By Elham Sadri | June 21, 2022
When President Joe Biden repealed the Muslim travel ban in 2021, the Persian community rejoiced. Our family members abroad could finally visit loved ones in America. After years of separation, mothers, sons and grandparents looked forward to reuniting and hugging each other at long last.
But there was a catch. If you live in 155 countries, including my native Iran, you need a tourist visa to come to the U.S. These can take months to procure, and applications are denied at high rates, according to the government. For example, the denial rate for Iran was over 85% in 2020. That’s because the United States is incredibly picky about who it lets into the country—especially long term. So even if you simply want to come here for a few weeks or months, the U.S. government might claim you are trying to immigrate permanently.
This puts families in a terrible position. It means residents of dozens of countries are restricted from visiting their family members in America for weddings, birthdays and graduations. Events that come up on short notice—like funerals and births—are even harder to get to.
Thankfully, a piece of bipartisan legislation could help: the Temporary Family Visitation Act would establish a new nonimmigrant category—the B-3 visa—allowing U.S. citizens and green card holders to bring their families here for up to 90 days. It has accountability measures built in, requiring each applicant to sign an affidavit of financial support and purchase travel medical insurance for their loved one.
This bill recognizes how vital family connections are to a person’s overall wellbeing. It’s something we all understand, especially after pandemic quarantines.
Today, every American knows how painful it feels to be separated from family and friends who are sick or dying. We know the sadness of having to meet a new baby or attend a wedding through a screen. It’s why this new proposal was co-authored by a strong, bipartisan team: Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) and Representatives Scott Peters (D-CA-52), María Elvira Salazar (R-FL-27), Stephanie Bice (R-OK-05) and Jim Himes (D-CT-04). The Temporary Family Visitation Act isn’t an immigration bill, it’s a human bill.
There are other reasons this bill is a good idea. Currently, anyone who manages to get a green card through family could potentially apply for a single-entry tourist B1/B2 visa. Many people submit such an application so they can visit again in the future without the bureaucratic hassle of applying for another single-entry tourist visa. But there is currently a massive backlog for family-based visas. Millions are waiting “in line,” and some have been waiting as far back as 2001. Every temporary visitor who applies for permanent residency just because they can hurts those who truly need that status.
As a native-born Iranian and the founder of a San Jose-based immigration law firm, I see these situations every day. My clients who are facing serious medical issues can’t wait months or years for their family members to get visa approval. In fact, my own beloved parents in Tehran can’t come to visit without suffering through an elongated, difficult process.
It’s also personal for my family. When I finished law school 10 years ago, my parents couldn’t attend my graduation. Over the last decade, they’ve been able to visit me just once, in 2015. From start to finish, the tourist visa process took more than a year: filing the application, getting an interview, doing an administrative background check and finally getting to the U.S. It was so overwhelming and stressful that they didn’t want to repeat the experience.
My youngest sister, who came to the U.S. to get her PhD in biomedical engineering in 2017, hasn’t seen our parents in five years. That’s because the nonimmigrant visa for international students is single entry, like 90% of other Iranian PhD students in the U.S. She has not been able to travel back to Iran to visit family even during summer vacation, Christmas and the New Year when everyone spends time with their family. Both of our grandmothers passed away over the last couple of years, and she was not able to go to Iran to grieve with our family.
The situation is especially frustrating because citizens of 38 countries, largely across the European Union, can bypass the tourist visa process altogether. They’re eligible for a visa waiver, meaning they simply complete an online form and hop on an airplane.
Finally, the Temporary Family Visitation Act would benefit the U.S. tourism industry—something we also need in the wake of COVID-19 shutdowns. The U.S. Travel Association estimates that every overseas traveler who visits the United States spends about $4,200 over the course of an 18-night stay. The same organization estimated that, in 2019, international travel indirectly supported 1.2 million U.S. jobs and $33.7 billion in wages annually.
Tourism jobs and the 2.2 million additional jobs in other sectors such as construction, accounting and marketing would be positively affected. It’s good for the economy when visitors stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants and visit our museums and other attractions.
The Temporary Family Visitation Act isn’t perfect; a visa that is good for six months instead of three would be more useful. But I’m still pleased lawmakers across the aisle recognize the importance of familial bonds—whether it’s a new mother who needs the support of her mom or a dying sibling who craves his brother’s smile. We are already separated by thousands of miles. Government bureaucracy shouldn’t make the distance worse.
Elham Sadri is the founder of Sadri Law, a law firm specializing in immigration issues in San Jose. She’s also chair of the Santa Clara Valley chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and co-founder of the Iranian Lawyers in North America group.