Trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare, Ashkan Keshtmand and Tahereh Fereydouni endure a long-distance relationship, their only reassurance the sound of each other’s voice over the phone. Keshtmand, a legal permanent resident from Iran, calls his wife on an early afternoon in Tustin. “Hello, what’s going on?” he asks.
“Not much,” Fereydouni replies from Tehran, Iran. “Everything’s fine.”
Keshtmand asks how her parents are doing. Fereydouni is curious about the weather in Southern California. The connection fades in and out at the onset of the conversation; the wifi in Iran is too iffy today for FaceTime to work.
In the past three years, the young Iranian couple have lived a virtual marriage despite long-held plans to start a life and a family in the United States. Keshtmand filed a petition for his wife to be granted an F-2A family-based visa in June 2016, starting the process before becoming entangled in President Donald Trump’s Travel Ban proclamation in 2017 that indefinitely suspends the issuance of immigrant and most, if not all, nonimmigrant visas from several Muslim-majority nations, especially Iran.
Wrapping up the conversation with his wife, Keshtmand turns to the Consular Electronic Application Center website to check for any updates on her application before entering a confidential case number. “I know it better than my own name now,” he says.
As with numerous previous check-ins, there’s no update. When he turns next to checking the website for the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where his wife did her visa interview in August 2017 (there’s no U.S. Embassy in Iran), the response addressed to her is a familiar one: “Your application for a U.S. immigrant visa is undergoing routine administrative processing. As soon as this processing is completed, the Embassy will post a message to this website with further instructions.”
The last update on the case is dated Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 2018.
“To me, it’s like a routine,” Keshtmand says with a sigh. “I just wonder when it will be our turn.”
A year after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a third version of Trump’s Travel Ban on June 26, 2018, all Keshtmand and Fereydouni can continue to do is hinge their dreams on waiver provisions that allow for spousal reunification provided there’s undue hardship, it’s in the nation’s best interest and there’s no national security threat.
The dilemma that the well-educated Iranian Muslim couple in their early 30s face in the wake of the ban isn’t an outlier in OC and Southern California. At the Greater Los Angeles office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA) in Anaheim, married couples often seek help in desperation.
“What I can say with a fair amount of confidence is that the number of calls we’ve received regarding separation of spouses due to this issue have been fairly high,” says Farida Chehata, immigrants’ rights managing attorney at CAIR-LA. “If that’s any indication of what’s happening nationally, then it’s something that’s been very detrimental and has actually been a big impact of the Muslim ban.”
People also plea for help from Congresswoman Katie Porter. “My office [in Irvine and Washington, D.C.] receives requests for assistance involving the Travel Ban on a weekly basis,” says the freshman Democrat.
When Keshtmand reached out, Porter made an official inquiry into Fereydouni’s case in April. “Thank you for your April 11, 2019, email regarding the immigrant visa application of Ms. Tahereh Fereydouni,” reads a response on behalf of the embassy. “According to our records, the case is undergoing administrative processing in order to qualify for a waiver under Presidential Proclamation 9645.”
The couple marked their third wedding anniversary in May the best they could. Given an almost 12-hour difference between Tustin and Tehran, Keshtmand called his wife the day before, when it would be midnight in Iran. He later learned she cried herself to sleep afterward.
Recalling the moment, Keshtmand looks down at the gold wedding band on his ring finger.
“My wife is somebody I love more than anybody in the whole world,” he says. “I can’t even imagine spending one day without her in my life, even if she’s not physically present by my side. That’s what makes us strong together. Her patience in this process is evident because a lot of couples may not stay with this.”
* * * * *
Serendipitously, Keshtmand’s intellectual passions allowed him to encounter the love of his life. Born in India to an educated Iranian family, he became fascinated with the English language at an early age. After earning a degree in agricultural engineering from Azad University in Saveh, he returned to India later in his young life to pursue a master’s degree in English.
Before meeting her husband, Fereydouni was focusing on physics and mathematics when her father suggested taking English courses; the advice changed her life in more ways than one. She earned a degree in English literature from Ershad University of Damavand in Tehran, then a master’s in the same academic discipline.
The two both worked as tutors in 2008 at the same English institute in Iran. It didn’t take long for them to take notice of each other. Keshtmand mustered the courage to ask her out one day; Fereydouni agreed, and the two enjoyed their first date at an upscale Persian buffet in Tehran.
