Gary Demello planned to fly to India with his fiancée, Kanika Bhatnagar, so he could officially ask her family for her hand in marriage. They wanted to be married in a big ceremony next year, surrounded by family and friends.
But then Donald Trump's executive orders on immigration came out. Chaos erupted at airports. People with long-term residency were barred from reentering the United States.
Rumors began to circulate within the Indian community that even those with the competitive, high-skilled worker visa H-1B – like Bhatnagar – weren’t safe from potential crackdown.
A leaked draft of an executive order shows the Trump administration wants to again study whether Asian immigrants working in the technology sector were taking jobs away from natural-born Americans (plenty of existing research says they don’t), and a bill proposed in Congress aims to increase requirements for applying to the already competitive lottery system for receiving the H-1B.
Demello started getting nervous. He’s from India too, but was naturalized in 2008. He consulted some 15 lawyers about the possibility that if the two returned to India to see their families, Bhatnagar would not be allowed back into America. Many told the two to just stay put because nobody knows what could happen on a moment’s notice. The only guarantee that they would not be separated was if they expedited their marriage.
All this weighed heavy on Demello’s mind when he sat down to get his beard trimmed at Steller Hair Company in northeast Minneapolis about a week ago. Owner Katie Steller asked him how he was doing, and why he seemed so distraught.
Demello spilled his troubles. He and his fiancée just had to rush into what was supposed to be the most important day of their lives. A friend of his, Jess Gullikson, had graciously offered to help set up a small backyard ceremony with a couple witnesses so they could have something, but it wasn’t Bhatnagar's dream wedding.
Steller put down her scissors and told Demello they weren’t going to do that. Steller herself would throw them a real wedding in her salon on Sunday.
The stylist says she doesn’t want to become mired in politics, but news of the Muslim ban, moratorium on refugees, and people fleeing to Canada through Minnesota has been impossible to avoid. When the opportunity arose to put forth some good in the world at a time when much of the country is fearful, she leapt to take it.
“I feel like there are so many opinions out there, I just want to know the facts and how it’s affecting my people, and do something about it instead of just saying, ‘Fuck the government,’” Steller says. “He was just so passionate about the fact that he couldn’t have her leave. He just had to marry her.”
Steller described the couple’s situation on Facebook, and soon her connections in the Minneapolis business community were lining up to contribute to the wedding.
Fulton Brewery would donate beverages; JonnyPops and Pizza Nea the food. Photographer Athena Feldshon and her videographer fiancé Thomas Hays would document. Jeweler Kelsey Lee-Karol would make the rings. An anonymous donor set up a live video feed for family in India to watch the ceremony. Nora McInerny, author of It’s Okay to Laugh, a mega-popular memoir about her husband’s fight with brain cancer, would officiate.
McInerny, who says she just “really, really loves weddings,” recalls that as her husband was dying, her sister planned theirs from top to bottom for them.
“I know how it feels to have people sort of come gather around you when you’re in a really stressful situation and create something out of nothing. We were not facing an immigration issue, but it was life or death,” McInerny says. “There’s a similarity in that feeling of being in love with somebody, and having an uncontrollable, external force that is working against you.”
On Friday, Demello and Bhatnagar sat down with a Minneapolis attorney who settled some of their fears that changes to the H-1B visa would come without notice, and advised them to avoid leaving the country for the foreseeable future.
They were told that once they file their proof of marriage, they could begin the process of getting Bhatnagar a green card, or she may be put on temporary resident status. It could be years, and thousands of dollars, before she could become a citizen. Demello says he doesn’t mind.
“Look, I just had to make it beautiful for [Bhatnagar]. When Katie offered her venue as a place where we could get married, I literally was in tears,” Demello says. “I did my own research, trying to figure out why [Steller] would do this for people, and the best I can gather is she’s a saint. Or she’s way beyond my level of thinking. She’s some being that I cannot be. We’re just really, really surprised and shocked at the community in Minneapolis that’s gathered around her to support people that they don’t even know.”
Bhatnagar and Demello were married at Steller Hair Company on Sunday afternoon. They had some 20 friends in attendance, as well as Demello’s eight-year-old son.
“We’re really excited for the wedding and very happy, and we’re so humble that everybody has come together and they’re doing so much,” says Bhatnagar. “I cannot thank everybody enough for what they’re doing. It’s so amazing that everyone has come together as a community, and I feel so honored to be a part of that.”