It was like something out of a rom-com.
In August 2017, Kabir Sunmon and Hester LaZard met in the parking lot of a Los Angeles grocery store. Two months later, they were married. They had plans to travel abroad and build a family in the US.
But now, nearly four years in, the rom-com has turned into an unending drama as Sunmon, who is Nigerian, continues to wait to see if he’ll get his marriage-based green card so he and his wife can finally travel and live freely without worrying about his immigration status every day.
“If I am being sincere with you, I am living in fear. If I am losing this now, if I get a negative result, I will have to go back to my country. And I wouldn’t tell my wife to live with me in Lagos, because everybody knows the United States is the land of opportunity,” Sunmon said.
Sunmon is among hundreds of thousands of others waiting in limbo as the effects of COVID-19 and restrictive Trump-era policies continue to slow visa processing to a crawl. The United States immigration system has been gutted by the pandemic — between threats of mass government furloughs during COVID, the near-complete shutdown of consular offices abroad, and former president Donald Trump’s hard line against immigration, the Biden administration has inherited not only a crisis at the southern border, but also a virtual freeze on marriage-based visa applications that has left couples stranded.
Sunmon moved to Los Angeles after a career as an actor in Nigeria with the dream of someday building a production studio in Hollywood. But without the stability of a green card, he lives in constant fear that anything he says or does will ruin his chances at staying in the United States. His wife said it’s affecting his mental health.
“He’s not able to have the freedom to talk freely, to be opinionated, to do what he wants to do. He’s just going through the motions to support me, and I know it’s killing him inside,” said LaZard-Sunmon.
Kabir and Hester have been able to lean on each other throughout their journey. But for people stranded outside the US, the wait is as agonizing as it is lonely.
In a drab apartment in Turkey, Carmen sits in front of her computer to talk to her girlfriend roughly 7,000 miles away in Los Angeles. They’ve spent six of the nearly eight years of their relationship apart, waiting for Carmen’s refugee case to be resettled to the US so she can apply for asylum here. She fled her home country Iran for Turkey in 2016 out of fear of persecution based on her sexuality. But with COVID restrictions putting a chokehold on visa processing and interviews, all she can do is wait.
She asked BuzzFeed News to use pseudonyms to protect her and her partner’s identities since Carmen faces danger every day as a refugee in a country where attacks on LGBTQ freedoms are rising. Carmen’s partner in LA, Shane, has visited every year, even braving COVID to see her during the pandemic.
“When I went to see her one time and we went out together, she was wearing a pride-colored dress. The way people were looking at us! We went inside a store and one shopkeeper told us, ‘Don’t wear that dress or you will get attacked,’” Shane said.
Shane has financially supported Carmen throughout the long wait. In Turkey, refugees are often unable to find employers willing to sponsor them and rely on a small stipend from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to meet their daily needs. That’s not the life Carmen wants.
“When I went to my first interview from the UN, the interviewer said, ‘Wow, you have a master’s [degree]? You are an engineer?’ Why can’t they see not all cases are the same? That I can be a good person for myself and your country?” Carmen said.
After the Biden administration’s back-and-forth on whether the US would raise the refugee cap from historic lows imposed by Trump, immigration attorneys aren’t optimistic they’ll see any of Biden’s bold campaign promises on reforming the system.
“What the Biden administration is calling an immigration crisis is actually immigration mismanagement,” said Ally Bolour, an attorney at Bolour/Carl Immigration Group. “We have more backlogged cases in immigration court today than we did when Biden took office. We still have kids in cages and family separation, and these refugee numbers still aren’t going up.”
Bolour, who represents Carmen and Shane, said there are thousands of people just like them. Visa interview backlogs, which stood at 75,000 last year, have ballooned to 473,000 as of February 2021, according to Bloomberg News.
“When you pay an attorney to get everything in and it takes months to even get receipts from USCIS, it can be very frustrating. I get calls from clients every day asking for an update on their application,” Bolour said.
Carmen has spent her time in Turkey learning how to mine cryptocurrency and getting involved in foreign exchange trading, but she said the mental stress of the wait has made life unbearable.
“I was drinking a lot, just to forget everything. I would close my eyes and it felt like years passed before I opened them again. I was hoping that I died, every day,” Carmen said through tears.
There’s still a light at the end of the tunnel for Carmen, Sunmon, and their partners. Visa processing and interviews have restarted as vaccinations rise and infection rates fall across the US, albeit in a very limited capacity. But immigration processing times remain long, and it’s unclear when the Biden administration will appoint a permanent USCIS director to increase funding and decrease backlogs in the system.
“The time is going and going. We’re not going to have a baby in case I get sent back to my country. I am getting older. I just want a quick decision,” Sunmon said. “It’s killing me — honestly, it’s killing me. I just want them to decide.”
And even if Carmen’s petition to resettle her to the United States is approved, she’s not sure she’ll be able to build a life for herself before she’s too old to find a job.
“You know, it’s so bad because I lost the best years of my life. From 35 to 41, I lost my energy,” Carmen said. “It’s like you lost all your hope, all your goals, lost all your desire — everything.” ●