Love in the Time of Paranoia


You could say Demy and Christi were an odd couple. Most people did. They made a striking pair: Christi, a petite Korean-­American with beautiful waist-length black hair; Demy, a tall, lanky Arab, dark and strong-jawed. Together, they pretty much cornered the market on diversity in their rural town of Lititz, Pennsylvania, where their appearance alone was enough to turn heads.

But their differences went beyond the superficial. Christen Kramer, 26, was the adopted daughter of a successful local adman, whose family roots in the Lancaster County area went back four generations. Demy — El Demerdash El Sayed — was a 28-year-old Egyptian who worked at a local diner for off-the-books cash. Demy was Muslim; Christi, a member of the Moravian Church. Demy spoke broken English. Shy Christi hardly spoke at all. And there was one more thing. They were separated by 50 or so IQ points. Demy was college-educated. Christi, with an IQ of 64, was mildly retarded.

Still, Demy and Christi were in love. You could see it in their bashful smiles and gentle touches, in the way they’d hold hands during long strolls through the Amish farmlands. At the Park City mall, where the pair whiled away many an afternoon, they’d often pause in their window-shopping to smooch. Demy became a regular presence at the Kramer home, where he addressed Christi’s father as “Sir,” fished in the backyard creek with Christi’s nephew, and attended family barbecues (discreetly avoiding the pork hot dogs). When, one night in August 2001, in the front seat of Christi’s Sentra, Demy asked in a shaking voice if Christi would be his wife, she said yes.

Since they got married just months after September 11th, the couple expected that Demy might encounter some immigration speed bumps. Little did they know that their love story was on a collision course with post-9/11 paranoia. For four long years, their case has been mired in red tape — and, as they discovered in a batch of confidential government memos, sullied by wild accusations about the true nature of their romance. At any other time in our history, Demy and Christi would be a classic American melting-pot love story. Instead, they’ve been kept apart by a skittish government. Is this the price we’re willing to pay for security?

You should have seen her father when he came here. … Her father came in to get the IV [immigrant visa] papers, tried to sign them on her behalf, didn’t want her to come to the office, then dumped her. For about a week before her surprise wedding, Christi and her parents stayed in a hotel. She stayed there with her parents after the wedding until the forms got filled out. Then they up and left her.

— Internal memo, Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy, Cairo

“Hi, how are ya? Nice to see an American!” Dave Kramer exclaimed through two inches of bulletproof glass at the U.S. consulate in Cairo in February 2002.

The blond woman on the other side of the teller window stared out, stone-faced.

“Where ya from?” Dave persisted.

Impassive gaze. “Kansas.”

Dave looked at Demy beside him and shrugged. No time for pleasantries here, apparently. “All right, then, let’s get down to business,” Dave said. To the woman’s obvious bewilderment, he asked about a spousal visa petition. Dave explained it was for his daughter Christi, who’d gotten married in Cairo a few days earlier. He was anxious that his new son-in-law join them in America as quickly as possible.

The consulate woman nodded, taking it all in: the middle-aged tourist, the young Egyptian man, the curiously absent daughter.

Dave Kramer was tired. The last few months had been a whirlwind. Things had gotten problematic shortly after Demy’s proposal to Christi, when he’d returned to Egypt to see his family. He wasn’t supposed to be gone long, but when, in November 2001 — two months after 9/11 — Demy finally managed to get a flight to New York via Barcelona, he’d been whisked off the plane at JFK and detained for questioning; Demy innocently admitted that he’d worked in America. Turns out that had been a violation of his visitor’s visa. Demy had been sent back to Egypt, and barred from obtaining another visitor’s visa for five years. Christi had been devastated. After conferring with a friend of Demy’s, she’d resolved to marry Demy in Cairo; as the husband of an American, he’d be a shoo-in for a spousal visa.

