When his younger brother was killed in an accident at work this January, Omid, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Illinois, knew he had to see his parents. But because they lived in Iran—one of the countries on President Donald Trump’s travel-ban list—they could only enter the United States if they received an exemption or waiver. The government had indicated it would grant exemptions to some categories of people, like green-card holders, but Omid’s parents had no such status in the US.
Still, Omid was confident they’d be able to visit him by receiving a special waiver for applicants suffering undue hardship or whose presence might serve the national interest. After all, his mother had been hospitalized for heart problems exacerbated by grief, he said, and Omid—whose work making air-quality sensors was funded by the federal government—needed his parents’ support.
But last month, Omid’s parents received a terse email from the State Department revealing they were not eligible for a waiver, according to correspondence shared with VICE.
“If this waiver was real, I don't think anyone else would have been more qualified to get it,” Omid, who is 31 and asked that his last name not be published to protect his family from possible retaliation from the US government, told me in between sobs.
Omid’s parents were among thousands of people from the eight countries (six predominantly Muslim) on Trump’s travel-ban list who have sought visas to visit the US since the latest version of the policy went into effect in December. But recently-revealed data suggested the State Department had furnished just a tiny fraction of these applicants with waivers, often giving no concrete reason for denials. Now both the Muslim community and public officials are increasingly questioning whether the waiver program is real—or if it’s simply a way to protect the Trump administration’s unprecedented policy from legal challenges.
The White House included the waiver option in its third—and current—version of the travel ban after previous versions of the policy were blocked in court. The Supreme Court allowed that measure to go into effect on a provisional basis late last year, though it was expected to issue a full decision on the policy’s constitutionality in the coming months.
Out of 8,400 people who applied for visas after the new ban went in effect, only two had been granted waivers by the one-month mark, data shared with US senators by the State Department—and first reported by Reuters—showed. Such a plodding pace drew outrage from lawmakers scrutinizing the program.
“The Trump Administration claims that the waiver system can be used by people who pose no threat to our country—a grandmother coming for a wedding, for example, would be able to obtain a visa,” Chris Van Hollen, a Democratic US senator from Maryland, said in an emailed statement. “But these facts show that system is a farce designed to hide President Trump’s true purpose.”
Van Hollen, one of the recipients of the State Department data, said the high refusal rate of waivers showed the most recent travel ban was, like its predecessors, a “de facto Muslim ban in violation of our Constitution and our immigration laws.”
Since the time of the data released to Van Hollen, about 250 waivers had been granted, a US State Department spokesman told me last week. Still, it remained unclear whether the agency was following the law in its administration of the waiver program, according to Muzzafar Chisti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at New York University. That’s party because the administration can withhold information about who is granted and denied waivers under immigration law.
“People will have to bring about facts of cases in which candidates who were denied had good reasons for waivers and see if this violates compliance for the State Department,” Chisti explained in an interview. “Then we have to see if waivers are being denied on the basis of some suspect reason like religion. We just frankly do not know enough about these individuals yet.”
When reached for comment, a US State Department spokesman insisted that only two were granted the first month because “it took time to determine if the applicant was subject to the Proclamation, and if so, whether they might be excepted or qualify for a waiver.”
The spokesperson added that a consular officer “carefully reviews each case,” and that an applicant can only qualify for a waiver if they “demonstrate to the officer’s satisfaction that: denying entry during the suspension period would cause undue hardship; his or her entry would not pose a threat to national security or public safety of the United States; and his or her entry would be in the national interest.”
But immigration attorneys working with visa applicants said they’ve had countless clients who should qualify for waivers receive denials.
“The administration is not abiding by their own rules,” said Shabnam Lotfi, an immigration attorney in Madison, Wisconsin, who is originally from Iran and works with visa applicants around the world.
Lotfi said she had clients who owned businesses in the US and had nonetheless been denied entry into the country. She also claimed to have seen clients with sick and dying family members receive denials. So many of her clients have been denied visas, Lotfi said, that she stopped advising them to even apply, given the time and money involved. A visa application costs at least $160, depending on the type of visa, plus applicants must pay for a medical check and travel to the nearest US embassy or consulate—which, for Iranians, is outside of the country.
“I can’t give people hope and I can’t take their time, energy, and resources when I know at end of the day the government is not going to issue the visa,” Lotfi told me, noting that her firm and others last week filed a class-action lawsuit against the State Department, among other government entities and officials, over the issue. (In a statement, a State Department spokesperson said, "As a matter of policy, we do not comment on pending litigation.")
That the government has denied waiver requests without much or seemingly any explanation has made the low number of waivers granted was even more concerning, according to Shayan Modarres, legal counsel for the National Iranian American Council.
“We don't have any information about who was granted these waivers,” said Modarres. “Are they issuing waivers to people who don't need them in the first place? We still don't have any transparency about how this policy is playing out.”
There is not even a form to apply for a waiver, Modarres noted, adding that an applicant must know to write a letter petitioning to be considered for an exception, as well as what to include to make a potentially strong case.
As a result, some people who might qualify for waivers have not even applied. Mania Aghdasi, a US citizen whose Iranian father unsuccessfully applied for a visa after his son and wife both died back in Iran, told me she and her dad never learned about the waiver possibility.
“He lost his hope after several times trying to come here,” said Aghdashi, a special education therapist who has lived in the US the past 20 years. Her father died recently, an event she attributed at least in part to his disappointment of not being able to visit her.
“When I first moved to the US I thought Americans were the kindest and most human people in the world,” she said. “But now, when I needed my government’s help, they did nothing.”
A State Department spokesman said he could not provide information about who was granted waivers, nor which countries they came from, because of privacy restrictions under the Immigration and Nationality Act. But Stephen Legomsky, former Chief Counsel of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) under President Barack Obama, said it was unsurprising so few people had qualified for waivers given the terms.
“The hardship threshold alone has been set so high that only the rarest of applicants can meet it,” Legomsky told me. “And even if they do show undue hardship, the waiver will still be denied as failing to serve ‘the national interest’ unless the applicant can additionally show that a US person or entity will also suffer hardship.”
Legomsky added that the State Department officials who decided whether each individual qualified for waivers had also likely “detected an unmistakable message that the administration is strongly opposed to the admission of these countries’ nationals,” impacting their judgment calls on each case.
And for Aghdashi, Omid, and countless others desperate to reunite with their families, a faceless bureaucracy that leaves a sliver of false hope is wrecking their lives.
As Omid told me, “Losing someone like a brother is unimaginably difficult, but not being with my family makes it 100 times harder.”
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