A white lace custom-made wedding dress, two golden wedding rings and a sage green suit have sat unworn in Matthew Baldwin’s closet for more than a year.
In March, the U.S. Department of State shut down travel and immigration to the U.S. from other countries in an attempt to slow the COVID-19 pandemic. The shutdown included limiting visas like the one Baldwin, a 35-year-old UF assistant psychology professor and U.S. citizen, was trying to get for his fiancée, Stephanie Rüegg.
Baldwin and Rüegg are part of a nationwide lawsuit with 184 other couples against the State Department in the D.C. District Court. The lawsuit filed Sept. 17 claims the State Department illegally shut down the processing of K-1 fiancé(e) visas. In July, the State Department started processing visas again, but gave K-1 visas the lowest priority, according to the lawsuit. Rüegg submitted her visa paperwork almost eight months ago, Baldwin said.
The State Department has not filed a response to the lawsuit as of Sept. 28.
Baldwin met Rüegg on a surfing trip to Morocco in March of 2017. Rüegg is a 35-year-old Swiss citizen living in Germany. The couple planned to get married as soon as Rüegg received her visa and arrived in the U.S., but the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
“It's like these people are fighting to the very end to literally block me from starting a family,” Baldwin said.
Jeff Joseph, the 48-year-old lead legal counsel for the plaintiffs of the lawsuit based out of Aurora, Colorado, said the change in immigration policy is not uncharacteristic of the Trump administration. The State Department’s reasoning behind the change is to keep the labor pool to U.S. citizens because of the pandemic’s effect on the economy, he said.
“They're coming here on a family-based visa,” Joseph said. “To use an economic justification for why you're restricting it doesn't make sense.”
Joseph said the justification for the stoppage of K-1 visas is not fair because most fiancé(e)s are not coming to the U.S. simply for work. Even so, Joseph said most employers would not hire someone on a K-1 visa until they obtain an actual work authorization card, which could take four to five months.
Although Joseph represents 370 plaintiffs in the case, the number of people nationwide waiting on K-1 visa applications is unknown because they are still waiting on data from the State Department, he said. The State Department processed about 45,000 K-1 visa applications in 2019, according to department data.
One of the plaintiff’s main arguments cites the State Department’s own foreign affairs manual, which classifies fiancé(e)s as spouses during visa interviews, Joseph said. Because the State Department gave spousal visas top priority, so should K-1 fiancé(e) visas, he said. Additionally, the complaint argues the State Department was only directed to restrict the entry of non-citizens, not restrict the issuing of visas.
A hearing on the case could come in the next few weeks, Joseph said.
The couple is optimistic about the case. Baldwin said he hopes to spend this Christmas with his fiancée in the U.S.
Before the lawsuit, Baldwin said he begged and pleaded to elected officials and on social media for help. Once he joined the lawsuit, he began to feel real change, he said.
“I was not anticipating how good it would feel to have someone sort of fighting for what's right, like on my behalf,” Baldwin said.
The couple moved to Gainesville in July 2019 when Baldwin took his job at UF. In October 2019, Rüegg’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization visa expired, and she returned to Germany.
Baldwin spent last Christmas in Germany with his fiancée, but didn’t see her again until August when they went on a short trip to the Dominican Republic. The couple has only seen each other four weeks in 2020.
The distance, complicated even further by the pandemic, has made it hard for the couple to stay in touch. Keeping connected over FaceTime for 11 months is virtually impossible, he said. A six-hour time difference separates Florida and Germany, so when Rüegg settles down after work, Baldwin is just sitting down for lunch.
They want to start a family, buy a house and settle down, he said, but it’s just not possible right now.
“It's like our American dream has sort of been stolen from us,” Baldwin said.
Before the shutdown, Rüegg said the immigration system was complicated but she and Baldwin had mastered it and made it work. But after trying to navigate the system during the shutdown, she now believes it’s broken.
Rüegg said once she gets to the U.S., she is looking forward to doing everyday things with her fiancé, like cooking and cuddling on the couch. She also wants to meet their nine-month-old blue heeler, Ziggy, for the first time.
“There's so many insecurities that are just making you anxious about the future,” Rüegg said. “You just want to be with your partner when you're anxious, right?”
Matthew Baldwin and Stephanie Rüegg at the Gator football game against University of Tennessee-Martin on Sept. 7, 2019. This was Rüegg’s first-ever American football game she attended.
Steven Walker is the Fall 2021 Editor in Chief of The Alligator. He has previously worked at the Orlando Sentinel; and has bylines in the Miami Herald, Associated Press and Florida Times Union. In his free time, he likes to take long walks with his dog Luna and watch his favorite sports teams, the Orlando Magic and the Green Bay Packers.