Though they liked Demy, Christi’s parents, Dave and Carol, had been dead set against the plan — they are logical, by-the-book people, and the idea of an impromptu Egyptian wedding seemed too extreme, especially for their impaired daughter. True, Christi did well for herself: Despite a sixth-grade reading level and difficulties with comprehension, she’d managed to graduate from high school, and held a housekeeping job at a local girls’ school, where the vacuuming and dusting satisfied her meticulous nature. But the Kramers had always assumed that the third of their four ­children — and one of their three adopted Korean kids — would never stray far from the nest. Until she’d met Demy, at the Sunset Diner in Ephrata.

And then, suddenly, Demy was gone, leaving Christi heartbroken. By day, she’d plead with her parents to allow a quickie overseas marriage; by night, they tried not to listen as she cried in her bedroom. It didn’t take them long to cave in. And so it was that in February 2002, two middle-aged white folks and their Asian daughter found themselves winging toward Cairo.

The wedding itself was uninspiring: a paper signed in a municipal office, before a grumpy, mustachioed bureaucrat. The bride and groom wore jeans. “This is as romantic as applying for a building permit,” Dave quipped. Afterward, they made their way to the crumbling apartment where Demy lived with his mother and grandmother. Demy’s extended family crammed in for a simple but festive meal. Then Demy left for his job as a driver for an American security company; the trip had been planned so hastily that he hadn’t been able to get time off.

In the days since, the Kramers had seen pyramids, ridden camels and visited mosques, but all Dave could think about was getting Demy back to the States, so their lives could return to normal. Carol and Christi skipped the consulate to go shopping, but Demy volunteered to keep him company, so here they were, asking the consulate teller a lot of paperwork questions. Toward the end of Dave’s list, the woman regarded him with curiosity. “Why isn’t your daughter asking these questions?” she suddenly demanded.

“Because she’s not capable of handling things like this,” Dave answered, put off; he didn’t see how it was any of her business. Then, he says, she blurted something he’ll never forget: “I hope you understand that your daughter is going to live in Egypt for the rest of her life.”

Dave was taken aback. Why would she say such a thing? “Well, that’s not part of the plan,” he replied. It was a phrase he often used.

A few days later, Dave and Carol reluctantly bade their daughter goodbye; she’d fly back after she’d spent some time with her new husband and gone through some formalities at the consulate. She’d never been so far from her parents before. They hadn’t been home long when Christi phoned them, in tears. Then Demy got on the line.

“How did your interview at the consulate go?” Dave asked.

Demy answered, “Not too good, Dad.”

She did not know that she was coming to Egypt to get married. She said that a few days after she arrived here, her parents told her to “put on a dress” and go with them. They went to “some building” and she was “taken to a room” and “some man talked to us for a while, but I didn’t understand him.” [NB: He spoke in Arabic.] The man pointed at a place for her to sign her name, so she did. She was then told by her parents that she was married.

— Internal memo, Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy, Cairo

IT ISN’T EASY working at the U.S. consulate in Cairo. Each day, hundreds of people throng in from the crowded streets, line up before a row of 11 teller-style windows, and apply for visas to the United States. The volume is staggering. Last year alone, the Cairo consulate fielded more than 42,000 visa requests, the processing of which falls to just 40 employees — in particular, to a handful of junior officers, each with under four years’ experience — who must come to a quick decision about each applicant’s true intentions: Is he planning to overstay his visa? Does she really have the job training she claims? Will he actually study abroad, as he says? (The consulate won’t divulge exactly how many visas are granted.) It’s always been a difficult job. But it’s much more challenging since 9/11, when a hair-raising concern was added to the list: Is he planning a terrorist attack? As a result, according to immigration lawyers, even ordinary cases are now viewed with intense suspicion.

