June 20, 2024


sights and trips

COVID Travel Bans Are Keeping Families Apart

Courtesy of Nadja De Maeseneer and Nane Mertens

Left: Nadja De Maeseneer and her husband Julius. Right: Nane Mertens and her boyfriend, Brian Fountain.

Before the pandemic, Emily Quiros, 38, and her fiancé, Ryon Jay Parker, 37, were looking forward to starting a family together. Parker, an American, planned to join Quiros in the Philippines, where she lives, before the birth of their son in the summer of 2020. Due to newly imposed COVID lockdown restrictions, however, Quiros had to give birth alone in the Philippines while Parker stayed home in Idaho. Devastated that her fiancé wasn’t yet able to hold his newborn child, Quiros took out her frustrations on social media, where she found the #LoveIsNotTourism movement: a vast network of people from all over the world attempting to gain exemptions to various pandemic travel bans for their families.

The Biden administration currently prohibits entry to the US of any noncitizens who have been in one of 33 select countries for 14 days prior to entry, including China, Iran, India, the Schengen area of Europe, and the United Kingdom. There are exemptions for green card holders and immediate family of US citizens, which includes spouses but not, for example, unmarried partners, as well as tens of thousands of Europeans who live, work, and pay taxes in the US on nonimmigrant visas. These visa holders aren’t able to reunite with their families back home because they’d be barred from reentry, thus risking their livelihoods — all while Americans are now free to party in Europe and return without a problem.

Followers of #LoveIsNotTourism were briefly overjoyed when former president Donald Trump lifted European travel restrictions upon leaving office earlier this year, as the nationwide campaign to vaccinate people in the US began. But citing more contagious coronavirus variants spreading worldwide, the incoming administration quickly made clear they’d be extending the ban. Despite enormous pressure from the airline industry, the US Chamber of Commerce and those in the #LoveIsNotTourism movement, as well as Europe’s recent decision to reopen to American tourists with hopes of reciprocity, Trump-era travel restrictions from March 2020 still remain in place today.

There’s little evidence to suggest that a travel ban eliminates the risk of a virus crossing borders in the long term, unless used in conjunction with extraordinary contact tracing efforts and a low number of initial cases. The spread of the highly contagious Delta variant has prompted some new travel restrictions across Europe and around the world, and while they may have slowed the spread, they failed to stop it altogether; the Delta variant is now present in 85 countries and is poised to become the most common coronavirus variant in the US.

Those in the #LoveIsNotTourism movement stress that they take pandemic safety seriously. What they’re advocating for are exemptions to the bans for family members and loved ones who are fully vaccinated and equipped with a negative PCR test before boarding. The community is also crying out for transparency when it comes to what thresholds a banned country needs to meet before its citizens are free to travel to the US again. Many are accusing the government of hypocrisy, pointing to a March 2020 tweet from President Joe Biden in which he wrote, “Banning all travel from Europe — or any other part of the world — will not stop [the coronavirus].”

“I don’t wish for anyone to experience what happened to my family.”

When reached for comment, a US State Department official referred me to statements made by Secretary Antony Blinken in a June 24 interview with René Pfister of Der Spiegel: “We’re following the science and following the recommendations of our health authorities, principally the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control. And that’s where we’re looking for guidance,” Blinken said. “We’re very anxious to have travel resume as robustly, as completely, as possible. We have a working group with the European Union right now on this. I can’t put a date on it. I can tell you we’re working very, very actively on it.” (For further details on the decisions behind implementing travel restrictions, the official referred me to the White House. When I reached out to a White House spokesperson, I was referred back to the State Department.)

Quiros petitioned the Department of Foreign Affairs for the Philippines to obtain an exemption to the travel ban there for her fiancé, which she was just granted in June, thanks in part to help from the #LoveIsNotTourism community. The couple plans to reunite at last by the end of July. Tragically, Parker won’t have arrived in time to meet his child. In March 2021, when Kylian was just 8 months old, he was diagnosed with Hemophilia B, and shortly thereafter he died of a brain bleed. The next month, freshly reeling from a sudden and terrible loss, Quiros was forced to part with her mother, too, who died due to complications from COVID-19.

“This series of unfortunate events in our family does not seem to end,” Quiros wrote in her petition to the DFA. “With the death of our son and my mother, battling COVID” — her entire family had contracted it — “and on top of that, the difficulty [of] reuniting with my loved one in this sorrowful moment of our lives is utterly depressing. Every day I wake up with a broken heart that feels like [it is] being trampled on the ground over and over again.”

“We have to grieve separately. We just comfort each other through calls,” Quiros told me. “I don’t wish for anyone to experience what happened to my family.”

Quiros’s grief and desperation reverberates throughout the #LoveIsNotTourism community, whose members report missing a year and a half’s worth of births, deaths, celebrations, tragedies, and simply time on this earth with the people they love.

