In October 2013, shortly before Reyhaneh Sepehr of Milwaukee gave birth to her first child, her mother, Fatemeh Astaneh, arrived from Iran.
“My mom was my savior!” says Reyhaneh, a biomedical engineer who came to the United States with her husband, Ali Dashti, in 2010 so they could pursue doctorates at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “With no experience, I would have drowned in exhaustion and depression.”
“She patiently helped me with everything, taught me all the basics, cooked for me, [and] brought breakfast to me in bed for the first month after the delivery.”
Reyhaneh’s father, a retired accountant, joined Fatemeh in Milwaukee in February 2014. The couple stayed until June, when they were replaced by Ali’s parents, who remained until December. Besides attending to the baby, all the grandparents cooked, cleaned, and pitched in however else they could, Reyhaneh says.
Because of all this help, both Reyhaneh and Ali managed to finish their degrees and start jobs in the months after their son’s birth. Ali, whose degree was in medical informatics, joined a lab at the University of Wisconsin that makes three-dimensional images of everything from viruses to human organs. Reyhaneh taught engineering to undergraduates at the university and worked in a lab there; later, she took a position with Mortara Instruments, a manufacturer of electrocardiograph machines.
In the summer of 2017, Reyhaneh found out she was pregnant again, and soon afterwards, her parents and in-laws applied for visas to return.
But on September 24, President Trump issued the third and most sweeping iteration of his ban on visitors from Iran and other predominantly Muslim countries.
This version of the ban prohibited nearly all citizens of Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Chad from entering the United States—including close family members of U.S. residents, who had previously been exempted.
Not long after Trump announced the new ban, federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland blocked it from taking effect. But Trump appealed those rulings, and on December 4, the Supreme Court allowed the ban to proceed while the appeals were pending.
Immediately, Ali’s parents learned that their visa applications had been rejected. Reyhaneh’s parents got the same news in early January.
In February, Reyhaneh gave birth to a second son.
Unfortunately, this time around, everything is different.
Reyhaneh and Ali are struggling to meet the needs of their newborn, Dario, and their four-year-old, Arad, all by themselves, even as they work full-time and manage their home.
Each of them has taken some leave since Dario’s birth, and Ali’s sister, Sara, who also lives in Milwaukee, sometimes comes over in the evenings. All the same, Reyhaneh fears that Arad isn’t getting enough attention and that he’s suffering as a result.
“Having parents around would have helped a lot in that regard,” she says.
Meanwhile, Reyhaneh, Ali, Sara, and their parents are all in a lot of pain.
“Every day when I go to bed, I imagine how different my day would have been if my parents were here,” says Reyhaneh, 35. “I miss them and want them here and they miss us terribly too.”
“Sometimes when we are video-chatting, I leave the phone in front of Dario and jokingly ask my mom or dad to keep an eye on him for a few minutes while I am warming my food and cleaning around the house. They talk to him, and I can see it pains them that they are not here in person to hold him and actually watch him.”
“My parents and in-laws want the best for their grandkids and for the country they were born in … and not to grant them visas, assuming they are a security threat, is just unfair and unacceptable.”
Reyhaneh knows that the ban has struck many families much harder than hers. Lives have been endangered; careers have been ruined; husbands and wives have been separated from one another and from their children.
Still, the ban has made Reyhaneh and Ali, who have both obtained green cards, rethink whether they want to build their lives here.
The legality of the ban is now before the Supreme Court, which held a hearing on it in April and will likely issue a ruling by the end of June.
If the court sides with Trump, Reyhaneh and Ali may consider moving to Canada, Australia, or some other country where their parents would be allowed to visit or even immigrate, Reyhaneh says.
“We are fighting [the ban] and we are not backing down, but life here with the order in effect is not easy or pleasant,” she says.
“We had so many plans, and with the stroke of a pen, all our plans are in the air.”