In Egypt — birthplace of 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta — marriage fraud is a particularly popular way of illegally obtaining a visa. “We see evidence of sham marriages every day,” says Cairo’s consul general, Peter Kaestner. Very often, an investigation will reveal that the new Egyptian husband of an American citizen already has an Egyptian wife and kids; presumably, the American woman’s in it for cash. But unlike detecting, say, document fraud, probing the depths of the human heart can be tricky. “Love is a very funny thing,” muses Kaestner. “You have to be careful, because some things that look really bad may be quite legitimate.” Due to immigration law, Kaestner says he can’t comment on Christi and Demy’s case. But in general, he admits, “It’s a huge challenge to pick out the real fraud from this remarkable diversity that is the human species.”

Indeed.

From behind the windows, Demy and Christi’s interview had been, at first, routine. In sussing out marriage fraud, officials say, they look for anything that seems out of the ordinary, like a wide age discrepancy, or the lack of a common language or culture. The newlyweds are asked about their relationship: where they met, how they got engaged, what the weather was like on their wedding day. If their answers don’t match, it raises alarms.

Christi and Demy failed this initial test so spectacularly that the interviewer asked them to cross through the tight security that separates officials from applicants, an event that Kaestner says happens maybe once a year — a testament, perhaps, to the sheer oddity of their case. And as badly as Christi had performed at the window, her recollection fell to pieces once she was isolated in an office with three consular officials. She couldn’t remember when or how she and Demy got engaged, or if they’d had sex before marriage. She described their premarital relationship as “sort of friends.” All the while, Christi would pause for as long as 20 seconds before answering. Her hour-long interview created such concern that the consulate’s then-visa chief, Wisconsin native Stephanie Kronenburg, came down to observe. Kronenburg would recount in a confidential memo:

I spoke to Christi the petitioner — in the loosest sense — myself, sat in for most of the private interview with her, and I thought I was going to be sick. She doesn’t realize what is going on. … I got down on my knees in front of her chair and explained in little words what it means if she signs her name to this piece of yellow paper. [The I-130 spousal visa petition]. I asked her, when I finished, to explain to me what she understood about what I had told her. She said that by signing the I-130 “means that I am married.”

No one who knows Christi would have been surprised at her total brain freeze. Back when Christi was in preschool, her parents noticed she was falling behind, and took her for an evaluation. The session confirmed her learning difficulties, and revealed something else: She blanks out under pressure. In the psychologist’s office, four-year-old Christi hadn’t been able to perform tasks she could easily do at home, like putting together an eight-piece puzzle or bouncing a ball. When asked how many legs a dog had, she said three.

“We said to her on the way home, ‘Christi, how many legs does Dusty have?’ ‘Four,’” remembers Carol. “I said, ‘Honey, why didn’t you tell the lady that?’” Christi couldn’t explain; in her panic, the information had been beyond her reach. It’s a problem that continues to plague her — something that became clear during my own interview with Christi and her parents in Lititz. Seated in her parents’ living room, Christi was blank-faced and silent throughout our discussion, speaking only when questioned directly. Not that her answers shed much light.

“Christi,” I asked her at one point, “when you found out that the embassy people had said those bad things about your parents, and about your marriage, how did you feel?”

Christi deliberated. “I felt happy,” she decided at last.

Come again? “Happy?”

“Yeah.”

“When they said the bad things — ?”

“Oh, oh, not happy at all,” Christi interrupted in a slurry mumble. “Sad. Felt.”

Five seconds passed before I realized she was finished speaking.

So it doesn’t seem unreasonable that consulate officials were genuinely worried for Christi’s welfare by the end of her interview. Which may help explain why from there, the couple’s interview process took a bizarre turn. Demy was taken behind closed doors by two security guards and a consular official who, he says, yelled that he was a criminal, and that his crime was “buying this girl.” Then, Demy says, he was told to strip — an order which Kaestner confirms is not part of standard procedure. Mortified, Demy refused, except to remove his jacket, after which he was thoroughly frisked. “He put his hand on my body, like a woman,” Demy remembers with embarrassment.

