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Springfield couple stuck in Bulgaria with adopted daughter amid new U.S. COVID-19 visa policy

Published: Oct. 25, 2021 at 10:16 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - A Springfield couple adopting a girl from Bulgaria is now stuck overseas following a recent change to U.S. immigrant visa applications.

As of the start of October, immigrant visa applicants must be fully vaccinated from COVID-19.

Joe and Katie Harman said their adoption journey started two years ago. After all this time, they expected to finally be able to quickly bring their 14-year-old daughter home. The couple has spent the last several months preparing and envisioning a new life with their daughter.

“We spent all summer communicating with her and learning about her and you know, preparing a room for her at home,” Katie Harman said. “And basically, you know, [we were] waiting to get the okay to come here. Bags are packed, were making plans for how we’re going to spend her first Halloween in the United States and doing all of these things.”

But the couple said all of the excitement came to an abrupt halt when they received an unexpected email hours before they were headed to the airport to begin their journey to Bulgaria.

“All the excitement turned into chaos, just like right before we left,” Kati Harman said. “So it was high emotions all over the place, I guess.”

Their daughter got her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine when they arrived and gained custody, but the new U.S. policy now requires her to be fully vaccinated before arriving in the states. The Harmans said they asked the physician in charge of the medical clearance for their daughter’s visa to grant an exemption based on the circumstances. The couple said the doctor did not have the authority to do so.

The daughter, Elizabeth, was scheduled to have her visa interview. The interview had been scheduled for quite some time.

“We pretty much knew on Monday that she was not going to be granted that visa like we had initially thought,” Katie said. “So the plan was we go on Monday get the visa, we fly back home on Wednesday, we’re in the country for less than a week.”

Their week-long trip has now turned into a minimum of three weeks as they wait for Elizabeth to get her second dose of the vaccine.

“We’re just asking for some reasonable support like we’re not asking for anything crazy,” Katie said. “You know, like let us take our daughter home and she can get the second vaccine there.”

While the physician in charge of the medical clearance for their daughter’s visa could not override the policy on his own, the Harmans said he told them that he did think it would be reasonable for Elizabeth to get her second dose of the vaccine in the United States.

The U.S. embassy officials told the Harmans they, unfortunately, could not grant their daughter a visa yet.

“They really asked for patience, because they didn’t know how like to deal with this,” Katie said. “But they were unable to grant us a visa because of the policy right now.”

They also told the Harmans they are the first family to be stuck in this situation.

”And he’s like you guys are basically suffering from unintended consequences of this policy,” Joe Harman said.

The couple said five other families adopting in Bulgaria are in a similar predicament. The family is not just worried about this sudden financial burden.

“We feel like our bonding time has kind of been stolen away from us,” Joe said. “This time together is supposed to be time for us to be bonding and becoming a family and you know, like, adding a 14-year-old into your life that hasn’t really had any concept of the family before. And we’re trying to establish rhythms and just show her what a family is.”

The family also said bonding has been especially difficult for Joe because he has been preoccupied with working remotely and making dozens of calls and emails to different agencies, U.S. senators, congressmen, and even the CDC for help. Katie is currently on family and medical leave at her work.

They also worry about Elizabeth’s mental health.

“I don’t want her to sink into a depression because she’s in limbo,” Joe said. “I don’t want her to just also become a flight risk.”

The Harmans said the judge thought that their daughter’s flight risk was high as long as they remained in Bulgaria, but would be reduced once in the United States.

The couple also said they worry she is being deprived of school and educational services for at least a month. They are also worried this will become a growing issue for other adopting families.

Both said they feel like the policy was poorly implemented. They also said they believe there should have been some sort of grace period for people who were already in the process of adopting.

“People in Bulgaria dream about going to the United States and America,” Katie said. “And this is kind of her first introduction into like, how the United States works. And it’s not necessarily a very good one.”

Despite their frustration with the current situation, the couple said they will not let this get in the way of plans.

“After this is over, I’m not done,” Joe said. “We’re going to adopt more kids. And I don’t care what it takes. And I hope that the things get easier, and we can knock down some barriers so that it makes it easier for people to adopt kids.”

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