How can I greet my fiancé a”happy father’s day”when he was crying coz he wasn’t able to hold his son?And won’t be able to anymore coz what’s left were just his son’s memories and ashes.Restrictions kept us apart,even grieving together is hard.#LoveIsNotTourism #FathersDay2021

Twitter: @emz_quiros

Sofia I., a 29-year-old operating room nurse in the United Kingdom, is worried about her boyfriend from California, whom she’s only seen for two weeks since December 2019. “He has had a lot of issues with his family and his work, to the point where he feels suicidal,” she told me. “He needs support and he needs someone to be there with him. I am so scared and worried about him — he was always the positive one, but lately he has been distant and depressed. My emotional health has also been horrible. I cry myself to sleep every night because of the uncertainty.”

Many of the people I spoke with for this story stressed that they aren’t trying to endanger themselves or anyone else in their quest to reunite with loved ones. “We stayed home, wore masks, got our shots as soon as possible — even actively campaigned for getting vaccinated,” said Nadja De Maeseneer, a 31-year-old living in California with her husband and their 2-year-old daughter. The couple are nonimmigrant visa holders from Germany, meaning that if they were to leave the country to see family back home, they’d be barred from reentry.

“We are so torn: We yearn to see our families — babies were born, relatives got sick or died, friends got married,” De Maeseneer said. But leaving “would jeopardize our jobs, our financial stability, our lives in California.” Like many others in the movement, she’s frustrated with a lack of transparency regarding the scientific reasoning behind the presidential proclamations. “This one-sided, rigorous travel ban against Europeans simply doesn’t make ANY sense,” she said. “We see people flying to high-risk countries for a summer vacation while we dearly miss the people we love most -— people who would happily follow any safety policy to travel with minimal risk. So our daughter gets to see Oma and Opa through FaceTime. They have literally missed out of more than half of her young life.”

“If they would just give us a date, I would be fine, but it’s the never knowing if it will be weeks or months or years.”

One woman, who asked that her name be withheld due to privacy concerns, is living in the US on a nonimmigrant visa with her husband. They haven’t seen their family back home in the UK since the fall of 2019. “The fact that nonimmigrant visas — which can be up to 6 years in duration — have been lumped into the same policy as [tourist visas] and are not at all linked to case data is beyond infuriating,” she said. “We 100% supported the restrictions when they were in place for legitimate health reasons, and see no reason to rush to open tourism, but separating families like this is just heartless and nonsensical. US citizens can travel back and forth to Europe freely for vacations, but people who live, work, and pay taxes here are not allowed to travel to see their loved ones.”

There are ways to get around the US travel ban: primarily, spending 14 days in a country that isn’t included in one of the presidential proclamations. Mexico, Croatia, and the Dominican Republic are popular choices. Of course, flying to and from a third country means lots of time and money that many people simply can’t afford — plus, it could potentially be unsafe.

Amélie S., a 26-year-old from France, was able to enter the US this past winter to see her boyfriend by traveling via Croatia and Turkey. The couple had already spent nearly a year apart by then. “Thank god for this ‘loophole’ the US created,” she said. “Other people aren’t as lucky as me [since they] don’t have the time or resources to do it, so I know I’m privileged in that sense.” But even though she’s one of the lucky ones, the ban has still taken its toll. “It is really hard on me psychologically,” she said. “It sometimes feels like the fate of our relationship is solely on my shoulders. I know I’m lucky because my boyfriend is the most trusting, loving, patient and understanding. But it also feels like it will never end. … and like we are wasting precious time apart.”

Many people I spoke with, including those who were able to travel via a third country, expressed concerns that forcing families to make use of legal loopholes is actually much more dangerous than what they’re advocating for: permission to enter the US directly, with safety stipulations. “I am all for a safe, phased reopening, and believe international travel should be reserved for the vaccinated with a negative PCR test,” said Erin Dahl, a 32-year-old American who lives with her partner, Pierre-Charles Morin, in Paris. “However, the US government seems to prefer pandering to those who will not get vaccinated rather than incentivizing the global vaccination effort through policy.” She and Morin had booked tickets for a big family reunion in New York on July 4, but she was the only one able to make it; despite reports that a UK–US corridor will have reopened by the holiday, Biden’s original target for “getting back to normal,” the ban has still not been lifted. According to the most recent reports, transatlantic restrictions will remain in place until at least September.

“What really just kills me is that my partner could have technically joined me on this trip…if he hadn’t gotten vaccinated,” Dahl said. “He could have canceled his second appointment last week, traveled to Mexico (where there are no PCR/quarantine requirements and vaccination efforts are lagging behind France’s), stayed for two weeks, and flown into the US with no questions asked. How does this make sense? How is this following science? How is this protecting the population? It’s a joke.”

Shannon Keating

The author with her girlfriend, Lynette Blake

I started pursuing this story because I, too, am currently separated from my partner, Lynette, a British national who hasn’t been able to visit me in Brooklyn since December 2019. Like Amélie, I’m one of the lucky ones: I was able to travel to the UK and spend a few precious months with Lynette this winter. I’m extremely grateful that I have a job that enables me to work remotely, and that the United Kingdom never fully shut down its borders. But it’s now been another four months since my girlfriend and I have seen each other.

