Travel ban won’t keep engaged apart after all

Colleen Long and Matthew Lee
Associated Press

New York — Paul Gottinger, who applied nearly a year ago to bring his Iranian fiancee to the United States so they could be married, went to bed feeling hopeless.

The Trump administration’s travel ban, as first outlined on Wednesday, required people from six mostly Muslim countries to have a business or close family relationship with someone in the U.S. to get a visa. Siblings, parents or spouses made the list; fiances didn’t.

But then government officials abruptly changed course, just hours before the new rules went into effect Thursday evening. The travel ban would not keep engaged couples apart after all.

“This one more crazy twist on the roller coaster,” Gottinger, a 34-year-old journalist from Minnesota said by telephone Friday from Istanbul, Turkey, where the couple go to spend time with each other. “We’re relieved, but we have a long way to go.”

Before the State Department relented, immigration lawyers said it made no sense to exclude fiances because there is already rigorous vetting aimed at rooting out marriage fraud.

Foreigners engaged to marry a U.S. citizen have long had to provide detailed documentation of the relationship’s authenticity and undergo background checks to get a fiance visa, known as a K-1.

Scrutiny of such visas increased after the 2015 San Bernardino, California, massacre that left 14 people dead. Tashfeen Malik, who carried out the attack with her U.S.-born husband, came to this country in 2014 on a fiancee visa. (She was from Pakistan, a country not covered by the travel ban.)

The K-1 program is one of the smallest visa programs managed by the government. Out of the more than 10.3 million non-immigrant visas issued in fiscal 2016, just 38,403 — roughly 0.3 percent — were fiancée visas.

Government officials gave no explanation for why fiances were omitted in the first place but said the decision to allow engaged couples to be together was based in part on language in the Immigration and Nationality Act, the law long used to determine what constitutes a close relationship.

Gottinger said he met his 32-year-old fiance online. He said the pair traveled to Istanbul to meet in person in 2016 and decided to marry a month later. The couple applied for the visa nearly a year ago but are still waiting on a decision from the U.S. government.

“It’s a very unconventional and trying process,” he said. “But for us, we’re in love and we’re going to do this.”

He said they have talked about moving to Iran, but there are concerns for his safety.

“We’re really just kind of trapped between both of our countries,” Gottinger said. “We’re not going to give up and just stop loving someone.”

Shukri Abdul, a 34-year-old medical interpreter from St. Paul, Minnesota, who has been planning to fly to Malaysia on Monday to meet her fiance ahead of his interview for a K-1 visa. After hours of uncertainty, she is still planning to go.

The pair have known each other since they were young children growing up in Somalia. While Abdul later moved to the United States and became a citizen, they reconnected last year on Facebook. She went to see him in Somalia, and they got engaged, but Abdul said she didn’t want to get married without her five children there.

“That is why we were doing the wedding here, not there,” she said. “They were excited for me to get happiness.”