“I fell in love with his personality, character and manners,” says Fereydouni. “He was different than other men. Little by little, we got to know each other.”
Keshtmand became fond of his wife’s warmhearted and empathetic nature. “The things that make her special transcend words,” he says.
Soon, they arranged their work schedules so they could see each other as much as possible. After work, the couple continued dating at coffee shops, restaurants and movie theaters; they enjoyed family time at each other’s homes. One day in 2015, Keshtmand got down on one knee. The moment took Fereydouni by surprise. “I want to tie your shoes,” he teased before proposing. Fereydouni said “yes.”
The couple sought to intertwine their future in the U.S., where a few of their relatives lived. “Even before knowing her, my wife read American literature in her leisure time,” says Keshtmand.
After being granted an immigrant visa, Keshtmand moved to Irvine in December 2015. He returned to Iran for his May 5 wedding day surrounded by family and friends. By June, Keshtmand had returned to the U.S. and immediately began working on bringing his wife over. At the same time, during the height of the U.S. presidential elections in July of that year, with both major political parties hosting national conventions, the campaign didn’t weigh heavily on Keshtmand’s mind with regard to the fate of his wife and their newlywed life. “We did everything legally, just like we’re supposed to do,” says Keshtmand. “I’m a legal permanent resident here petitioning for my wife. I wasn’t even aware of the fact that Trump threatened this immigration policy.”
What was common knowledge was that Iranians had a difficult vetting process in coming to the U.S. before Trump took power. As a married man, Keshtmand expected to be apart from his wife for about a year as they worked on her F-2A visa. Fereydouni’s case officially opened two weeks after Trump won the presidency. Two months later, he signed Executive Order 13769 and strained the newlyweds’ plans for a life together in the U.S. Fereydouni completed her visa interview at the embassy on Aug. 7, 2017, and has been in administrative processing since, despite a typical three-to-nine month waiting period after an interview given in the consular office.
“We never imagined that something like this would happen,” says Keshtmand. “Every day I talk to my wife, she’s literally depressed. I ask her to be patient, but for how long can I tell her that?”
* * * * *
Trump wasted little time flexing his executive muscle at the Department of Defense’s Hall of Heroes in Arlington, Virginia, a week after Inauguration Day. Flanked by then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Vice President Mike Pence, the President spoke to reporters on Jan. 27, 2017, amid a flurry of shuttering cameras.
“I’m establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America,” said Trump. “We don’t want them here. We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people.”
With that declaration, Trump took a seat at a ceremonial signing desk. He gazed at the folder in his hands before reading aloud, “This is the Protection of the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States. We all know what that means.” He uncapped his pen after reading Executive Order 13769’s title once more. “That’s big stuff,” the president remarked before signing his name.
By the stroke of a pen, Trump clamped down on travel from seven Muslim-majority nations: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. With the order in effect, LAX and other airports around the nation transformed into scenes of chaos and protest that same weekend. For Trump supporters, it appeared to be a step toward fulfilling a campaign promise when he called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” as a presidential candidate.
Critics assailed Trump’s Executive Order as a “Muslim Ban” that ran afoul of the U.S. Constitution by prioritizing non-Muslim minorities, a blatant act of religious discrimination. Lawsuits swiftly challenged the ban leading to revised and narrower versions of it that year, first on March 6 and later on Sept. 24. By the third iteration, Presidential Proclamation 9654, Trump added Venezuela and North Korea to the list of targeted nations while dropping Muslim-majority nations Iraq and Sudan (Trump later removed Chad in 2018). Iran remained, noted as a state sponsor of terrorism that fails to cooperate with the U.S. in identifying security risks and refuses to accept deportees.
The U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Travel Ban to take full effect in December 2017 while reviewing its legal challenges. Then, on June 26, 2018, the Highest Court in the Land affirmed the constitutionality of the ban. Chief Justice John Roberts, in his majority opinion, cited the waiver provision of the proclamation in buttressing its legality.
A year later, Keshtmand clings to the same provision Roberts highlighted, bringing the proclamation up on his smartphone and reading the pertinent parts. “A waiver may be granted only if a foreign national has demonstrated to the consular officer’s or CBP official’s satisfaction that denying entry would cause the foreign national undue hardship, entry would not pose a threat to the national security or public safety of the United States and entry would be in the national interest.”
