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SILVER SPRING – It’s been two years since President Donald Trump issued an executive order to greatly reduce the number of refugees from certain countries who are allowed to enter the United States.
Known as the Muslim Ban, it has been altered several times by both the Trump Administration and the courts, but largely remains in effect for citizens of Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, North Korea, Somalia and Venezuela.
Prior to the ban, about 40,000 Iranians annually received visas to enter the United States. Now, the number is closer to 10,000, said Ryan Costello, policy director at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), which is headquartered in Washington, D.C.
About 15,000 Syrians received visas annually prior to the ban. That number “is in the dozens now. It’s almost stopped completely,” said Melanie Nezer, senior vice president for public affairs at HIAS, which is headquartered in Silver Spring.
“We’ve completely withdrawn from the global solution” of aiding those seeking to flee their home countries, she said.
“The Muslim Ban was just the start of the administration really rolling back” entry to those seeking asylum, she said. Trump’s call for a wall between Mexico and the United States “is all part of the same strategy.”
Jessica Breitschwerdt Monfareds lives in Germantown, although her husband of almost one year has never been in the United States. The Iranian native currently lives in Spain, awaiting approval for a visa.
Monfared was teaching English as a Second Language when she was approached by three of her students. “I guess they kind of liked me,” she said of her now parent-in-laws and sister-in-law.
Before long she was “corresponding and Skyping” with their relative as he worked on his PhD in Spain.
They fell in love, and the couple ended up traveling to Copenhagen to marry, since its residency requirements for marriage weren’t as lengthy as those of other countries, Monfared explained. Her husband, Pouya Monfared, then applied for a CR-1 Visa, which is available to someone married to an American citizen.
They still are awaiting his interview date.
To be granted a visa, applicants must show proof they are not security risks. Their information is reviewed, including social media postings, work and medical history and residences.
Monfared, a high school teacher, visits her husband as often as possible. “Whenever I get a break, I fly over to Spain for a week,” she said. She has done that six times in the past year.
“If we are lucky,” the couple will be able to live together in America beginning in 2020, she said.
But she hopes it will be sooner. “I turned 34. He’s a little older. We want to start having children.”
Another woman, who asked that her name not be used for fear of retribution by those in her native Iran, said she and her husband cannot return to Iran because they are no longer Muslims.
That decision means that none of their five-and-half-year-old son’s grandparents can watch him grow up. They have all applied for tourist visas to no avail.
The family lives in Potomac. She is a teacher in the Alexandria, Virginia,. school system, and he is a facilities director at a church in the same town. They both have work permits allowing them to remain in this country.
It’s particularly hard, the woman said, because her mother is suffering from breast cancer, and her in-laws, whose three sons all live in the United States, are elderly.
They recently were able to see her in-laws by entering a library that sits on the border of the United States and Canada. They spent from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. of each day for three days catching up.
“It was better than nothing,” she said. “I think it is not fair that we can’t see our family. We feel it is racist,” she said of the travel ban.
The ban has had “a huge impact,” and sends the message that everyone from these countries are potential terrorists, NIAC’s Costello said.
Students who considered studying the United States are instead learning in Europe for the reassurance that they can visit family whenever they choose, he said. Relatives are celebrating weddings and births without being able to share their joy with close family members, he noted.
Leila Sasantour celebrated the birth of her child without her parents. Both she and her husband were born in Iran.
She had applied for a green card for her parents back in 2015, and things seemed to be moving ahead until Trump issued the travel ban.
“They have never seen my baby,” she said. “All of a sudden, everything was ruined.”
Her parents spent “a lot of money” applying for permission to come to America, including taking numerous medical tests, she said.
Sasantour had plans of attending pharmacy school while her parents watched her now 15-month-old child. Since learning her plans would not materialize, the Bethesda resident slowed her education, finally graduating last summer.
U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said he is aware of these issues and is working to bring more transparency to the waiver process, which he called “a sham.” The number of people granted permission to enter the United States has dropped to “a trickle,” he said.
He co-sponsored legislation to require regular reporting by the government so that Congress will know how many people applied and how many of those applicants were approved, he said.