The world of immigration has become a harsh place since 9/11. In the months after the tragedy, with fingers pointing at the Immigration and Naturalization Service for granting the hijackers visas, there was suddenly no room for error — a sentiment that became dogma in March 2002, when then-­commissioner James Ziglar instituted a policy of “zero tolerance” for employees straying from protocol in any way. Fearing for their jobs, immigration agents liberally inked their red stamps, jumping at any excuse to nip applications in the bud. Although the zero-tolerance policy was rescinded a year later, the agency — now a three-part entity under the Department of Homeland Security — is still steeped in what Crystal Williams, deputy director of programs for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, calls “‘a culture of no.’ It is safer to say no than to say yes. Whereas before, officers would look at applications and say, ‘Is there a way for me to approve this?,’ now they say, ‘Is there a way for me to deny this?’”

Certain kinds of applications that previously would have been waved through — like those with paperwork errors — are instead rejected, sometimes in spectacular fashion, as visiting Penn professor John McCourt can attest. On January 7th, McCourt, who is Irish, was informed at Philly International of a small error on his travel documents — for which the 40-year-old James Joyce expert was strip-searched, jailed, and sent back to Italy, where he’d been teaching. Such heavy-handedness has become routine, according to attorney Denyse Sabagh, who heads law firm Duane Morris’s immigration practice group in D.C.: “The penalty is disproportionate to what you’ve done. And even if they’re the ones making the mistake, the burden of proof is still entirely on you.” Among Sabagh’s clients is a recent MIT grad who’s stuck in Sri Lanka instead of starting his new American job because, she says, a functionary miscalculated the dates of his stay and insisted he violated his student visa. Then there was the Jordanian communications student in Chicago who also sought out Sabagh. She had a videotape with Al Jazeera footage in her bag when it was searched at the airport; for that, says Sabagh, her application got lost in red tape.

Sometimes, an applicant’s only sin is having a complicated case. When that happens, says Williams, no one wants to take responsibility for ruling on it, and the case is simply launched into an endless bureaucratic maze. In fact, Cairo visa chief Kronenburg eventually penned an internal memo suggesting officials ask Demy to file a frivolous bit of paperwork, so he’d tire of the process and give up.

Within the walls of the Cairo consulate, the case of Christen Kramer and El Demerdash El Sayed became notorious — so much so that, according to an internal Department of Homeland Security memo, officials began teaching it during orientation as an example of particularly egregious fraud.

The US government’s position on this case (from this part of the government) is that the marriage is fraudulent (and bordering on trafficking in persons, to my mind). … Personally, I think her parents should be arrested and prosecuted for selling this girl.

At home in Lititz, Dave Kramer couldn’t understand what these immigration folks wanted. He’d mailed them photos of Christi and Demy in Lancaster County; affidavits from friends, family and Christi’s pastor; love letters; phone records showing the frequent calls between Lititz and Cairo. Yet the government kept insisting that Christi and Demy’s relationship wasn’t legitimate. It was almost, Dave thought, as though the authorities were ignoring everything he sent them.

Which, in fact, they probably were. Because once an immigration decision is made, the appeals process makes it easy for those first impressions to calcify. During an appeal, there is no attempt to gather new facts; rather, the investigating officer simply asks the consulate what happened. With no real checks and balances built into the system, consulate officials have tremendous power, something the American Immigration Lawyers Association finds worrisome enough that it’s been lobbying for more consular oversight. In the meantime, attorney Sabagh says, foreigners often find themselves caught in a peculiar logical loop: “They can just keep saying, ‘No, because I already said no.’”

Finally, in March 2005, after three years of stops and starts — as Christi’s case was shuttled from Cairo, to Virginia, to a Minnesota storage facility, and, at last, to Athens, Greece, where it sat untouched for more than a year — a letter arrived at the Kramer home. It was prefaced by a terse note from their lawyer, Kathy Zehr: “Will provoke anger.” Inside was the fruit of their latest appeal. After sifting through all the documentation, the Board of Immigration Appeals had asked the Department of Homeland Security to explain why the case had been denied. In its defense, the highest-ranking consular official in Athens, Leigh Colitre, had sent a printout of e-mails between the Cairo consulate, the appeals folks in Athens, and their stateside counterparts. Presumably, Colitre didn’t realize he’s not supposed to share intra-governmental e-mails; a spokesperson says it’s definitely not part of protocol.