Keshtmand turns his attention next to circumstances that allow for a waiver from the ban on a case-by-case basis, most important a provision in which a foreign national seeks to visit or reside with a close family member, such as a spouse, who is a citizen, legal permanent resident or otherwise admitted on a valid nonimmigrant visa. It’s a provision Fereydouni believes in, too. By those very words alone, she should be by her husband’s side.
“Even when the ban came into effect, we thought it’d be okay for us because we are those exceptions,” says Fereydouni. “Being separated from my husband—that’s the hardship. How do I prove that? We just want to be together. I’m not any kind of threat.”
But the married couple remains 7,600 miles apart from each other.
“They have to deal with these cases because it’s under their own law,” says Keshtmand. “The problem is that they’re not delivering the promise that they made.”
* * * * *
Keshtmand and Fereydouni celebrated Valentine’s Day virtually last year, as they’ve done with all special occasions since they married. That same day, instead of a visa, the embassy updated Fereydouni’s case after receiving Form DS-5535, Supplemental Questions for Visa Applications—an added layer of “extreme vetting” introduced in 2017. It’s another bureaucratic hurdle reaching beyond the countries targeted by Trump’s Travel Ban and was well positioned as backup if the Presidential Proclamation had proved unconstitutional.
The State Department proposed the form for visa applicants “who have been determined to warrant additional scrutiny in connection with terrorism or other national security-related visa ineligibilities.”
In introducing the new vetting, the State Department noted that only half a percent of applicants present a “threat profile” every year. With the Travel Ban against Iran, Fereydouni filled it out. The three-page questionnaire pries into the past 15 years of an applicant’s travel, living and employment histories. It also asks for information regarding siblings, children and spouses. Social-media accounts and identities for the past five years must be disclosed.
It’s been 16 months since Fereydouni turned in the paperwork and the embassy last provided an update on her case.
The form adds to the distress for those already subject to the Travel Ban. With the Supreme Court upholding the ban’s constitutionality, additional legal challenges are now focusing on its waiver provisions, a process plaintiffs accuse the government of offering without any meaningful guidance. Muslim Advocates, a national civil-rights organization, joined an amended complaint last year in Emami v. Nielsen alongside several other organizations. The case drew together 36 plaintiffs who’ve either faced denials of visas or lengthy delays despite leading lives that seemingly make for strong waiver cases.
“There’s no application for one of these waivers,” says Sirine Shebaya, a Muslim Advocates attorney who’s arguing the case in federal court. “The government continually says that people are considered automatically. We’ve literally never heard of anyone going to an interview and being told they’re being granted a waiver.”
Then there are cases like Fereydouni’s, people who interviewed for a visa before the proclamation took effect. Several plaintiffs in Emami can say the same. “The idea that they were considered for a waiver at their interview is, of course, blatantly absurd in that context,” Shebaya adds.
Since being filed, a few plaintiffs in the case recently received a rare waiver. In April, Reuters reported that in the first 11 months of the Travel Ban, the U.S. government cleared 2,216 applicants for waivers out of nearly 38,000 cases; that’s all of 6 percent. “The grant rates by themselves, I don’t think, are really dispositive of the claims that we are raising in this case,” says Shebaya. “The fact that you only had a 6 percent grant rate when you have potentially thousands of applicants who immediately seem to meet all of the criteria set forth in the proclamation helps to show that this is not a meaningful process.”
And the numbers only continue to shrink, especially for Iranians. U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) successfully added an amendment to the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2019 that called for 90-day reports on the Travel Ban from the State Department until Sept. 30. The first report came two weeks ago and shows that from December 2017 to March 31, 2019, only 5.1 percent of applicants were cleared for waivers. For Iranians, the rate is all but a total clampdown at 1.3 percent, the lowest percentage among all affected countries.
State Department data charts show that in January through March of this year, only a sole applicant for an F-2A visa, such as the one Fereydouni is hoping to be granted, was cleared for a waiver per month. When asked how many applicants had unresolved cases that began prior to the ban, a State Department official replied, “no visas were revoked pursuant to PP 9645.”
