World Events

U.S. immigration tests Texas rancher and Brazilian husband

Kathleen Morriss fires a .22 rifle to rid her garden of “varmints.” She’s a veterinarian with a deep love of animals, particularly the horses and goats she raises on her 5,000-acre ranch in Junction, Texas, a town of 2,574 that voted overwhelmingly to reelect Donald Trump.

The 31-year-old fifth-generation rancher always figured she’d end up finding her husband in the U.S. But in 2016, she joined an online dating site for Orthodox Christians where she became smitten with Falko König, a 32-year-old agronomist and resident of southern Brazil.

They quickly bonded over their love of cats and spending time outdoors. They instant messaged, Skyped and visited each other across two continents for years.

Even though he was in a different time zone, he made sure to wait up to text her to make sure she got home safely when she worked late nights. On her visits to Brazil, he was the type of guy to open doors for her, and made certain to walk on the street side, between her and vehicles.

When König visited her for the first time in Texas, Morriss showed him the creek, the large pecan trees and the horses on the hardscrabble ranch her mother inherited from her grandparents. He understood that her family’s land kept Morriss rooted to who she was, her tradition and her family. He was happy to leave his homeland to be with her.

They exchanged vows in February 2019 at an intimate ceremony in Texas, where they planned to settle down.

Kathleen Morriss and Falko König married in 2019 in Texas, then Morriss applied for a spousal visa for her new husband, who returned to Brazil to wait.

(Alexandre Tessler / For The Times)

“I like it that he is willing to live out here and doesn’t want to live in a big city,” Morriss said.

But their marriage snared them in the bureaucratic machinery of the U.S. immigration system. When Morriss petitioned for a spousal visa for König in May 2019, the couple thought it would take a little more than a year for his visa to come through and for him to join her in Texas. But 14 months later, in July 2020, König was still waiting in Brazil.

On the surface, it would seem that the couple had every advantage for navigating the immigration labyrinth. Both are educated professionals. She is a U.S. citizen. He’s a citizen not only of Brazil but also of Germany. They had the means to spend thousands of dollars in application and attorney fees.

What’s more, a visa for the spouses of U.S. citizens is among the easiest visas to obtain. There are no caps on how many such visas are given per year as there are on other types of visa sponsorships, for which wait times can be up to 40 years.

Even so, Morriss and König found themselves joining the ranks of hundreds of thousands who have tried to reunite with loved ones only to be stymied by the Trump administration’s stricter immigration policies and an uncontrolled global pandemic that has shuttered many U.S. embassies and consulates since March.

The closures have left thousands of foreign spouses stuck in their home countries, unable to attend the interviews required for visas to be issued.

In mid-November, the State Department announced that visa services would be resumed at some embassies and consulates, without specifying which ones or when. Even so, spouses likely will face significant visa processing times. Although President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to unravel many of his predecessor’s more restrictive immigration policies, some will be logistically and politically complicated to roll back.

Still, reducing wait times for spousal visas could provide a relatively quick fix for couples like Morriss and König, said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.

“It really just takes a memo,” Gelatt said, to start the process of speeding up the review of applications.

The greater obstacle is that Biden will have a long list of domestic matters to focus on first.

“This may not be at the top of the priority list,” Gelatt said.

Although Trump was most vocal in his battle against illegal immigration, he quietly waged a war on legal immigration, too, by limiting the options for foreigners to legally migrate to this country for work or to reunite with family.

Many of his efforts bypassed Congress, relying instead on executive actions, changing regulations or modifying policies via memoranda. Some of those memos directed immigration officials to implement higher fees, intensive vetting, and longer forms that made it increasingly difficult to apply and ballooned wait times.

Before Trump took office, processing times for visa applications averaged from less than a month to just shy of two years, depending on the visa, Gelatt said. Under the Trump administration, the length of time it took to process many of these visas doubled — taking up to four years.

The wait times on foreign-spouse visas increased substantially, too.

Over the summer, as König’s case remained in limbo, Morriss described the application process as a “nightmare.”

Kathleen Morriss and Falko König walk on a stone pathway next to a green hedge.

Kathleen Morris, with Falko König in southern Brazil, flew several times to the country to spend time with her new husband.

(Alexandre Tessler / For The Times)

“Everything has to be exactly right. If you mess up on one form, there are delays,” she said in July. “Falko has no criminal record; we are legally married. Just let him come in and decide if it’s a fake marriage.”

While separated and waiting, the couple coped by messaging each other several times a day on WhatsApp. Despite the growing pandemic, Morriss flew to Brazil on a few occasions to spend time with König.

They grew even closer during her visits. Morris has a fondness for horses, so whenever the couple walked near a field with horses near his parents’ house, König would stop and pick grass for the animals so they would come over to greet her.

When it was time to say goodbye, he’d wait with her in the airport until the last minute, right after she entered the security line.

