Saturday, December 22, 2007

22 December 2007: Visa

We had been warned it could take nine months. It turned out to be seven and a half.

Yes, that's right, we (more specifically, I) have finally been given a visa to move to the USA. It wasn't easy, it wasn't fun and it wasn't something I'd ever recommend. But it's done, and as we reflect on the process, it's worth running through a few things we learned along the way in case anyone reading this blog wants to get a marriage visa to move to the US.

The process began in May when we started considering the possibility of moving. We investigated the process from the US Embassy website and realised it was a multi-stage process, the first of which was mainly to do with proving that Gloria was a US citizen. That's why we have passports, you may think. You'd be wrong. For the US Visa and Immigration service, we had to fill in a whole bunch of forms and wait two months for them to even look at it all. Eventually they said ok, we agree Gloria is a US citizen and is allowed to sponsor a spouse.

Then they turned their attention to me. We had to fill in another bunch of forms but also we had to get a whole series of other pieces of information, most of which we had in our possession (long-form birth certificate, for instance) but one of which we didn't (police check from sometime in the last twelve months). Had we known in advance we needed one, I'd have gone to the Police Station and asked them for one some time before, since it takes 40 days for one to arrive. In addition, they asked for Gloria's "most recent tax return", which (since the IRS were insisting on making me apply for a US tax number simply because I was married to a US citizen) was the 2005 return rather than the 2006 return, which was still in process. We phoned the £1.20 per minute helpline, who responded "you need to email instead." We emailed, asking whether they meant us to bring the 2005 tax return or the as-yet-not-processed 2006 return. response: Thank you for your email enquiry. Unfortunately we can only accept the most recent tax return. Well, that clears that up then. Anyway, eventually we got all of this documentation together and so filled in more forms and said "we have everything you've asked, please can we have an interview now?"

In the meantime I made an appointment for, and attended, a medical where I had to pay a lot of money for a Harley Street doctor to do a five-minute examination and do a chest X-ray showing I didn't have TB. My local GP could have done all of that, but the US Embassy don't recognise the NHS as a valid medical practice. And let's not even talk about the blood tests I had to get in order to prove that I didn't need vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella because I'd had all three diseases. Anyway, after a good bit of hassle, they decided I was clean and so another hoop was successfully jumped through.

The Embassy wrote back. Interview date 9 October. Please arrange for a medical interview. Well, done that already. So we carefully got all the documents in order, headed to London, waited in line for our "8.30 appointment" (ha ha) in the pouring rain and eventually made it inside, took a ticket, waited two hours and eventually got called for our interview. Well, not really an interview as they never asked us anything other than "please give us the next document." It was much more like going to a bank teller window than an interview. But anyway, they told us that as all our income is UK earned, and the US Immigration service don't recognise income earned outside of the US (which is funny, because the US tax people certainly do recognise foreign earned income since Gloria has to pay tax on it) and as such we were under the poverty line and as such invalid for a marriage visa. The lady said we needed at least seventeen and a half thousand dollars in a US bank in order to meet this requirement, and thus we'd need a joint sponsor who could show they had seventeen and a half thousand dollars in a US account. Message is clear: only rich people are allowed to marry foreigners. Please go and sit down, the lady said, and we'll call you back later to let you know the decision.

Waited another hour or so, then called back to the desk where we were told our application for the visa had been suspended because (1) we had no money (actually, we had not earned US dollars, we had earned plenty of pounds sterling over the last twelve months) and thus we needed a joint sponsor who could show fifty thousand dollars of US savings. Fifty thousand. Not seventeen, we asked? No, fifty thousand, five-zero. And (2) we had provided no evidence of a completed 2006 tax return. It's in process as they're making me apply for a tax number. It's October, the lady said, taxes are filed by April so it has to have been processed by now. Essentially the message was "you're lying". In order to get the visa, she continued, you need to provide a completed 2006 tax return in addition to the joint sponsor. Now please take your chest X-ray photo and go away. (Why did they have my chest x-ray and why were they giving it to me now? I'd paid for it, I guess. Maybe I'll hang it on the wall.)