Dave Kramer read the memos with one hand on his forehead. Surprise wedding … dumped her … trafficking … Had they gotten Christi’s case mixed up with someone else’s?

“It never would have occurred to us that this could be said about people like us,” Dave says in his living room, the sheaf of memos on the coffee table before him. Carol still hasn’t been able to bring herself to read them. “They said we sold her,” she says. “When somebody says something like that about your child — to think that you could do something like that is just … ” She shakes her head.

Even taking the consulate’s impressions of Christi’s mental abilities into consideration, the depiction of the Kramers as modern-day slave traders is pretty absurd. After all, the logical leaps that consular officials took to fill in the holes in Christi’s story — Christi must have been tricked into marriage by her parents; money must have changed hands — are baseless. Yet what’s outrageous isn’t just that these bizarre criminal accusations were made in the first place. What’s just as baffling is that no one at the consulate thought to question them. That lapse says much about immigration services’ state of mind today: In their desire to clear their plates of yet another troublesome application, the consular officials managed to convince themselves that their astonishing theory was not only plausible, but true.

Dave Kramer read those memos with horror. And he realized, three years too late, that they’d never stood a chance. He was tired of playing by the book. So he took Christi’s case to Senator Arlen Specter’s office. A Specter staffer made some well-placed phone calls — and like magic, the spousal petition was suddenly, and anticlimactically, approved. “That’s what it takes to resolve these cases,” says immigration attorney Sabagh. “It often boils down to how much money you spend or who you know.” In Christi and Demy’s case, it took both.

Yes, all of us here feel very strongly about the case and I know that in this message I’ve added my opinions of the factual events to the telling. That doesn’t make the facts any less true, or the marriage any less fraudulent. Stephanie.

— Cairo consulate visa chief Kronenburg, signing off her internal memo

WITH A FEW MORE ROUNDS of paperwork and a bit of luck, Demy could be back in the States as soon as this summer — although attorney Zehr says it’s still an uphill battle. “We’re about halfway there,” she says. Adding to her frustration is the irony of the timing of Demy’s return. His five-year exclusion period, which began when he was detained at JFK, comes to an end this November. If the Kramers had simply waited and done nothing, the outcome might have worked out exactly the same.

Christi’s been to Egypt nine times over the past four years. This past March, during her most recent trip, I spoke to her while she and Demy were on an evening stroll. Christi’s words were startlingly fluid as she recounted how, days earlier, they’d celebrated their fourth anniversary: “We went out for Egyptian pizza. It’s delicious, very good,” she chirped. “Right now we’re out walking the streets, and we’re just talking, and we might go get ice cream later.” Christi was so relaxed in Demy’s presence that I could hardly believe I was speaking with the same nervous wreck I’d met in Lititz. Cairo consul general Kaestner was right: Love is a funny thing. And although Christi and Demy’s pairing might not look like a match made in heaven, it may be just that.

But back in downtown Lititz, over lunch at the General Sutter Inn with her parents, Christi is a ball of anxiety as she picks at her tuna wrap. “When Demy does come back, what do you imagine your lives to be like?” I ask her.

Christi freezes. “I’m hoping Demy will be here soon,” she says flatly.

“But do you imagine what your life will be like here, together?” I persist. “Where you’re going to live? If you want children?”

“Um. I didn’t get that far yet,” she replies, and her parents laugh in unison. Dave explains, “There’s a condominium complex near here, where she always says they’re going to live. And we’ve talked about children and all that stuff,” he adds tenderly to Christi.

Christi flushes, stammers: “Well, not much, maybe once or twice.”

“Ah-hah.” Dave chuckles. They’re in familiar territory now. “And how many legs does a horse have?”

Christi knows the answer to this one. “Four,” she snaps.