COVID-19 causing delays in immigration visas and keeping families apart
One soon-to-be mother in Atlanta has tried to get her fiancé a visa for months.
Abbey Mattson could give birth any day now.
With the finishing touches already set in her first child's nursery, the 27-year-old living in Atlanta has almost everything she needs to give birth to her son, Isaac. All that's missing is his father, Mattson's fiancé, Alejandro Puerta.
Puerta, who is from Venezuela, is still in Peru, where he met Mattson last year just a month before the coronavirus sparked lockdowns and travel restrictions around the world. Although the couple filed an application for a U.S. visa in June 2020, Puerta is still waiting to get approved.
"We had a lot of hope that we would both be able to come and be in the United States together for the birth of our child," Mattson told ABC News. "Now, I'm 39 weeks pregnant, so the baby can really come any day, and I'm here in the U.S. and Alejandro is in Lima, and we actually haven't seen any forward progress with his visa application."
Mattson had been living in Peru for two years before the pandemic, where she worked with the nonprofit organization Something New, which supports Venezuelan refugees in Peru, like Puerta, who also works there.
When ABC News spoke to her in July 2020, she said she had stayed behind when other Americans rushed to return to the U.S. because she wanted to keep the nonprofit's mission going. Soon after, she met Puerta.
Mattson returned to the U.S. in October, making the heartbreaking decision to leave Puerta in Peru as he waited out the visa process.
"Right when I was going through [airport] security and I was by myself and I felt like I wanted to cry, and then I just remembered, like, 'No, I'm going to do this for my son,'" Mattson said.
"It wasn't easy because ... to decide whether she should stay or go was difficult, but deciding [for her] to go, it was [for the] best because I wasn't thinking about myself," Puerta told ABC News in Spanish.
Mattson and Puerta made one of many life-changing decisions U.S. citizens and their loved ones around the world have had to consider as the pandemic continues to upend U.S. immigration processes. A backlog of cases brought on by temporary closures to consulates and embassies, COVID-19 restrictions in waiting rooms and reduced staffing has led to longer wait times for applicants.
"By May of last year, the overall number of visas, both temporary and permanent, declined by approximately 95%, so there was a precipitous decline in the total number of visas that were issued," said Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council.
The State Department told ABC News that U.S. embassies and consulates are "working to resume routine visa services on a location-by-location basis." However, it said, "the pandemic continues to severely impact the number of visas our embassies and consulates abroad are able to process. We do not expect to be able to safely return to pre-pandemic workload levels until mid-2021 at the earliest."
Fiancé visas like the one Puerta applied for, called K-1 visas, typically take six to nine months to process, according to immigration law group Boundless. But as the pandemic continues, a surge of COVID-19 cases in Peru could lead to a new wave of restrictions.
In Lima, where Puerta is living, lockdown orders are higher than in other cities: Residents are only permitted an hour of outdoor time each day. The U.S. Embassy in the city is also closed until mid-February, at least.
"I really understand the measures they're trying to take for health and safety, but ... then we get to another moment like this where the U.S. Embassy is closed in Lima," said Mattson. "It is a little bit frustrating because now that option to push paperwork through isn't available."
To make matters worse, a COVID-19 outbreak in the home where Puerta has been staying has compromised his own safety.
"We have been experiencing some difficulties like some people are not well -- feeling some symptoms," he told ABC News earlier this week. "But [we're] working together, mutually helping each other to not fall into a depression because of this virus, supporting each other."
On Wednesday, Mattson told ABC News that her fiancé now has possible COVID-19 symptoms. The home where he's staying, which is owned by the nonprofit where the couple works, doesn't have basic medical supplies, medicine or regular access to clean water, Mattson said.
While the State Department announced in August 2020 that it would prioritize K-1 visas, Mattson and Puerta say that seven months since applying, they still haven't been told where they stand in the process. They've made several requests to expedite Puerta's application, and all were rejected.
"They said they were denying my most recent request, the 11th one. They said, 'We will not grant any subsequent requests,' and so when I got that email, I felt a little discouraged," Mattson said. "I'm still looking for other ways to get Alejandro here as soon as possible."
Loweree believes transparency regarding visa statuses may increase with President Joe Biden's administration.
"One of the things that we certainly expect is for the new administration to work to change the culture within [the State Department], and hopefully, that will translate into a greater level of customer service and communication, especially when there are [situations] at play that include families being separated right away, including where there is a young child that is on the way," Loweree said.
While Puerta won't be in Atlanta for the birth of his son, he doesn't regret the decision they made.
"The bad thoughts arrive of how, for example, it is impossible for you to be here ... or it has been very difficult for me to be able to be supportive of you from [here]. But yes, the process is totally worth it," he said. "I have no doubt."
While they wait, Mattson holds onto hope that they'll all be together again soon, in the U.S.
"It might be hard for us right now to be apart, but I have to believe that something incredible will happen in the future," she said. "And I have to believe that my son can have a better life in the U.S., can have a better life if he's a citizen."