A newlywed couple will be spending time an ocean apart while he stays and works as a police officer in Alcoa, and she waits in her home country of Estonia until her international student status is reinstated.
A week ago, the couple received a letter stating that 23-year-old Johnson University student Karmel Känd’s renewal application for her F-1 student visa was denied and her non-immigrant status has not been valid since May 27, 2019. Känd, of Knoxville, married Alcoa Police Officer Connor Underwood, 24, last summer.
The denial letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services states that when she returned from her country following their wedding celebration in Estonia, her entrance into the United States was done in error and jeopardized her chance of getting her student visa reinstated if she remained in the country.
The denial gives Känd two warnings about what could happen if she stays in the country.
A section of the Immigration and Nationality Act states that an individual staying without proper legal documentation who resides in the U.S. for more than 180 days, and then departs, will be barred from entering the country for a period of either three or 10 years.
As of Friday, Känd had been in the United States for 174 days. To ensure she did not receive a ban on entering the country, the couple planned on buying her a plane ticket as soon as possible, so she could leave the country before the Thursday, Jan. 17, deadline.
The letter also warns if Känd does not leave the country within 33 days of receiving the letter, USCIS will file removal proceedings with immigration court, and could make her ineligible for a future visa or “other U.S. immigration benefits.”
Couple’s legal options bleak
After six months of marriage, the couple expected to still be in the newlywed phase, and not having to worry about her legal status.
“It’s been a nightmare,” her husband said.
On Friday, the two met with an immigration attorney, and they were holding out hope by hiring legal representation that they could fix the issue and maybe find a miracle that would allow her to stay in the States while her paperwork was sorted out.
But the only option they found was for Känd to apply for U.S. citizenship.
“That’s fantastic minus the fact it’s $800 in legal fees, and $1,700 for the green card part, and obviously we weren’t planning on any of this happening,” Underwood said. “On top of that, once we start that (process) she legally can not work in the United States anymore.”
For her to continue her schooling, they then would have to rely solely on his income until the process is sorted out, which Underwood noted, could take years.
The couple does eventually plan to file for U.S. citizenship, but they were relying on her student visa until she graduated.
About the pair
Underwood met Känd in 2014 while he was serving on a mission trip in Estonia.
He became good friends with Känd’s brother who introduced the pair, and they began dating. When Underwood returned home, he continued his romance with Känd in a long-distance relationship before she came to study in the states.
They were excited about not having to continue seeing each remotely, but now the newlyweds are faced with the stark reality they are being forced back into a long-distance relationship until she receives the proper paperwork.
Känd has been studying business at Johnson University since 2016, when she was issued her student visa. Her status as an international student led the couple to no longer have to date long distance.
In December 2018, Känd temporarily moved back to Estonia, so she could prepare for her upcoming nuptials. The couple legally married in the United States, but they decided to host a July 2019 wedding ceremony in her home country.
“That’s why she went back there: It’s a little difficult to plan a ceremony in another country, and in a different time zone when you’re going to school full time,” Underwood said.
During the 2019 January-May semester, she was a full-time, online student at Johnson University.
While preparing for their wedding, the couple learned Känd’s student visa was terminated. They asked a student adviser at Johnson University about how to apply for renewal.
“We went to the school, and did all of the reinstatement forms,” Underwood said. “The adviser gave us a list in an email of everything we had to have down from bank statements to signatures from school officials. So we had that entire list of everything we had to do. I mean we nailed that list perfectly. Everything that was on there we had in there.”
The school’s adviser checked their work, and they submitted the forms to USCIS in June 2019, and the couple said they hoped by filing the paperwork it would allow her to return to study on campus that August.
As they were coming back to the States, they didn’t know about her status.
“So I emailed him to make sure that everything was good with me coming into the country to see if customs will allow me back in because I need an active student status to come into the country,” Känd said. “I hadn’t heard anything so I emailed the adviser and he said that my student status was still terminated, but we were already flying out.”
She managed to make it back in with only a little difficulty.
“They pulled me aside, and asked me questions, and in their computer it showed that I didn’t have active student status, but I explained to them that I filed the paperwork a month ago, and I’m enrolled in school already, and I start school in August and that’s why I’m coming in right now, and they accepted everything and they let me into the country,” Känd said.
Her husband noted that “the big confusion is that (the denial letter) said it is based off an error that she was let into the United States, and she did not have that F-1 status even though they stamped it (at airport customs) and said she did.”
Gaining entry not enough
Kirsten Sheppard, director of international education at Maryville College, said that just because a student is admitted legally into the United States, it doesn’t mean their student visa is valid.
“At the point of entry, the immigration officer evaluates the individual based on the information they have available,” Sheppard said. “Many travelers from abroad also have long-term visas, or (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) waivers to get into the U.S. for regular tourist visits in addition to visas that relate to their student status,” Sheppard said. “The immigration officer has to use the documents that an individual shows to know that they are still a student.”
Taking classes is only one aspect of keeping a student visa valid.
“Being enrolled in school is only one variable in the overall picture of maintaining immigration status,” Sheppard said. “Obviously, it is an important one, but there are various ways that an international student can lose their status.”
Sheppard added enrolling in online courses isn’t the same as attending a physical location when it comes to international students.
“Online is tricky,” Sheppard said. “There are specific and different rules about online classes. For example, you can’t do 100% online studies and remain in international student status.”