27 January 2009

The Visa Odyssey

Before we went to India, I mentioned our issues with getting my MIL a visa interview appointment (getting one seemed like finding hens’ teeth!). Obviously, since she came back with us, everything worked out—but I thought I’d describe our experience since it may be of some use to someone. For myself, it was a fascinating experience, being put through the wringer of US government bureaucracy and seeing things from both sides: the American and the Indian perspective.

First of all, it’s not that easy to simply apply to sponsor a family member’s visitor visa. We spent many months preparing as thoroughly as we possibly could because we didn’t want anything to go wrong and for the application fee to be wasted. The absolute best resource for us as we prepared was a website called ImmiHelp. There are information pages, lists of what you might need, and forums where you can ask questions.

The scariest thing ahead of time was that everything that we read and heard indicated that it is next to impossible for a widow who owns very little property, has no job, and whose children are all married (and only son is in the US). That’s because the government considers that she would be more likely to come here and not go back at the end of her allowed stay.

We had to save up enough money in the bank to prove that we could support her; get letters from our employers proving that we actually have jobs; copies of tax returns for the past couple years; write invitation letters to her and letters to the consulate explaining the reason for her visit and why she would go back to India after her trip; get an invitation letter from the university for V’s PhD graduation; copies of our passports, birth certificates, etc. Mummy had to get proof of all her property and basically everything she owns; photos of her with her kids and grandkids in India (to prove that she has a reason to go back); and her own passport and other documents. All the materials we gathered together filled one big folder. We organized everything with tabs so that in the interview, Mummy would be able to turn to the correct item when the interview officer asked for it without making them impatient.

The process for getting a visa interview requires that you fill out a form at the embassy’s website and get an interview time online. Since we have faster and more available internet here, we took turns at all times of the day and night—for literally months—to get an interview time. Only a few interview slots are released at a time, and they go within seconds because there are so many other people who are trying to get appointments. It was even harder because we wanted a Hindi interview, not an English one, and those are in very high demand.

Finally it was coming close to the time when we were going to be going to India ourselves. We planned to bring Mummy back with us on our way back so that she wouldn’t have to fly alone to the US on her first trip here. We got more and more frantic about getting a Hindi interview, and finally I threw up my hands and started looking for English interviews instead. Mummy had been taking English tutoring anyway, so we just crossed our fingers and hoped that she’d be able to speak and understand it well enough to get through the interview. I was starting to lose hope of getting even an English interview when one day there was one available! My heart almost pounded out of my chest, I was so excited.

With Mummy’s interview appointment papers in hand, we were off to India! For many days before her appointment, we quizzed her with all the possible questions the interview officer might ask. We did drills in finding certain documents fast enough when we asked for them. We coached her to smile, be confident, and make sure to give our cover letter, the graduation invitation, and the email of support from our congressman’s office first thing before anything else. Still, we were very nervous about her chances of getting the visa.

The morning of the interview we all got up early and had breakfast and called a driver to take us to the embassy. Mummy dressed very carefully in a beautiful ecru sari with floral embroidery and her best pearl jewelry. We planned to take her to the gate and sit and wait for her until she was done. My husband told me to bring my US passport, just in case, so I did.

That was the best piece of luck of the whole day, I think. As Mummy was waiting in the very long line just to get inside the embassy, I decided to see if I’d be allowed to use the embassy ladies’ room. With my US passport, I was able to go right on in with no waiting and then come back out afterward. This was encouraging—we didn’t know that it would be that easy for me to go in too. So we asked at the window and it turned out that since I am a US citizen, I was allowed to accompany Mummy in to the embassy. Very sternly, the attendant at the window said, “yes, but you can’t go into her interview!” Well, then, that’s better than nothing, I thought.

So into the embassy Mummy and I went. It was extremely busy and crowded with very long lines. I decided that it would be better and less tiring for her if she could sit down while I stood in line for her. So first I stood in the line for fingerprinting for about an hour, calling her over when it was her turn. As we waited, I decided to ask if any Hindi translators were available—but no such luck. I kept giving Mummy little pep talks and trying to keep her from getting too nervous. Of course as the only white person standing in line, I attracted a certain amount of attention, but I’m pretty used to that by now so I made myself comfortable for the long wait.

