I am not a Muslim. I am not a national of the seven countries banned from entering the United States. But I know the feeling of suddenly not being able to get back home.
It was 2009. By that time, I had lived in the US for almost two years on my L1 work visa. And so did my wife and my at-the-time six years old son. My daughter was born a US citizen just five months ago. A year before that we were among a few lucky winners of the diversity lottery and decided to do the consular processing. Instead of filing for adjustment of status while in the states, you basically go back to your home country and visit the embassy to get the immigration visa. You then reenter the US in the new status. The closest embassy that handled immigration cases for Belarus nationals was in Warsaw, Poland. We figured we would first go back to Belarus and do all the required paperwork there, then stop for a few days in Warsaw to get the new visas, and then fly back to the states right from there.
It was March. I took a week off from work, my son took a week off from school, and off we went. Happy to see our parents and our families. Happy to be on the road together. Looking forward to a new chapter in our lives.
At the embassy, we handed our documents to the clerk collecting everybody’s paperwork before the appointment with the consul. The lady carefully looked over everything and said we had two problems.
First, there was a small problem. My wife was married before and so she had two previous last names. We only had proof of no criminal records in the home country in her last two names, not her maiden name.
Then, there was a real problem. Since we were both in IT, the lady said, we would need to wait for a special processing that could take about two months.
It took a moment to sink in. If we didn’t get our immigration visas that day, we couldn’t continue our journey to the states. Our L1/L2 were only one year long and had long expired. It was perfectly legal to remain in the states for as long as my L1 petition was valid, but once we crossed the border, we all needed a valid visa to reenter. I asked if I could get my L1 visa renewed instead, but was advised against it. Not to hurt my immigration case, I was told
I remember how I felt. Helpless. Empty. Like my life froze. My home was across the ocean. A little townhouse we were renting. Our cars. My job. My son’s first grade. One flight away and yet completely unreachable.
In all fairness, we wouldn’t need to go back to a war- or terror-torn country. I could even continue to work remotely. Our parents were alive and well and would be happy to accommodate us while we would look for our own temporary place. We traveled together as a family with our five months old daughter so we wouldn’t be separated either. The worst thing that could happen was my son’s school but even that we would have probably figured out. And yet I felt empty, helpless, upset, and very, very, very sad.
We waited for more than two hours before it was our turn to talk to the consul. I could not predict what would happen next.
The consul started the interview. I remember our small talk. She was smiling and was very polite and so were we. She said she was happy to see green card applicants who had their lives together and knew what and why they were doing. We smiled back and said “well, yes, US is our home now. We live our lives there.”
“You guys have two problems”, she said. We nodded.
“How old were you when you married for the first time?”, the consul asked my wife. “21”, Maryna replied.
“Alright”, she said. “You probably were too young to have any encounters with the law at the time, right?”. We smiled and confirmed the consul’s very valid assumption. “Not a problem then”, the consul smiled.
“The next problem, however, is more serious”, she said. “Yes, we know, we were told”, we replied.
At this time, I thought I knew what would follow. A very polite statement that she was very sorry but that we would need to wait for about two months to get the required clearance.
“You guys don’t build software for nuclear plants, do you? Don’t work on military systems?”. I don’t think I knew where she was going with this. “No, of course not. We build web apps. You know, hotel room bookings, health insurance quotes, stuff like that”.
“Alright”, the consul smiled. “I can’t give you your green card today, though”.
I probably said “I know”… “But I will be happy to give it to you tomorrow. Come back in the afternoon. Congratulations!”.
And just like that we were cleared. By a human who had the authority and was not afraid to use it. There are rules, and regulations, and policies, and executive orders. And then there are humans.
Be a human.