The Iranian pharmacologist was exactly where he wanted to be: in a windowless, acrid-smelling room on the 12th floor of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, delicately suctioning pink liquid from a dish of cells. His mind was elsewhere, though.
One moment, Soheil Saeedi was here, in Boston, pipetting chemicals, trying to figure out why a molecule went from cardiovascular boon to burden, and the next he was back in Iran with his wife, wandering in the shade of her father’s kiwi orchard. He’d be jotting calculations on a paper towel when suddenly he’d remember her face. That was enough to set him adrift, to remind him yet again that for seven months they’d only been able to see each other through a screen; that for seven months, theirs had been a marriage by smartphone.
“Skype, WhatsApp — this is not real life,” he said.
They’d already been in limbo once, in 2017, during President Trump’s initial travel ban. It had taken eight months for the courts to block that executive order and for the couple’s visas to come through, so that Saeedi — who’d been an assistant professor and pharmaceutical CEO back in Iran — could start his fellowship in the United States.
Since then, the Trump administration has explicitly allowed Iranian researchers like Saeedi to enter the country with their families to work or study. But many say their papers are held up for so long that they’re forced to put jobs and marriages on hold, leaving them suspended in uncertainty. What seemed like a routine visa renewal for Saeedi’s wife, Khatereh Shabanian, has turned into an ordeal lasting the better part of a year — a scenario that immigration lawyers are all too familiar with. Their inboxes are filled with similar stories, and they say that the delays in background checks are only increasing.
Whether that’s a form of backdoor discouragement or simply bureaucratic inertia, the potential fallout extends far beyond these families. “Clearly, American science has thrived off of the ability to attract the best scientists from across the globe,” said Julia MacKenzie, senior director of international relations for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She’s concerned that if the United States is perceived as unwelcoming, cross-border collaborations and the breakthroughs that come with them will move elsewhere.
That worry is a daily presence in the air around Saeedi’s lab bench, a constant question buzzing around his head. He’s 32, has been married for five years, and has been contemplating the thrill of doing research at Harvard for longer than that. He’s here now, in a university-affiliated hospital, watching, in patterns of fluorescence, how proteins ebb and flow. But if that means being apart from Shabanian, he’s not sure staying in Boston is worth it.
As a pharmacist, she knows the urgency of Saeedi’s research. At first, when they spoke over Skype, she’d laugh, saying, “Show me your beautiful blots,” and he’d hold up a sheet showing different protein levels represented in chemical blotches. Now, they both feel stuck, unsure where their life is.
“A few days ago, she told me, ‘Give up, come back,’” he said earlier this month. He doesn’t want to, but he doesn’t want to keep living apart, either. If he’d gone elsewhere, he says — to Canada, to Europe — this would not be happening. “President Trump, can he live without his wife, his family, his children, for a long time? Can he do this?”
They’d had one year together in Boston, walking a few blocks from their apartment to the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, window-shopping in Cambridge. Shabanian worked toward becoming a pharmacist in the U.S. Sometimes she accompanied Saeedi to the lab, peering into the barrels of the microscope, watching him care for his collections of cells. He liked to think of them as our most precious cogs, lining the inside of veins, arteries, and capillaries, helping the constant gurgle of blood to and from the heart.
Her visa expired in August 2018. When they’d left to renew her papers at the U.S. Consulate General in Dubai — there is none in Iran — the officer made it sound like everything would be done in a month. That was back in September. Saeedi had returned to his Boston lab, expecting Shabanian to join him imminently.
Since then, before getting out of bed each morning, Saeedi has reached for his phone and logged onto the State Department’s website, tapping in the 10 familiar digits of Shabanian’s case number. And every morning, he’s been greeted by the same pop-up window with the same infuriating phrase: “Administrative Processing.”
Those words, dull and bureaucratic as they sound, often carry dramatic consequences. Families are separated, career plans squelched, experiments stalled, jobs left unfilled. Often, those affected are exactly the categories of visitors that the Trump administration declared it would let in.
After two travel bans and the subsequent judicial rulings that blocked them, the third iteration was upheld by the Supreme Court last June, preventing most Iranians, Libyans, Somalis, Yemenis, and North Koreans — along with a small subset of Venezuelans — from entering the United States. There were official exceptions, though. Certain student and exchange visas, including the kind given to Saeedi and Shabanian, were not suspended for Iranians.
That specific carve-out did not emerge from nowhere. Of the Muslim-majority nationalities included in the current ban, by far the most nonimmigrant visas — which may be given to students, scientists, and tourists — had previously been going to Iranians. While it’s hard to track scientists specifically, the overall numbers have dropped drastically, from 35,363 Iranians getting such visas in 2015 to 6,014 in 2018.
Even those visas that are still explicitly allowed are not easy to get. Governmental vetting can take so long that it jeopardizes the work or study that had required the visa in the first place. In some cases, that was true pre-Trump, but Iranian visitors have noticed that someone who was previously able to get papers in a few weeks or a month now often languishes indefinitely in administrative processing when requesting a renewal of the exact same status. What has alarmed immigration attorneys is that the longest wait times have been getting longer.
At the offices of Lotfi Legal, in Madison, Wis., a few calls come in every day from Iranians stuck in administrative processing. Before 2017, attorney Veronica Sustic said, the firm often heard from those who’d been waiting for six to 12 months; now, more and more often it’s been two or even three years. “People are stuck in limbo, they don’t know how to move on with their lives,” she said.
