“I don’t want to go live in another country, but if that’s what it takes to be together, that’s what I’ll probably end up doing,” said a Seattle woman separated from her husband by the travel ban. Many local Somali immigrants are also waiting for family to get waivers.
Pamela Raghebi said she feels like the government has divorced her.
The 73-year-old retiree, a native Washingtonian, lives in a Northgate condominium. Her husband, Afshin Raghebi, who is from Iran, is stuck in Turkey, waiting for a visa to rejoin her.
Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling upholding President Donald Trump’s travel ban on citizens of seven countries, including Iran, offers little hope of that happening any time soon.
“I’m gobsmacked,” said Pamela Raghebi, minutes after receiving texts about the ruling from family members.
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“I don’t want to go live in another country, but if that’s what it takes to be together, that’s what I’ll probably end up doing.”
She didn’t know where or how. Her husband left Iran about 20 years ago, disillusioned with its Muslim leaders and on his way to becoming a Christian. Because of his change of religion, he said, “I am afraid to go back.”
He is now applying for a visa in Turkey that would last just one year.
The Raghebis are among many in the U.S. who have been separated by the travel ban. A previous iteration carved out an exception for citizens of affected countries who had a “bona fide relationship” with people or entities in the U.S. Not so “travel ban 3.0,” as some refer to the latest version.
Those with such a relationship must apply for a waiver to the ban. Government officials are supposed to apply a three-part test to determine whether the ban creates an “undue hardship,” whether a waiver would be in the national interest and whether the person seeking it poses a security risk.
“What’s on paper is not what’s in reality,” said Karol Brown, a Bellevue attorney representing the Raghebis. Waivers are hard to get, even when individuals would seem to easily meet the criteria, she said.
Brown, like other local attorneys, also represents members of Washington’s large Somali community who are trying to bring over relatives. Somali citizens are also affected by the ban.
One Somali woman whom Brown represents has applied for a waiver for her son, now in a Kenyan refugee camp. His dad, with whom he had been living, recently died.
“He’s 7. I can’t imagine he’s a huge security risk,” Brown said. Because his mother is a U.S. citizen, the boy would become one “the minute he steps onto U.S. soil,” she said.
They have been waiting for a waiver for three months, Brown said.
Seattle attorney Jay Gairson, who has about 150 clients applying for waivers, said he also has found waits to be long and actual waivers rare.
He represents the 18-year-old son of a local Somali woman who is a legal permanent resident. The teen lives in an Ethiopian refugee camp and has never been to Somalia, according to Gairson.
The lawyer said the son was told, without explanation, “No waiver is available at this time.”
“I’m suing over this one,” Gairson said, contemplating options in light of the Supreme Court ruling.
Leaving was a risk
For the Raghebis, the separation induced by the travel ban was tied up with Afshin’s immigration status.
The 50-year-old entered the country illegally from Canada in 2006, sneaking across the border on foot in the middle of the night. He had previously applied for asylum in Canada and Sweden, where he first went after leaving Iran, but was turned down. A friend suggested he try his luck in the U.S., he said, speaking by phone from Antalya, Turkey.
He wanted to apply for asylum here but thought better of it after pleading guilty to reckless driving in 2010, he said. His lawyer at the time advised him that the conviction might result not only in denial but deportation.
He also met Pamela that year. He worked for a company that was replacing windows at the Madison Park retirement community where she worked as a receptionist.
“He was so friendly and personable,” she recalled. “I quietly asked one of the younger workers: ‘Is that guy married?’ ”
He wasn’t. She had long been divorced and had two adult sons.
Word of her interest got back to him, and he asked her out. Four months later, “we were eloping,” she said.
She knew he was undocumented. “This was something I thought we could work out together,” she said.
After their marriage, Pamela asked the government to grant her husband a green card, saying she needed him here due to a variety of health conditions, including neuralgia, which causes pain in her torso.
The government approved her petition, according to Brown. But a final step, because he had entered illegally, required him to leave the country.
He needed two waivers — the first to prevent the usual 10-year-ban on re-entering the U.S. that kicks in for those who have lived here illegally. He got that.
Otherwise, Brown said, “I wouldn’t have let him leave.”
Even with it, the Raghebis knew Afshin’s leaving was a risk. The second waiver he needed was for the travel ban, in effect when Afshin flew to Abu Dhabi for an interview at the American embassy in March.
They were both eager for Afshin to be an American, Pamela said, explaining their decision. Without a Social Security card, Afshin can’t hire people or get insurance for the glass business they now own together.
On April 18, shortly after his interview, Afshin received a letter from the embassy saying his eligibility for a waiver was under consideration. “This can be a lengthy process,” it said, and until resolved his visa application would be denied.
He stayed in Abu Dhabi until his one-month visa ran out, then went to Turkey, where he could stay three months without a visa. That time is now running out, and he has rented a house in order to qualify for a one-year visa.
“I didn’t think it would take this long,” he said of the waiver process.
A couple of weeks ago, Pamela flew to Turkey for Afshin’s 50th birthday. She said she hoped the waiver might be ready in time and they could fly back together.
It didn’t happen.
She cried the whole time, Afshin said. “I just told her, ‘Be strong. This is going to take time.’ ”