Gloria was in tears by this point. It's stressful enough to have to go through this long, largely pointless process but to be accused of lying by a rude US government employee who clearly would much rather we didn't exist was very bad indeed, especially when the reason the taxes weren't yet sorted was because it was another branch of US government employees, the IRS tax service, who were causing the delay.

I won't detail the tax side of it, except to say that they lost things, mis-processed things and changes the rules half way through such that I ended up being both denied and accepted for a US tax number. The good old IRS also have a telephone helpline, on which they told us more than once that they had no record of Gloria's tax return for 2006 because it was in transit from one office to another, but don't worry, it'll probably just show up somewhere in a few weeks. Hm, we thought, had they said that to the lady at the US Embassy they would certainly have been accused of lying. But what can you do? All we could do was wait.

Meantime a phone call to the visa helpline to clear up the discrepancy between the joint sponsor amounts we had been told... was it seventeen thousand or fifty thousand? Which was correct? Neither are correct, the man on the expensive phone line said, the joint sponsor just has to make up the shortfall in US funds to get the total up to seventeen thousand. Sheesh. Three different stories from three different people. Best bet, we thought, is to make sure all three situations were covered, including topping up our US bank account to the seventeen thousand amount and printing off a statement proving it.

Still nothing from the US tax people though, so off we went on holiday to Italy, and back we came to find still nothing. All this for an almost-zero tax return: actually, due to some bizarre tax rule related to long-distance telephone accounts, the IRS actually owed Gloria thirty dollars. And guess what? One chilly Saturday afternoon in November, thirty dollars was deposited from the IRS into our US bank account. Nothing in the mail of course, but now we had proof: they had found the tax return and processed it. Now we were allowed to re-enter the visa process!

Of course, it's one thing knowing that the IRS has processed your taxes, it's quite another to prove it. From what we could tell, we now had to print out yet another form, fax it to an office in Austin, Texas, have them mail the tax return printout to someone in Gloria's family, and have them courier it over as quickly as possible. Except - well, we had discovered in our dealings with the US Embassy in London that they had a small IRS office there. We knew they didn't give tax advice or help with filling out the hugely-complex US tax forms, but perhaps they were linked up to the main computer and thus could provide the printout we needed? Gloria walked in to the Embassy (as a US citizen!) and asked. Yes, said a helpful lady, I'll do it for you right now.

Right now? For free? Were things finally starting to accelerate for us?

So with tax printouts and joint sponsor forms completed, we sent it all off to the US Embassy by SMS courier (despite the fact I was working in London and could easily have dropped it all in by hand - not allowed to do that!) and waited. Three to five days, we'd been told. That's if it's successful. (If I had been denied, incidentally, it would have been very difficult for me to ever enter the US as I'd never be allowed to do the I-94 visa waiver form that you normally do when you visit the US on holiday - instead I'd have to apply for a temporary visa each time, and given I'd been denied a visa before, the chances are I'd never be allowed to enter the US. They hadn't told us that when the process began. But I digress).

The following Wednesday we got a text message (sent the previous day, but hey SMS are a courier with a fine reputation. Cough.) saying "please stay in all day tomorrow (ie today by the time I received the message), the courier will deliver your documents between 6am and 6pm." I was in London of course, but luckily Gloria was in. The courier arrived and initially refused to hand over the package ("I need proof of ID for Duncan." "You mean his passport?" "Yes." "It's in that package you have in your hand, idiot.") but eventually was convinced to do so. Opened the package and there it was, my passport with a visa in it, a long small-print letter and an A4 sized beige envelope full of stuff. Woo-hoo!

Opening the pretty-much unmarked envelope to see what was inside, it turned out to just be all our application forms, information etc. Then read the letter:

"Do not open the envelope. If you do, it will invalidate the visa and you will have to go to the Embassy to get a new one."


