States will permanently blacklist them if they publicly criticize the ban.

Ricky Smith and Mona Khorasani, and Olivia Cross and Yahya Abedi, all live with that fear, but they feel they have no other choice than to speak out. They want the right to live with their loved ones here in the United States, as Americans have done for generations before them.

This article was written by Jason Rezaian and Kate Woodsome, reporters for The Washington Post.

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