Who Needs a Border Wall When You Have DS-5535?

Oct 24, 2018 by

The New York Times


A new, quietly introduced visa form reminds us that mind-numbing bureaucracy can be an effective family-separation tool if that’s your game.

By Moshe Schulman

Mr. Schulman is a writer in New York.

Muslim communities in New York stage a rally as protests intensify against President Trump’s executive order banning entry of 7 Muslim-majority countries of admission visas in 2017. Credit Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images

On May 16, I accompanied my fiancée to the United States Consulate in Casablanca, Morocco, for her visa interview. We had waited eight months for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to approve our application and the National Visa Center to issue an appointment. I booked her a return flight, hopeful that we would be flying back together to continue our lives in New York.

It has now been five months since that visa interview, and over a year since the initial application. The year and a half of separation is because of one form: the DS-5535. The Trump administration and the State Department quietly enacted this requirement in May of 2017 as part of their plans for “extreme vetting,” and possibly a way of circumventing the disputed travel ban, which has since been upheld by the Supreme Court. While most Americans are aware of the family separations at the border in Texas, I don’t believe many people know about the DS-5535 form and how it’s tearing families apart.

The DS-5535 requires visa applicants to provide the past 15 years of their travel history, past and current social media handles, email accounts, addresses and employment history. At the interview, the adjudicating officer explained to my fiancée that even though he found our relationship to be “bona fide,” she would nevertheless have to fill out the DS-5535 for a “Security Advisory Opinion” — meaning that they want to investigate her further.

My fiancée is from a Muslim country. Her full name is Arabic. Fifteen years ago, she was 9 years old and traveled with her family on vacations. She attended a university in France for five years and graduated with a master’s degree in applied mathematics and computer science. On her social media accounts, you will find a young woman’s love for American culture, New York City, fashion, food, traveling and Drake. Queue the alarm bells.

In June 2016, she arrived in New York on a J-1 visa for a yearlong, paid end-of-studies internship at a start-up in Brooklyn. United States law requires anyone on a J-1 visa to leave for at least 90 days before returning. So, in May of 2017, my then-girlfriend left the United States believing she would be returning 90 days later on another J-1 visa sponsored by the same company. But as the return date crept closer, the company pulled its support and left her, and us, in a complicated predicament.

I had been planning to propose properly when she returned, but romantic ambitions were pushed aside to consider the legal road map we would have to navigate to be together again. In September of 2017, we filed for a K-1 visa (also known as a fiancée visa), hoping that would expedite our reunion. In October, I flew to Paris to propose to her in person.

Although Morocco isn’t one of the seven countries on the travel-ban list, the DS-5535 form holds similar power. It’s a bureaucratic ban. If you are required to fill out this form, you’re thrown into a red-tape black hole called “administrative processing.”

This unclear process used to take 30 to 60 days to investigate, but the projected wait time changed depending on which official I talked to. One to two months became three to six, then four to nine, and now it’s six months to a year. Many people have been waiting for much longer. On visajourney.com and Facebook, there are thousands of posts from people trying to sift through the confusion surrounding the supplemental form and the lack of transparency.

According to the State Department, from March to July of 2018, 44 K-1 visas were issued to people of Moroccan nationality. During that same period, more than 10 times as many people from Britain were granted the visa. Britain is 87 percent white; Morocco isn’t.

My congresswoman and senator have been responsive and sent letters on our behalf, to no avail. I’ve called the consulate hundreds of times (at $2.49 per minute). I’ve called and emailed numerous employees at the State Department, some of whom seemed unaware of the new form. I’ve overnighted letters requesting they expedite our case because of emotional and financial hardship.

Recently, whenever I phone the consulate in Casablanca, the prompts take me straight to automated voice mail messages, or they disconnect the call. When I call the State Department, I’m told to call the National Visa Center. When I call the National Visa Center, I’m told to call the consulate. No one has been able to provide a reason my fiancée was flagged for further investigation.

So, we wait. We are long-distance when we didn’t choose to be. We try to navigate the six-hour time difference to hear each other’s voices over the phone. I have spent thousands of dollars on filing fees, lawyers and travel expenses. What we have to endure financially and emotionally is not only unexpected but hard to fathom. We believe in immigration laws and vetting visa candidates, but we would have preferred it if the DS-5535 form was required with the initial application we submitted over a year ago.

I recently received an email from the State Department in response to one of my letters: “A check of her case today found that it is still under administrative processing. We hope this information is helpful.”

As a United States citizen, I never thought I’d have to ask permission from the government to marry the woman I love. As of today, I’m still waiting to do just that.

Moshe Schulman is a New York-based writer who has written a memoir about leaving the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Monsey, N.Y.

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