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'It's Really Hard For A Younger Couple': Coronavirus, Policies Keep Families Apart

Coronavirus is complicating an already lengthy process for immigrants to the U.S. American consulates and embassies have curtailed operations. And last week President Trump, citing the pandemic, extended a freeze on green cards for new immigrants and suspended certain work visas for foreign workers.
Coronavirus is complicating an already lengthy process for immigrants to the U.S. American consulates and embassies have curtailed operations. And last week President Trump, citing the pandemic, extended a freeze on green cards for new immigrants and suspended certain work visas for foreign workers.

For more than two years since their wedding day, Albert Akhmetov and his wife have lived on separate continents.

Albert lives in Dallas and his wife Natalia in Kosovo. He immigrated to the United States from Russia through the diversity lottery visa program almost three years ago, and the couple married in Russia after meeting when he was visiting family there. They are waiting on her application for a green card to join him in the U.S.

They may be waiting for a long time. Coronavirus is complicating an already lengthy process for immigrants to the U.S. American consulates and embassies have curtailed operations. And last week President Trump, citing the pandemic, extended a freeze on green cards for new immigrants and suspended certain work visas for foreign workers.

We value family so much in this country, but we're ignoring the families of folks who are here legally.

Albert and Natalia, both 34, have not been able to schedule a consulate interview, one of the final steps to complete the process. Meanwhile, embassies in Kosovo are also closed, so Albert hasn't been able to obtain a visa to visit his wife.

"It's really hard for a younger couple like us," said Albert, adding that they talk for four or five hours via video call everyday. "This is the time when you'd like to think about kids and a family."

Green card holders, or legal permanent residents, like Akhmetov can bring immediate relatives to the United States through "family preference" categories. In fiscal year 2019, more than 90,000 spouses and children obtained permanent residency this way.

Getting to that final step, however, has been a challenge for many families. Wait times to complete the entire process, on average, exceed three years, according to Boundless Immigration, a technology company that helps immigrants obtain green cards and citizenship.

Those wait times are expected to increase because of coronavirus. Not only have consulates worldwide halted most visa interviews leaving applicants in limbo but the White House proclamation last week is expected to impact hundreds of thousands of immigrants.

That proclamation extends previous limits on green cards and adds limits on foreign worker visas until the end of the year. With more than 40 million Americans filing for unemployment since March, the Trump administration contends that foreign worker restrictions will preserve jobs for U.S. citizens.

"At a time of double-digit unemployment, the president is seeking to ensure that Americans aren't facing what domestically feels like unfair competition as our economy begins to safely reopen," Ken Cuccinelli, who oversees citizenship and immigration for the administration, said at a briefing this week. "The president campaigned as an 'America first' president, and that 'first' means American workers."

Boundless Immigration estimates more than 300,000 green cards won't be approved because of the proclamation and that immigrants from Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa will be particularly affected because so many applicants come from those regions.

A green card holder who wants to bring a spouse or child to the U.S. must first file a form known as an I-130 with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office. The average wait time for USCIS to process these green card applications is at least one year.

"Current processing times at USCIS, before it even goes to the consulate, are pretty significant. I have clients who wait a year and a half or longer," said Erin Hebert, an immigration attorney at Ware Immigration. "Those are standard processing times, nothing you can do about it."

Once USCIS approves the application,the case gets forwarded to the National Visa Center, which schedules interviews at foreign consulates. If approved after an interview, family members can finally make their way to the U.S.

But getting that interview will be tough. Embassies and consulates have cancelled routine visa appointments, and there isn't a date for interviews to resume. "Diplomatic missions around the world continuously monitor local conditions to decide when to reopen on a case-by-case basis," according to a State Department official.

Karan, a green card holder from India, and his wife also have lived apart for more than two years. Karan asked not to use his last name because he worries that speaking out could hurt his case. His wife, who is still in India, was waiting for her interview when consulates shut down. Now, the couple's future is uncertain.

"I just want her to be here, legally," he said. "We accepted that it was going to take about two years, but now it's taking more than that, and we're worried."

The couple spent about three weeks together after their wedding in India, before Karan flew back to the U.S. They've made due with short-term visits but haven't been able to do that since he lost his job earlier this year.

For now, Karan's frustration mounts. "Nothing is changing, but getting worse," he said.

U.S. citizens can bring fiances to the U.S. on K-1 visas, a temporary status that allows fiances of Americans to enter the country under the condition they marry within 90 days.

But spouses of green card holders who have filed an I-130 generally can't visit the U.S. with temporary visas and must wait until their own green card is approved, said Herbert, the immigration attorney. Applicants who try to enter on visitor visas with an immigrant petition pending could be regarded as trying to circumvent the system, she added.

At first, Vinod Chaudhery applied for a visitor visa for his wife. As a scientist, he emigrated from India to the U.S. more than a decade ago and earned a green card through an EB-1 visa, also known as the "Einstein visa" reserved for people who are highly acclaimed in their field. He got married to his wife, an Indian citizen, a few years later.

But he said his wife's application for a visitor visa was denied after the consular officer learned that her husband was a permanent resident. The couple decided it would be safer to just file for her green card, despite the long wait times.

They've been waiting on her application for two years now. Chaudhery said he was excited to share his life in America with his wife.

"You make plans about where you'll go, what you'll do," he said, adding that wait times can be taxing to a marriage. "The excitement slowly gets washed out."

Chaudhery said he would even understand if spouses were subject to restrictions, such as not being allowed to work, as long as they are allowed in.

Though he's considered moving back to India, he doesn't want to leave the life he's built in the United States — a place he thought was rooted in a sense of family. He and other green card holders are using the hashtag #familyban on social media to bring awareness to their situation.

"I don't understand it," he said. "We value family so much in this country, but we're ignoring the families of folks who are here legally."

Hafsa Fathima is a freelance journalist and former NPR intern .

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.