Next we had to go stand in the incredibly long line to wait to be called to the interview window. This part was pretty fun for me: first of all, I was able to watch people as they went up for their interviews, and listen in to see how things went. There were only two windows open out of the 14 or so that were actually there. It looked like most people were getting their visas, which made me feel a little better. Another thing that was fun about the wait was the atmosphere: everyone was a bit nervous, but with a jolly sort of camaraderie too. Sort of like, “here we all are in this horribly long line, but we’ll make the best of it together and chat with each other and make it fun.” I met a few friendly people in line, some of whom had more experience with these interviews, and so I was able to talk about our situation with them and get their tips or advice. We also watched the people who went to the interview window and speculated about what they were doing right or wrong, or whether they’d get their visas or not. For entertainment, there was also a large screen TV next to the line showing the India-Australia cricket test match that was going on at that time. I probably saw the Saif Ali Khan / Shah Rukh Khan “I miss you so much it hurts” cell phone commercial 20 times (I love that commercial though, dork that I am). Every once in a while, Mummy would get up from her seat and see how things were coming along, and I’d tell her to go and rest because the wait would still be more than an hour.

Another interview window opened up during this time. It was window number 13. My line mates and I saw that the woman giving interviews at that window wasn’t as friendly, and seemed to be rejecting more people than at the other windows. As I got closer to the front, I prayed that I would not have to go to window 13. There were two other interview officers, and we saw that they could speak Hindi pretty well, so that was an encouraging thing to see in case Mummy got too nervous. One guy in line with me told me that I should just go up to the window with Mummy, even though I’d been told that I couldn’t do that, just to see what would happen. “What’s the worst they can do, tell you no?” So I decided to do that when it was our turn. We got to the front, and my line mates and I wished each other good luck. The best thing was that window 13 closed before it was our turn—whew, unlucky 13 was not our number!

Our turn came. I walked confidently up to the window with Mummy, where a girl about my age was to conduct the interview. She smiled at me and asked “are you here to translate, or are you just here for moral support?” My heart raced—I’d be allowed to stay during the interview!! I told her that I was just there for moral support, and showed her my passport and told her how I was related to Mummy. Then we got down to business.

Mummy slid her application form and passport through the slot in the window, and then she showed the officer the cover letter we’d written, the graduation invitation, and our congressman’s email of support. The first thing the officer said when she saw the invitation was “oh, Virginia Tech—Go Hokies!!” The last thing I expected to find all the way around the world was another Hokie!! But it turned out that she had actually been born and raised in a county not far from Virginia Tech and also not far from where I was born and raised. What luck—it was an immediate rapport-builder.

Then she got down to asking the questions to Mummy. At first I tried to just stay quiet and give moral support, but Mummy was starting to get flustered. She accidentally answered the question about “do you have any other kids” by saying “no” when in fact she has three other kids. I decided to jump in and help. I reminded Mummy of the answers when she was flustered, and then I started to answer some of the questions myself when it seemed like that would make things easier. The interview officer started to ask me questions too, such as where I work, what I do, what my husband does, etc.

The questions she asked (that I can remember) were:

1. Where will you be staying in the US?
2. How long do you plan to stay there?
3. How will you pay for your trip?
4. How many other children do you have besides your son?
5. Where do they live?
6. What do they do?
7. What is your marital status?
8. How long has it been since your husband died?
9. What does your son do? Does he work anywhere else besides being a student?
10. What does your daughter in law do?

Once or twice the interview officer left the window with the documents and then came back. On the last time she did this, she came back and said, “Congratulations, your passport with the visa will be delivered to your home address.” Just like that! We got our papers back, and I started to jump up and down and squeal and hug Mummy! Everyone else in the waiting area probably thought I was pagal (nuts). We were so happy! We went outside in a daze, and I ran down the sidewalk to my husband and didi, whooping that we did it! We did it! I was so happy that I gave all the change and smaller bills in my purse to some small children on the sidewalk.

When the visa came, it was for a 10-year multiple entry visa. How thrilling! It’s definitely true that much of our success was pure luck, but we were also so well-prepared that it made things much easier. It’s been so nice having Mummy here for a long visit, and it’s great to know that she’ll also be able to come back any time she wants in the next 10 years.


Raag said...

I can relate to many things you said. Some of our experiences.

1. Hindi appointment is next to impossible.

2. My parents told me after the interview that visa officers in their case were also impressed by the name of Virginia Tech.

3. We did not have such difficult preparation, as my Mom is an Government employee and they have a house, and so it was easier to show that she would go back. But we did send them the papers in a folder with all the documents clearly marked in "post it" notes.

4. Have a great time with your MIL, and show her the bay area, if you can. We will host you guys :).

D. Jain said...

Thanks! She is enjoying Blacksburg and the surrounding area. I don't know that we'll get out to the Bay Area this trip, but who knows! We'll let you know if we do!

കണക്കൻ said...

Thank you for this very informative post. I landed here from gorigirl's website.

My wife and I are expecting a baby and hoping that my parents can visit this summer. I am a bit nervous about the whole Visa process (which we haven't started yet). It is always good to hear success stories though.

