On their first date in April 2015, Fereshteh Abbasi and Chris Gibson couldn’t settle on a place to get drinks. Unable to think of a place, they started walking around their neighborhood in Philadelphia.

“I was thinking he was so charming, friendly and sweet,” Abbasi said. They finally settled on a German bar.

Though they were indecisive on where to go for that first date, when it came to the decision to get married, the couple was set. Gibson proposed in June 2016, and they got married that August.

On 27 January 2017, Donald Trump attempted to fulfill his campaign promise to implement “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and unrolled the first version of a travel ban that mainly targeted Muslim-majority countries.

For Abbasi, who is from Iran, “that was the worst night of my life,” she said. That month, she moved to Grenada since her husband attended medical school there. “I was just sitting in front of the TV, crying and wondering what’s going to happen to us and if I could ever return to the United States.”

Abbasi is still unsure if she can move back to the United States with her husband, who is a US citizen. She has yet to get a decision on the waiver she applied for in July 2017. Though it’s been over two years since the travel ban started, thousands of people from countries under the ban have been in a seemingly indefinite waiting period.

Although there are harsh restrictions on travelers from countries under the ban, which was upheld by the supreme court in June, people can apply for waivers to enter the country. The ban states that close family to US citizens, such as spouses, are appropriate waiver recipients. But many argue the waiver system is a sham because so few people are getting waivers.

The number of people affected by delays is unclear. The only data made public shows that as of last April, 579 waivers were granted from 33,176 applicants. The state department did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.

Newsha Tavakoli is from Atlanta, but her husband, Mohammad Esnaashari, is from Iran. They are waiting for a visa to come to the US.
Newsha Tavakoli is from Atlanta, but her husband, Mohammad Esnaashari, is from Iran. They are waiting for a visa to come to the US. Photograph: The Guardian

Before the travel ban, it would take about two years for a spouse or fiance of a US citizen to get a visa. A visa would typically be granted about six months after an interview.

Newsha Tavakoli of Atlanta said her husband in Iran, Mohammad Esnaashari, had his interview in July. He’s been receiving the same “administrative processing” email for months.

“Ninety percent of my thoughts every day is, ‘How can I get out of this situation’,” Tavakoli said. “It’s like I’m stuck in this situation, and there’s not much I can do about it.”

Tavakoli and Abbasi said they have connected with more than 600 couples in the same situation on the Iranian social media platform Telegram. A group on the platform share updates and strategies on getting through the process, though no one seems to have the answers, including immigration lawyers.

Taha Bahadori of Seattle said his lawyer told him and his wife, Sama Ghoba, that he couldn’t take on their case because there is no information about what guarantees a visa waiver.

Taha Bahadori and his wife, Sama Ghoba, were told by an immigration lawyer that there is no information about what guarantees a visa waiver.
Taha Bahadori and his wife, Sama Ghoba, were told by an immigration lawyer that there is no information about what guarantees a visa waiver. Photograph: The Guardian

“There are a lot of questions the state department has not answered,” said Shabnam Lofti, an immigration lawyer based in Wisconsin. “It makes it difficult for attorneys to provide counsel when we’re in the dark.”

Lofti said a few of her clients have divorced or broken up because the wait time put such a strain on their relationships.

Arya Salem of Virginia said he feels guilty for putting his wife, Roxana Ranjbaran, through the stress and anxiety of entering the United States. To make up for it, he travels to meets her in countries where both US and Iranian citizens are welcomed, like Turkey.

Lofti and several not-for-profit organizations are suing the federal government on behalf of 36 people whose visa waivers were denied or delayed. A judge in the US district court of northern California agreed to let the case move forward, denying the government’s request to dismiss the case.

“People don’t realize that their fellow Americans are impacted by this,” said Brian Swank of New Jersey whose fiancee, Mehraneh Rayatidamavandi, lives in Iran. “American families are being torn apart.”

Swank said the physical separation from his fiancee has caused them both anxiety and depression, but they try to Facetime multiple times a day.

“We’re not giving up on our dreams. We’re not questioning whether we should be together,” Swank said. “It’s ‘how can we make it through this?’”