“Salam Ariana joon, dooset daram (I love you)!” my grandmother WhatsApp-messages me from her apartment in Tehran, Iran. My heart sinks. How am I going to tell my 84-year-old grandmother that there is now another obstacle to her visiting me for my law school graduation? I, along with my mother and sister, are her whole world, her pride and joy.
Growing up, my grandmother visited every couple of years for a few months at a time. I can still smell the fresh herbs boiling throughout my childhood home, her disapproving look when she caught me sneaking a spoonful, and her very firm “nakon!” (“stop it!”) with a light knock of my hand so the spoon would drop back in the pot. These visits were, and are, the closest I have ever felt to my Iranian heritage and culture.
In fall 2016, in anticipation of my sister’s college graduation, my family sent a formal invitation for my grandmother to apply for a visitor’s visa to the U.S. The process of obtaining a visitor’s visa, especially for an Iranian citizen, is onerous. It generally takes several months to a year and includes travel to a neighboring country to meet with a consular officer. (There has been no U.S. embassy in Iran since 1979.) Little did we know that even embarking on this process would become effectively impossible.
In 2017, as my grandmother’s visa application was pending, U.S. President Donald Trump issued the travel ban to keep people from predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran, from entering the U.S. After several lawsuits and large protests, Trump modified the ban but still barred entry of Iranian nationals. We waited anxiously for news of my grandmother’s visa application, but none came. In October 2017, the government denied her application, citing the travel ban. No additional explanation was provided.
Now, two years later, the Trump administration has issued a new proclamation that will make it even harder for my grandmother to join her family in the U.S. The travel ban left a sliver of possibility for a waiver after rigorous vetting. But if we try to sponsor her on an immigrant visa, the proclamation will add yet another hurdle to overcome.
Starting on Nov. 3, Trump’s “Presidential Proclamation on the Suspension of Entry of Immigrants Who Will Financially Burden the United States Healthcare System” will go into effect. The proclamation, issued on Oct. 4, claims that uninsured immigrants seeking visas are “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” The proclamation continues that these individuals directly “strain Federal and State government budgets through their reliance on publicly funded programs, which ultimately are financed by taxpayers.”
Update, Nov. 4, 2019: On Saturday, a federal judge temporarily blocked the proclamation from taking effect.
Despite evidence to the contrary, the president claims that the health care challenges we face as a nation are exacerbated “by admitting thousands of aliens who have not demonstrated any ability to pay for their healthcare costs” and that “continuing to allow entry into the U.S. of certain immigrants who lack health insurance or the demonstrated ability to pay for their healthcare would be detrimental.”
To overcome this new restriction, all immigrant visa applicants to the United States must prove to a consular officer as of Nov. 3 that they will be covered by “approved health insurance” within 30 days of entry or show that they have the ability to pay for any potential medical costs.” This is a heavy burden. An applicant who does not come from vast wealth can hardly prove to a consular officer, at the time of application, that he or she will absolutely obtain such coverage within 30 days of arrival in the U.S. Even if a visa applicant does provide some evidence to this effect, the consular officer has broad discretion to reject it.
In essence, the only way for an applicant to meet the “approved” insurance requirement in the proclamation is to obtain insurance guaranteed by a U.S. employer. For visa applicants coming to visit family, like my grandmother, this option is off the table.
The “adequate” health insurance plans listed in the proclamation are wholly inaccessible to visa applicants. As a class-action lawsuit filed last weekend lays out, many plans require a Social Security number or years of residency in the U.S. Government health officials are reportedly worried that the proclamation is unworkable.
Furthermore, by its own terms, Section 2 of the proclamation discredits the document’s stated goals. Immigrants reentering the U.S. on visas to live here are not required to meet this burden. Nor are individuals whom the U.S. classifies as important to law enforcement objectives or the national interest. If uninsured immigrants truly serve such a national “detriment” to our health care system, then creating wide carve-outs of this nature makes the proclamation fatally underinclusive.
Most significantly, this new proclamation places unbounded and additional unreviewable discretion in the hands of consular officers around the world. Before issuing a visa, consular officers will now have the power to subjectively determine whether an individual applying currently has, or will be capable of attaining, “approved health insurance” within 30 days of entry, or has the resources to pay out of pocket. Currently, there are no publicly available rules or standards of proof that have been promulgated to guide the consular officer’s decision-making.
Moreover, the proclamation’s stated objectives are likely mere pretext for discrimination. There is little evidence that immigrants coming to the U.S. to visit family members make up any significant portion of the financial strain on the U.S. health care system. In fact, many families—my family included—sponsoring immigration visas have already, in signed and notarized letters to the U.S. government, agreed to front the costs of health care for the duration of family members’ visits. There is no consideration of these alternative accommodations in the proclamation.
Trump, citing the Immigration and Nationality Act Section 1182(f)—the same statute used in the travel ban proclamations—continues to find insidious ways to keep immigrant families separated and suffering. But even in Trump v. Hawaii, the case upholding the travel ban proclamations, the Supreme Court emphasized the limitations of the president’s broad discretionary power under Section 1182(f), upholding the travel bans substantially on the waiver option.
Unlike the travel ban, this new proclamation does not contain any semblance of a waiver, or protection for visa applicants, and is thus an even greater reach of presidential power. Congress promulgated Section 1182(f) in the 1950s during the Red Scare. It was written to allow the president to bar entry by individuals who pose actual threats to the U.S. It was not written to allow the president broad discretion to issue policy directives banning beloved peaceful grandmas from entering the United States.
If the proclamation is allowed to take effect Sunday, families like mine will have to wonder if loved ones will ever be allowed to share in their best, and sometimes worst, moments of life again.
It has been one month since the announcement of this new restriction and I have not had the heart to tell my grandmother. I graduate from Columbia Law School in May. The first to graduate law school in my family. The likelihood of my grandmother joining the celebration is rapidly shrinking. For now, all I can say to her is: Madarbozorg (Grandma), I am sorry. Dooset daram. And, I wish you were here.
Update, Nov. 1, 2019: This article has been updated to clarify that it is an immigration visa that would require the author’s grandmother to prove that she has health insurance.
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