By Yeganeh Torbati
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Without close family in the United States, Elly and her husband had few options for getting permission to immigrate to America from Iran. So when they won a U.S. government lottery last September for a so-called “diversity visa” allowing them to resettle in the United States, the couple was thrilled.
“Since last year, we made all the important decisions in our lives because we hoped we would get a visa,” Elly said, declining to give her full name because her visa application is still in process. The couple decided to put off having children and purchasing a home until after their move to the United States.
But the visa, which they still hope to get, is still being processed. Their attorney provided Reuters email documentation of their application to verify some of their account.
Elly and her husband are two of the many people who fall into gray areas created by Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court order allowing parts of Donald Trump’s travel ban to take effect.
While the court said it would exempt travelers from the ban who have “bona fide relationships” with Americans, the ruling did not specify exactly what that means, leaving would-be travelers from the six countries affected by the ban uncertain whether they will be allowed to enter the United States.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court said Trump’s blanket 90-day ban on travelers from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen could proceed, but only for foreigners with no “bona fide relationship” with an American person or entity.
The court gave examples of what might qualify some travelers for exemptions from the ban, including close family ties in the United States, admittance to a U.S. university, or offers of employment from an American company.
Many advocates for immigrants say they are hopeful that the vast majority of people from the six targeted countries applying for U.S. visas will qualify for such exemptions.
But the ruling leaves some things vague, and has led to confusion and anxiety for those like Elly and her husband, who had hoped to come to the United States but do not fall into one of the clear exemptions laid out in the ruling.
Also in the gray area are such things as travel strictly for tourism or to attend conferences. Would-be travelers are also asking how close family members need to be, and whether traveling to see close friends in America might qualify.
DIVERSITY VISAS AT RISK
Diversity visa applicants like Elly are among those in limbo. The program grants 50,000 visas per year to citizens of countries that normally do not send many immigrants to the United States.
In 2015, 10,487 citizens of the six countries targeted by Trump’s travel ban were selected for diversity visas, according to State Department figures. Nearly half that number, 4,992, went to Iranians alone.
“Absolutely, diversity visas will be affected,” said Leon Rodriguez, a former director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. “You generally don’t even go into the diversity visa system unless you lack another pathway.”
The State Department said on Tuesday that it was trying to develop a definition for what constitutes a bona fide relationship for travelers.
“We have a couple days still to work this out and get more information,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters on Tuesday. “We will be looking to the Department of Justice to get more clarification on what a bona fide relationship would be.”
BUSINESSES COULD BE SPARED
Hawaii Attorney General Douglas Chin, who led the legal fight against Trump’s revised order, said the exemptions included in the Supreme Court’s order will likely spare businesses the kind of disruption they would have faced without them. Chin said his office has reached out to the federal government to try to agree on an interpretation that could avoid additional litigation.
“We are trying to look for ways to come up with a framework that everyone can live with going forward,” Chin said.
If the U.S. government bars entry to an individual because they lack a “bona fide relationship” with someone in the country, one way to challenge the decision would be for the person to file a so-called contempt motion before the same federal judges in Hawaii or Maryland who blocked the travel ban in the first place, legal experts said.
Instead of filing a brand-new lawsuit, the person could ask U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson in Hawaii to hold the Trump administration in contempt because it interpreted the Supreme Court opinion too broadly. Such a strategy could increase the chances of a favorable ruling for the person seeking to enter the United States, since Watson has already shown a dim view toward Trump’s policy.
Elly and her husband, who are in their late 20s and early 30s respectively and are both university-educated, remain hopeful they will be allowed to come. In May, they had their interviews with consular officials, usually among the final steps before a visa decision.
The diversity visa is a pathway to permanent residence, commonly known as a green card.
“One could argue that those winning the green card lottery have a bona fide relationship with the U.S. government that is formal, documented and formed in the ordinary course, rather than for the purpose of evading the executive order,” said Shahrzad Rezvani, an immigration attorney based in Maryland. “It remains to be seen, I guess, since the language is unclear.”
(Additional reporting by Dan Levine; editing by Sue Horton and Jonathan Oatis)