But the other funny thing (apart from there being nothing on the seal-side of the envelope saying "DO NOT OPEN" or anything helpful like that) was that there was a "personal data" sheet attached to the front of the envelope, saying stuff like my date of birth, mother's name etc. And it proudly proclaimed the following:

- Place of birth: Southampton (err, try Plymouth, like it says on my passport)
- Last place of residence: London (no, how about Southampton, the address you just mailed this package to?)
- Occupation: Student / children under 16 (where did they get that from?)

And the best bit was, since we'd now opened the envelope we weren't supposed to, we could now see all the application forms we'd filled out. And there it was: place of birth - Plymouth; place of residence - Southampton; occupation - Research Fellow in Computer Science.

So we phoned that wonderful £1.20 per minute visa helpline again. "We can't help, it's not our department." Really? Aren't you the visa department? And isn't this a visa issue? "No, it's an immigration issue." What's their phone number then? "You can't phone them." They don't have telephones? "They don't have external lines. You must email them."

Sheesh again. We emailed. No response the next day. No response the day after that. No response the day after that. What to do?

Well, the letter with the visa had said "you will need to go to the Embassy and get another one [visa]." So we took it literally and headed off to the Embassy, where you can't enter unless you have an appointment. We had no appointment, nor any means of getting one, nor any means of asking anyone how we get one. Went at 10.10am. Almost nobody queueing. We realised they tell everyone they have an 8.30 appointment just to get them all there early. Come at 10.10 and there's nobody there. Up we went to the lady at the entrance to the security area.

"When's your appointment for?"
We don't have one. Here's the situation: opened the package by mistake and a lot of the data is wrong. We phoned and emailed but have no response, and we need to get this stuff rectified. it said to go to the Embassy, so here we are.
"Lots of people open the envelope, it happens often."
(Well, why not mark it "do not open" across the seal?)
Hold on a minute," she continued, pulling out her mobile phone and calling someone inside the building.
"They opened the envelope, but also some of the personal data is wrong. They want to drop it off now to be corrected and we should allow it, because it's the Embassy's fault that the data is wrong."

It's the Embassy's fault? Did she really say that? Yes, she did.

"OK," she said to us, "Go through security, don't take a number, don't wait to be called, just go straight to desk thirteen."

In we went. Straight to desk thirteen. Nobody there. A man in the office behind saw us and came over. We explained the situation, gave the correct data for the sheet and even showed him the correct data we'd filled out on our forms.

"Not sure how long it will take," he said, being very non-committal as to whether he was talking minutes, hours, days or weeks. We'd learned that you simply can't tell even those kinds of scales with this process. "Do you want to wait a bit, just in case they can release it quickly?"

So we waited. Fifteen minutes later, perhaps less, we were summoned back to the desk.

"There's the new visa," he said, showing us a shiny new visa on the inside of my passport. "The old one has been cancelled. He flicked over a page and showed us the previous visa, now stamped all over with the words "CANCELLED WITHOUT PREJUDICE".

He gave us the new, sealed envelope and correct data sheet, the passport, and another copy of the letter saying "don't open the envelope" (among other things). He also went through the letter with us, explaining it point by point in a manner that was very helpful given that the language used is often very ambiguous. He smiled, was polite and actually seemed like he wanted to help.

Were we honestly in the same building as in October when we'd been told conflicting stories about what we had to provide and had left in tears because of the rudeness of the staff and the implied accusations of not filing taxes? Were we dreaming?

No we weren't, because as I write this I have the visa and unopened envelope sitting beside me on the floor. The other thing we saw in the letter just a couple of days ago was a sentence buried in the middle of some small print telling us to bring the chest X-ray photograph with us on the plane to show to the immigration officer when we land. Lucky we didn't throw that away. Funny how nobody had told us at any stage that we need to keep that.

But the best bit of the letter is the start of it. It reads, and I jest not:

We are pleased you intend to immigrate to the United States.

They're pleased? They hide it very, very well.

Postscript: Some twelve days after emailing the immigration department, we still have not received a response. Luckily it doesn't matter any more.