Frustrated by the lack of progress, Keshtmand reached out to Porter in March. A co-sponsor of the NO BAN Act that seeks to repeal the Travel Ban by disallowing religious discrimination in visa issuance, she was receptive to his plea. “I remain firmly opposed to the Muslim Ban,” says Porter. “Policies that discriminate, persecute and divide us go against American and Orange County values.”
Porter has to wait until July to be able to submit a follow-up to her April inquiry to see if the case has moved beyond administrative processing. “No individual or family should be discriminated against based on their religious beliefs, and my office will continue to offer assistance to constituents affected by the ban,” she says.
On the legislative side, with the Trump administration and Republicans controlling the Senate, political observers don’t see much chance for the NO BAN Act to become law any time soon.
“Deep down, I’m losing my hope,” Keshtmand admits. “I’m trying to keep a good face in front of my wife, but I don’t think they’ve even touched my wife’s case. Everything that we believed in has been proven wrong.”
* * * * *
For the past two years, Fereydouni has kept a ritual akin to her husband’s.
“Every time that I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is check my phone to see if I have any emails from the embassy or if I’ve received any calls or messages from Ashkan telling me good news,” she says. “This is too painful. We’ve been married for three years, but we can’t even be with each other. We used to see each other every day.”
When each morning brings more of the same, Fereydouni faces another difficulty in getting up. She knows she’ll face the same question from relatives, friends and co-workers that she seeks answers to for herself. Fereydouni’s father is especially inquisitive of what updates there are for his daughter and son-in-law. But for the past three years, the response hasn’t changed. All the couple can do is wait for the process to play out, prompting another question about their patience.
“Ashkan cannot even come here,” says Fereydouni. “And I don’t have any way to go see him there.” The couple are leery of anything that may adversely affect their already-tenuous case, including any extended stay in Iran that could be misconstrued as abandonment of Keshtmand’s domicile in the U.S.
Kept apart, Keshtmand’s spiritual well-being faces a new test. Being referred to an oncologist and living through a cancer scare without Fereydouni by his side is just the latest, deepest pang of solitude. On the morning of an important appointment, his wife is a world away. “Right now, he’s at the doctor’s office undergoing an MRI,” says Fereydouni, engulfed in grief. “I’m just waiting for his call to tell me if everything is okay or not.”
A doctor advised Keshtmand to keep monitoring a cyst that could turn cancerous. Such a diagnosis might improve the chances for his wife’s case to be dislodged from its seemingly perpetual state of administrative processing. But that’s not the way the couple wants Fereydouni to gain clearance for a waiver.
In high-profile visa battles, ill health appears to be a determining factor. Shaima Swileh, a Yemeni mother, publicly pleaded to have her case expedited and was granted a visa just before her 2-year-old, U.S.-citizen son died. “It’s sad that it’s come to this,” says Chehata, “where people have to be suffering to such extremes to even qualify for a simple waiver that they should qualify for if not coming from one of these five Muslim-majority nations.” The attorney represented a Yemeni American dentist who, diagnosed with leukemia, needed to fight for banned relatives to be granted a visa; one sister who got a waiver had a 100 percent match for a life-saving bone marrow transplant.
Keshtmand alerted the embassy of his own health concerns, but it didn’t appear to move things along.
Despite these dire straits, he carries a spark of hope, one sustained by an ever-enduring love. Visibly frustrated at times, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, Keshtmand becomes buoyant and cracks a boyish grin when musing about the long-awaited moment of reuniting with his wife stateside. “Once I actually pick her up from LAX, I’ll take her to Tender Greens, a restaurant in Santa Monica,” he says. “Then we would take a walk to Third Street Promenade, and then the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame.”
Fereydouni’s fixated on a more immediate scene—their loving embrace at the airport.
From there, the plans for the married couple remain as they’ve been rehearsed in conversation for years. They want to travel to Las Vegas and New York City within their new home country. Fereydouni says her husband hasn’t really gone anywhere in the U.S. because he doesn’t want to explore or experience anything here without her.
Both want to continue their education; Keshtmand is pondering law school, and Fereydouni wants to pursue a doctorate in English.
Most of all, they want to start a family in building their lives together in OC.
“When we think of such things, we get excited,” says Keshtmand. “We have a lot of plans, but unfortunately, we don’t know when they will come true.”