I almost forgot I am Indian and my wife is American. So I can relate to most of the things on your blog. I guess that is enough rambling. Again, thanks for posting about your experience.

D. Jain said...

I'm glad the post was useful to you! Good luck with your parents getting a visa. It seems to be easier for people who are not widowed and who have jobs/property in India, kids who are still unmarried, etc.

One thing: they should NOT mention that you guys are having a baby, unless they are directly asked if you have kids, etc. Apparently it doesn't look good to the visa officers because they think that the visa applicant might be more likely to stay in the US to help with childcare. You can read all about this on ImmiHelp (definitely check that out, especially the forums).

IndianTies said...

Thanks for posting this info - It is always encouraging to hear that others are getting visas! It is such a nerve-racking process! My MIL's visa will need to be renewed soon. Her first visa was issued with no problem. Although now she is also a widow, so I hope that that doesn't affect it. Thankfully she does own property and has another son & grandsons in India (hopefully they see that as reason enough to go back!)

D. Jain said...

Apparently it's easier to get the visa renewed if you've gotten the visa once, gone to the US, and come back the way you promised to. And yes, it also helps that she has a son still in India. Good luck!

Gori Girl said...

Huh. We didn't directly file for my inlaws' visas - Aditya's older brother took care of that - but I don't think anyone in the family was near as worried about it as you guys were. Maybe it's because they still have a daughter in India, and they own a house - also, they could go to the English interviews without a problem.

കണക്കൻ said...

My mom is a principal of a school and my Dad is retired these days. I thought we can apply for the Visa before my mom retires in March. But apparently since she is an employee of the state to get a passport she has to get a waiver from the state government which with all the red tape bureaucracy is taking forever. Ugh...

My brother is in India and they have a house. Also my grandmother is still in India. I am hoping that all this can help.

Other than the fact that this way they get spend some time with their grand daughter, we were also hoping that she will pick up more of Malayalam when they are here. Also I am not entirely sure why in the world the US government will think that grandparents helping out with the child care is a bad thing. I wonder how that bizarre notion developed.

D. Jain said...

I'll bet all of that can help...those sound like really positive factors!

From what I have read on ImmiHelp, grandparents staying and helping with childcare is considered to be taking a job away from an American who might otherwise be providing childcare. Of course that's ridiculous, but they're just trying to make sure that people who come here on tourist visas do not overstay their visas and do not work while they are here.

Yeah Gori, we just had several factors possibly working against us, so we were just more worried about it than other people might have been. But at least our experience turned out positive in the end! That should be encouraging for others.

Food said...

And if you had said, "Go Blue Devils", your MIL might have been issued the visa stat. It was a wonderful ending to a great story

Go Blue Devils!!!

Another Kiran In NYC said...

My very first visit to your blog.

As an Indian woman married to an American Man, it is always interesting to see the other side of a similar equation.

I laughed out loud when I came to the part of the Visa Officer having a connection with Virginia Tech. In 1985 ... yes a long time ago... when I applied to come to the US for Grad school, there were relatively few students applying for Visas. My own trip to the US consulate in Mumbai was nerve wracking because there were few people I knew to ask about the procedure. I was armed with my passport and admission and scholarship offer letter from the University I was going to attend. That was it. No other paperwork. I didnt know to get any paperwork together. I got to the interview room only to find business people and tourists armed with folders full of documentation. Almost no students seem to have applied that day. That day every single one of the applicants was being rejected for whatever reason. Not feeling very confident at all, I slipped my admission letter and passport through the window when my turn came. The visa officer looked at it, whistled and said...GOOOOO XYZ!!!!! I went to school there! okay I am going to give you some tips about dealing with the crazy cold conditions there. Do you have a place to stay? If not I am going to suggest where you should look for housing if you dont want to stay on campus. Oh and the one and only oriental store is on XYZ boulevard. He then spent the next 20 mins telling me all about where I was going to be living! I am not sure if in all of this chatter he even glanced at the scholarship letter that detailed how I was going to support myself. I went back at 4 pm to pick up my stamped visa and that was the begining of my American odyssey.

A few years later when my parents came to attend my wedding I think the procedure was almost painless for them. I think we just sent them a letter from our employers saying that we were employed. I dont think we even detailed how much money we were making. They gave my parents a 10 year multiple entry visa without any questions being asked. That visa has been renewed atleast once because it has been 20 years since we were married and my parents used to visit every other year.

Times have certainly changed!

D. Jain said...

Times really have changed! That's so interesting to read about your experiences. It's funny how those little coincidences happen (same university, etc).

We know other Indian students here whose parents weren't able to get visas. One woman's mother wasn't even given a visa when she was about to have a baby. I am not sure when things got so much more strict...I guess a lot more people are trying to come here now.