They expected to be together this Valentine’s Day, sharing a romantic meal perhaps, holding hands and planning their future as newlyweds in the United States.
Instead, Jason Eidelstein of North Bergen will spend the holiday thousands of miles from his fiancée, Maira Alejandra Brandon Guerrero, who lives in Cali, Colombia. In Sierra Vista, Arizona, meanwhile, Sara Bourland plans to reminisce over old photos in a video call with her betrothed, Benjamin Stevenson of Fife, Scotland.
The engaged couples are among thousands who have been forced to live apart over the past year not only because of COVID-19 travel restrictions but also because of a near-complete pause by the U.S. State Department in issuing K-1 visas. Those documents permit foreign-born fiancées of U.S. citizens to move legally to America to get married.
As the couples wait for the visa process to be finalized, they have written letters, hired attorneys and begun a social media blitz using the hashtags #Loveisnottourism, #Resumek1visa and #Letusmarry to bring awareness to their heartache.
“I never thought they would delay it so much, we were separated for 10 months because of travel bans,’’ said Eidelstein, who was able to visit Colombia in November and hopes to return in March. “We are literally waiting for the call that says that we need to get ready for the final interview, but we have been waiting for that for quite some time now.”
K-1 visas have gained fame lately, inspiring the reality TV show "90-Day Fiancé" on the TLC network. They require a foreign-born fiancé who comes to the U.S. to tie the knot within 90 days of entry. The couple must show proof of their relationship through photographs and correspondence and also submit documents that include birth certificates, passports, background checks and police reports clearing travelers of any criminal history.
The number of such visas approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and issued by the State Department had been growing in recent years. More than 35,000 were issued in the fiscal year that ended in September 2019.
But that fell to 16,849 in fiscal 2020, according to State Department figures. The drop was due largely to COVID-19-driven closings of U.S. embassies and consular offices, which suspended routine visa services.
On Jan. 25 the Biden administration added another hurdle with a proclamation that called for continued restrictions on travel from the United Kingdom, China, South Africa and other countries affected by new variants of the virus.
U.S. embassies and consulates, which conduct final in-person interviews for K-1 visas, have continued to provide “emergency and mission-critical” services since March and will continue to do so as they are able, a State Department spokesperson said. But they could not provide specific dates for when each office would resume specific services, or when they would return to processing visas at pre-pandemic levels.
”As it becomes safe to resume more consular operations at each U.S. mission, posts are instructed to give K visa cases a high priority,’’ said a statement from the agency.
Last year, 153 couples who found themselves stuck in the process sued the departments of State and Homeland Security, as well as the U.S. Attorney General. In November, a federal judge in Washington D.C. ruled in the case, Milligan v. Pompeo, and ordered the government to resume processing visas for the plaintiffs.
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Still, many consulates have been slow to resume interviews, said Prem Kumar of Oakland in Bergen County. His company, Visa Tutor, helps couples navigate the sometimes complex K-1 process but has found most applicants still blocked. Priority has been given to those whose interviews were scheduled and later canceled, and others who were plaintiffs in the suit, he said.
"Some people are seeing movement and other people are not, and it's a bit of a mess and a lot of heartache and people are really anxious to get this over with soon,'' Kumar said.
K-1 visas provide one of the quickest paths to citizenship in the U.S., normally taking between 8 to 12 months. They've also raised fraud allegations, prompting a a U.S. Senate hearing in 2017. Couples interviewed by The Record and the USA Today Network said they never expected to fall for someone abroad, and that their love is real.
"I've gotten plenty of comments from people,'' said Briana Grim of Georgia whose fiancé is currently in Venezuela. "It's frustrating, but this is a real relationship."
Stevenson, the Scotsman, had completed his medical screening and was only nine days away from his final interview at the American embassy in London when the 29-year-old's interview was canceled last March. Bourland, his fiancée in Arizona, was crushed. The pair had been engaged since November 2017 after a whirlwind romance that started in a Facebook group where they connected over their love of animals and garlic bread.
“I have to have my husband here, I can’t keep living my life like this,’’ said Bourland. “I’m 32-years old. I want to have children. I want to be together, and I want to start our lives. We were ready to do that in March.”
Grim can relate. The 30-year old from Atlanta constantly monitors the activities of the U.S. embassy in Bogota, Colombia, where fiancé Alejandro Segnini would have to appear for an interview. The pair met in Lima, Peru, where both had been working in 2017, he as a bartender and she helping to organize cultural exchange programs for a non-governmental organization.
They dated for more than a year, before Segnini proposed in 2019, she said. Grim moved back to the U.S. and began the process of bringing him to Georgia, which she had read would take a few months. After submitting their petition, they received initial approval in March 2020.
“It should have been easy-peasy from there," Grim said. "But each month went on and there was just no update.
“I check the status every week, and I call the embassies and I get the same generic answer that they are not processing it, and they would let us know when they do.”
Grim said she understands they're in the midst of a pandemic. But many businesses in both countries are still operating, and she is baffled why embassies are not processing K-1 cases.
She hasn't seen Segnini in person since September 2019.
“That’s the hardest part, just being apart from him for so long," she said. "I don’t get to hold his hand."
Fighting cancer alone
Eidelstein, the North Bergen man, didn't expect to meet his future wife when he flew to Colombia in November 2017. Two of his buddies had bailed on the trip, and he'd be traveling solo. But his ticket was non-refundable so he boarded a plane to a country he had never been to before.
He met Maira at a café in Bogota. They spent two days together exploring the capital city before he had to return to New Jersey. A few months later, he went back, and their friendship turned romantic after he met her mother and her young daughter, Sarahi, who is now 8 years old.
The couple got engaged in August 2019, and were approved for their K-1 visa the following April, just as the first wave of the pandemic was raging. As Eidelstein waited to hear when medical screenings and an interview would be scheduled, he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. He had hoped that Brandon Guerrero would arrive before he underwent surgery and six weeks of radiation treatment during the summer.
Eidelstein has since recovered and was able to spend a few weeks with Brandon Guerrero in Colombia in December, after being apart nearly a year. He still doesn't know when she and Sarahi will be able to travel to the U.S.
"It was really tough to leave them, especially after what has happened since the last time I left them,'' he said, adding he plans to return to Colombia next month. "We will continue to do what we are doing until we get the green light."
With the delay continuing, more couples have pinned their hopes on lawsuits.
James Petersen, of La Salle, Illinois., and his wife-to-be, Victoria Reynisdottir, 19, who lives in England, said they are moving forward with adding their name to a suit. The 21-year old said he had resisted it in the past because of the cost, but now feels it might be the only way to get things moving.
That option worked for Eric Moglia, 25, of Montville, . His fiancée, Paula Monjo Martinez, 24, arrived this month from Barcelona, Spain. The couple had been waiting since early 2020 for an interview and ultimately contacted a lawyer in the fall.
"The lack of communication with the government and the embassies prior to the lawsuit was sad, and no one knew anything,'' he said.
Monjo Martinez was able to get her interview in January and finally received her K-1 visa. Pandemic restrictions meant she had to travel to Aruba for 14 days before she could enter the U.S. on Feb. 6.
The couple hope to get married in March or April in a ceremony at the Morris County Courthouse. A larger celebration in Spain will have to wait.
"Luckily we stayed strong," Moglia said. "Love stayed strong.''
Monsy Alvarado is the immigration reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about one of the hottest issues in our state and country, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: COVID-19 has '90-day fiancés' in limbo and apart on Valentine's Day