Before the pandemic, we were excited to begin our lives together, putting plans in place to be able to actually live in the same country someday. But now, even with the worst of the pandemic seemingly behind us, the “crisis-level” backlog of US visa applications means we’re one of many couples forced to wait even longer to be permanently reunited, lost in a disorienting state of limbo with no clear end in sight.

“The forced separation and the government’s refusal to process the visa they require us to have in order to get married and live together has pretty much destroyed our mental health,” said Bryan Phillips, 33, who lives just outside Boise in Idaho, and has been separated from his British fiancee since February 2020. “We’re applying for a K1 ‘fiancé(e)’ visa, but the US government is refusing to process visas at many consulates, including London where our case is supposed to be processed,” he said. “They could waive the final interview process, but they won’t. They could also put all K1s on blanket parole, which would allow everyone waiting for a K1 to travel to the US to adjust their immigration status here, but they refuse.

“What started out as a logical but ineffective first step to delaying the spread of COVID-19 has grown into a human rights crisis in the US with the federal government in complete control over our lives and futures, and no one is holding them accountable for the damage they are doing.”

Those who already hold K visas have been granted a National Interest Exception to the bans, but the situation for those currently in the process of applying is more complicated. Though a state department official confirmed to me that “there are blanket exceptions [to the bans] for people holding or seeking immigrant or fiancé visas,” many people in the “seeking” stage, including Phillips, have not found this to be the case in practice. When I asked for clarification, the State Department official said: “The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in profound reductions in the Department’s visa processing capacity. Additionally, a range of Presidential Proclamations restricting travel in response to the pandemic have resulted in further constraints on visa issuances worldwide. … Immigrant and nonimmigrant visa applicants are required by statute and regulation to appear in person before a consular officer, with limited exceptions. National security is our top priority when adjudicating visa applications.”

Courtesy of Bryan Phillips

Bryan Phillips and his fiancé, Holly Browne

Last summer, Ryann McQuaid and her partner were part of a press push and #LoveIsNotTourism protest that led Belgium to institute an exemption to their travel ban for unmarried couples. McQuaid, an American, has since been able to travel twice to Belgium to visit her partner there, and she’ll go again this summer, but while “it was great we still get to see each other, [my partner] misses Brooklyn, and I’d love to not be the one traveling all the time.”

Belgium is one of multiple European countries to create this kind of exemption following public pressure, which hasn’t happened in the US or the UK — not yet, at least. “There are also more structural provisions in place for unmarried couples and a broader interpretation of family in EU law,” McQuaid said. “The EU has always made provisions for ‘durable relationships, duly attested’, and the EU commissioner Ylva Johansson called upon Member States to interpret that as broadly as possible, which made pressuring the government more effective.” It’s been a completely different scenario here. “Looking toward the US side and conversations we’ve tried to start up,” McQuaid said, “it seems like the limitation on travel is largely forgotten by the public.”

Many people in the #LoveIsNotTourism movement report feeling left behind by a country determined to move on from the pandemic’s horrors without any provisions for those still separated. “Seeing everything getting back to normal: concerts, sports events, people dating again… I feel a little bitter,” said Amélie S.

“I feel incredibly frustrated with the US government, to the point where I just get really angry that no one is thinking about us and everyone else is returning to their normal lives,” said Nane Mertens, a 26-year-old Belgian who’s traveled multiple times via Mexico to visit her boyfriend in Nebraska. “We as a community have reached out to so many officials, but it’s honestly just like talking to a wall.” Even though they’ve also been able to take advantage of the unmarried partner exemption Belgium introduced last year, “it’s definitely been very stressful each time and quite frankly taxing on my mental health.”

“For me, it’s the not knowing that is hard,” said a Londoner who hasn’t been able to see her boyfriend in Chicago for 18 months. He’s a lawyer whose busy schedule doesn’t allow him time to travel to London, especially with a mandated quarantine. “If they would just give us a date, I would be fine, but it’s the never knowing if it will be weeks or months or years.”

Stefan Aguirre and his partner haven’t been able to take advantage of exemptions to the ban Sweden has provided for binational couples. His partner lost her job early in the pandemic, after which her mother got cancer, making it practically impossible for her to travel to Sweden, and Aguirre can’t afford a 14-day stay in Mexico to allow him entry to the US.

“What we want is for the United States government to get rid of this Trump-era travel ban and at the very minimum provide exemptions for unmarried binational couples to reunite,” Aguirre said.

Emily Quiros, who lost her mother and son, is glad that she will finally see her partner again, but “it will never be the same for us, because we were never complete and will never be complete anymore.” She hopes that her story “could somehow help open the minds of the people that are making these restrictions. … Life is too short and this pandemic is already robbing us of time that we’re supposed to be spending together with our loved ones.” ●

This story is part of the BuzzFeed News Travel Week series.