To Cody Wofsy, a staff attorney for the Immigrants’ Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, the delays in administrative processing seem like “one of the ways in which ordinary immigration and visitors’ visas are slowed down or effectively denied from Iran or other countries.”
In some extreme cases, the courtroom is the quickest solution. Leila Mansouri, a Washington, D.C., immigration attorney and board member of the Iranian American Bar Association, remembers an engineer who returned to Iran in 2018 to attend his father’s funeral and then couldn’t get back into the U.S. for four months. “He said, ‘Look, I’m going to lose my job if I can’t get my visa,’” she recalled. “We filed a lawsuit for him, and he got his visa in three weeks.”
(The ACLU, Lotfi Legal, and the Iranian American Bar Association have all sued the Trump administration over its immigration policies.)
The State Department does not release data on how many visa applications are subject to administrative processing. An official said that the agency is “continuously working to refine our visa application, assessment, and security screening procedures,” and is aiming to reduce wait times, adding that delays “vary based on the individual circumstances of each case.”
That does little to assuage the worries of Dr. Thomas Michel, the cardiologist and biochemist in whose lab Saeedi is working. “By keeping scientists’ families apart, the attractiveness of the USA as a destination for training is undermined,” he said.
For those in limbo, the worries are more immediate. One Iranian postdoc has trouble going to her lab: Her husband was supposed to watch their 18-month-old, but he has spent three months in administrative processing, and she can’t afford child care. A Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan found himself stuck in Vancouver; if his administrative processing had lasted five days longer, his funding would have disappeared and years of work would have gone up in smoke. As he waited, he kept thinking, “This will destroy my life.”
For Saeedi, the pressure was of a different nature.
As he left the lab one evening this month, Saeedi remembered boarding the flight from Tehran alone and suddenly having second thoughts. Other passengers were shoving luggage into overhead bins, clicking shut their seat belts, but he had stood up, ready to walk off the plane before the cabin door closed, ready to forget the United States.
“After a few seconds, I said to myself, ‘Take a seat. Take a seat on the plane and go to the U.S. Look at yourself! Now you’re on the plane and you cannot get off. Khatereh will join you soon.’”
It was a feeling he’d been having more and more, that he was trapped. Iranians are routinely given either single-entry, one-, or two-year American visas for jobs or degrees that last three years or longer. That means that many are afraid to leave, in case they won’t be allowed back in to finish internships, fellowships, or doctoral degrees. Saeedi had had no trouble re-entering the country last September. But now that his two-year visa had expired, he had joined those isolated ranks.
He hated the idea of simply giving up and going back, of letting bureaucracy get the better of him. If he didn’t make efforts to forge ahead, he would feel ashamed. So he’d written email after powerless email, and been told there was no foreseeable timeline. He’d checked the State Department’s website religiously. Three times, he’d been in touch with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s office. Three times, her staff had reached out to consular officials. Three times, they’d told him there was no way of knowing how long it would take. (Warren’s office declined to comment for this article.)
Saeedi felt Shabanian’s absence most on evenings like this one, as he picked up groceries, cut through the Bank of America parking lot, switched on the zebra-striped lamp in their studio apartment. She was everywhere and nowhere at once, in the white walls they’d painted together, the pink running shoes she’d left by the door, the bristles of her toothbrush still splayed after months of disuse.
He walked barefoot into the kitchen, where the cupboards were full of sweets she’d mailed him — tins of brittle sohan flavored with saffron, jewel-like masghati flecked with rose petals. A Post-it note she’d written clung to the fridge.
Most nights, he stayed late at the lab, getting home only at 10 or 11, frying a quick omelet before bed. On weekends, he hardly left the house. Now, as he made “Soheil pizza,” — slicing open crusty supermarket bread, running his hands under the faucet, flattening the loaf’s white inside with his palms — he couldn’t help but think of the evenings last year when he’d made it with her.
In 2018, around this time, he and Shabanian had celebrated the Persian New Year together, eating herb soup, exchanging greetings with other Iranians in Boston. This year, the holiday fell on March 20. He made no plans; instead, he worked late in the lab. As he was packing up, he thought about everyone he knew back home, decorating their tables with the symbols of hope, each ritual item beginning with the Farsi equivalent of the letter S: “seeb,” — apple — to represent beauty; “seer” — garlic — to represent health; “sekeh” — coins — to represent prosperity. It made him sad, to miss the holiday entirely, so he put together his own version, assembling the red-and-white bottles of lab chemicals — sepharose, sodium acetate, sodium hydroxide — onto a blue absorbent pad. He’d posted a photo on Instagram.
The memory of it made him laugh. He sprinkled frozen corn onto the tomato paste, which he’d just spooned onto the bread. A second later, he grew quiet. “What can I say? I’m laughing, but this is a crying story.”
He knew he had a decision to make, but he didn’t know how to make it. To leave behind two years’ worth of blood vessel experiments, still unsure exactly which molecule did what — that felt like abdication. But to live here, thousands of miles from Shabanian, felt more and more joyless.
Why had the government granted them visas, only to withhold one now indefinitely? It made no sense. “We are not puppets. We are not toys,” he said. “We are humans.”
Then again, maybe he didn’t have to decide. Maybe the administrative processing would end before he checked again tomorrow. Or maybe the next day. Or maybe the day after that.