For a while, I was a Consul issuing such visas for the US in a poor country. It was an unforgettable experience. People needed visas to enter the US to study, invest, receive training, transfer to a related company, transit to another country, be a part of a sports team or an entertainment group, do temporary work, and most of all visit for pleasure, business or a combination of both.
Some were savvy or had past experience. They gave crisp replies, presented relevant data or documents. Most had no idea and came with vacuous dreams or half-baked ideas. When they came for an ‘interview,’ they possibly expected a leisurely chat. They were taken aback to talk to a grim-faced interviewer, standing, through a thick plate of glass. They were discomfited by the direct, brusque style of the consular officer, eager to get it over in two minutes or less.
Many had curious assumptions about the procedure. Some assumed that the result depended on the consular officer or his mood. If rejected by one, they wished to try their luck with another officer or even another consulate, overlooking that all officers go by the same guidelines. A rejection was marked on the passport and the next officer would check the record. Some went to the length of getting a new passport, but the centralized record still showed the earlier rejection. Then there were the gullibles who trusted con artists among travel agents who promised fast processing and good results.
I sometimes felt sorry for the people who applied. They paid a lot for their applications to be processed, not to mention the huge time and effort they devoted to the act. Even when they got the visa, they often felt ill treated. Those who did not, were often mystified – a reason they wanted to try their luck again, essentially wasting their labor and money. No question that among the rejected were some who deserved a visa, who could not articulate their case quickly and well, and were shunted cavalierly aside.
I was, of course, on the other side, in the role of what ex-president George Bush called “the decider.” I sat on a high stool, on the other side of a thick glass divider, settling in minutes the fate of an applicant. I felt humble and uncomfortable in that role, knowing what I did not know about the person standing before me in hope and trepidation, and pretending to a certainty about my decision that I did not feel.
It did not help ease my discomfort that the other consular officers I knew were quite comfortable taking swift decisions and invincibly certain that their decisions were perfect. Most seemed to think the entire world was trying to gatecrash into the US, and it fell to them to resist those barbarians. Poorer people, which meant most people from poorer countries, they believed would lie, cheat and dissemble to enter the US and, once in, would never leave. They should keep saying No until they encountered the rare case where they had to say Yes.
The US Congress had laid the basis of that reaction when it decreed that anyone who applied for a nonimmigrant visa would be assumed to be an intending immigrant. The arrogant decree presumes the US to be the El Dorado where everyone in the world is trying to trespass. If a Japanese says he wants to see Disneyland or a cancer-stricken Peruvian to consult Sloan-Kettering, the presumption a US consul should start with is that he or she is feigning that interest to get into Los Angeles or New York – and stay there.
With this perverse presumption, if you want a nonimmigrant visa to the US you must prove what is impossible to prove: the negative proposition that one has no intention to stay on in the US. It is expressed of course in more plausible-sounding words: you must demonstrate links that will compel your return to your home country. It is in fact the basis on which a vast number of applications are denied.
Yet one has only to ponder the criterion for a moment to realize how laughable it is. What links can compel a return of the native? A wife and children, followed by old parents and siblings, seem most probable. Wrong. Thousands from poor countries live in exile for years; they feel they do better for their loved one by sending them money from abroad, rather than starve with them at home. A longing for one’s relatives, community or homeland may be real, but are hardly compelling, given the prospect of penury or violence.
If social circumstances are not compelling, far less are the economic circumstances. An executive in Chandigarh can earn more as a clerk in Chicago, a nurse in Colombo can do better as domestic caregiver in Columbus. A decent job in homeland is no incentive for a hurried return. A large bank balance is easily faked; short loans from friends and relations are easily obtained. A large house does not mean the owner will return to it; it can be easily sold in absentia and the money transmitted abroad. The compelling circumstances consuls delve into, the sheaves of documents they collect as evidence of domestic ties are no more than a joke, ridiculous make-work to display consular diligence rather than a reliable indicator of who will return home after a US visit.
Fortunately, issuing visas was a small and very temporary part of my work. It remains a telling reminder of how a country, especially a rich and powerful country, can remain oblivious to social and cultural aspects of other countries. In the process, it continues with a system that neither serves its purposes nor creates friends or friendly repercussions abroad.