Before Trump became president, spousal-visa processing times were anywhere from nine months to a year. After Trump, processing times increased to as much as 15 months, said Dan Kowalski, an immigration attorney and scholar based in Colorado.

In the pursuit of curbing legal immigration, the Trump administration directed United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to focus on fraud among immigrant and non-immigrant applications.

“The Trump administration is on this tear over imagined or perceived fraud,” Kowalski said. “They are convinced that everyone is a liar and a cheater, whether it’s the Ford Motor Co. or a woman in Texas.”

Just a few months after taking office in March 2017, Trump issued a memorandum directing the secretary of State, attorney general and Department of Homeland Security to enhance the screening and vetting of immigration applications.

That meant resources and money were diverted from the processing of applications to focusing on fraud detection and applying high levels of scrutiny to all applications, said Gelatt, the policy analyst.

“There has been a severe slowdown of processing applications at USCIS,” she said, “and if they are spending more staff time scrutinizing employment-based immigration visas, they leave fewer staff hours for processing spousal visas.”

In addition, Trump increased the amount of paperwork for immigration applications. The application forms became longer and more tedious. For example, the form for a U.S. citizen to sponsor a spouse became nine times as long as it had been. Petitioners also faced more requests for evidence, prolonging the process.

Perhaps most impactfully, the Trump administration revised a “public charge” rule that essentially tests immigrants’ wealth before granting them legal status or admitting them to the country.

Under Trump, the rule is interpreted broadly to reduce the number of people who are eligible for green cards and other visas by redefining what makes them dependent on government benefits — or “likely” to become dependent in the future. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals partially struck down Trump’s revision, but the ruling likely will be appealed.

König is a middle-class professional with a well-paying job who just finished his master’s degree in biotechnology. Still, Morris had to sign paperwork promising to financially support her husband if he couldn’t do so, even in the event of divorce.

It took Morriss’ petition more than eight months to clear USCIS and reach the Department of State’s National Visa Center, which serves as a go-between for the petitioner and the U.S. Consulate in the visa applicant’s home country, arranging for the applicant to take the visa interview at a consulate abroad.

The center processed the petition in May. But by then, the consulate in Rio De Janeiro had been closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the closure, the couple held out hope that König’s case would go forward. But Morriss grew concerned in mid-summer when they still hadn’t received word from the consulate about an interview date.

She called and emailed the consulate, where officials said they didn’t know when they’d be able to reopen to help her. She joined Facebook groups with others in similar situations from across the globe. There was a Los Angeles man whose wife was still waiting in Pakistan. An Arizona woman who petitioned for her Nigerian husband in January 2019 but still was separated.

Morriss reached out to her government representatives, who mostly ignored her pleas.

“My great-great grandfather started our ranch in 1879. Currently my mother runs the ranch and I help her as much as possible. It is very hard work for two people, especially when I also have to work outside the ranch,” Morriss wrote in a July 5 letter to Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. “We need my husband here to help us take care of our family’s land and the livestock on it that contribute to the United States’ food supply.”

Cruz responded with a form letter, directing her to call the consulate in Rio.

Morriss said she didn’t think much about immigration before meeting König.

“It was abstract. It didn’t really affect me much personally. But now, having been through it? I can see how bureaucratic, expensive and difficult it is.”

Morriss, a Trump supporter who describes herself as a libertarian, says she doesn’t blame the outgoing president for her situation but does take issue with an immigration system that she believes needs to undergo “massive reform.” She blames both Democrats and Republicans for constructing an “over-regulated” bureaucracy.

“A lot of hard-working people want to come, but it’s just impossible,” Morriss said. “Why not simplify the process? Then people wouldn’t have to do it illegally and not cost them a fortune.”

Morriss, who lives about a two-hour drive from the U.S.-Mexico border, says she doesn’t condone illegal immigration.

“But I completely understand why people do it,” she said. “Nobody wants to wait 10 years. I mean, who is going to wait 30 years? It’s insane.”

She doesn’t expect Biden to improve the situation much.

“I doubt that’s going to be the top thing on his list, to get some spouses of U.S. citizens in the country,” she said.

When the couple realized they might have hit a dead end with the consulate in Brazil, they decided to switch their case to the U.S. Consulate in Frankfurt, Germany, because of König’s German ancestry. The U.S. Consulate in Frankfurt ended up accepting Morriss’ petition and granted König an interview in late September.

On Nov. 18, he finally arrived in Texas just in time to celebrate his first Thanksgiving with Morriss.

Most of the couple’s days are spent running errands to complete his transformation as an American, such as applying for his driver’s license, procuring a license to carry a firearm, and purchasing an ugly Christmas sweater at their local Walmart.

The rest of their time is spent on the ranch. König has yet to receive his physical green card. It likely won’t arrive for several months because of a delay.

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