Finding Love Abroad, Then Support Online for Visa Quest
Monday, October 29, 2007
This is what love has done to Wendy Brown: She's lost weight, resumed smoking and all but decided to move to the Balkans to be with her Albanian fiance. And each night, she spends hours in her cozy Baltimore apartment mingling online with strangers who are equally fixated on the same topic: getting their soul mates through the U.S. immigration system.
"We are both devastated," Brown, 38, wrote last spring on VisaJourney.com, reporting that the U.S. Embassy in Albania had denied her fiance a visa. She also posted a list of the questions the fiance was asked at his interview. "I'm going to keep fighting and fighting until we get what we both want more than anything in the world. . . . and that is to be together." Many people are frustrated with the immigration process and its long lines and opaque applications that, if misinterpreted, can send a case back to square one. Perhaps none are more ardent than the growing ranks of U.S. citizens applying for fiance and spouse visas, who say their passion is driven by a sense that their own government is fighting them and by the fear that delays or denials might spell the end of a romance.
In recent years, these American petitioners have channeled their despair into a few Web sites featuring the odd pairing of love stories and red-tape navigation for those fed up with the federal immigration agency's help line, whose representatives are trained in immigration regulations and provide scripted advice that critics say is often wrong.
VisaJourney, a site whose 35,000 members are mostly Americans with foreign fiances and spouses, is at once a celebration of love and a condemnation of bureaucracy. Members, who call themselves VJ'ers, describe meeting their beloveds in Kenyan bars, Jamaican churches, online video games. They have posted thousands of photos of smiling couples in foreign lands. Their profile pages are adorned with beating hearts, clocks counting the hours since their last meetings and such statements as "feels like eternity . . . without him."
Members also post detailed timelines with dates of approved and denied forms and interviews; moderators crunch those into graphs of average wait times at domestic visa offices and overseas embassies. They rank U.S. immigration offices with stars as if they were restaurants. They advise one another on procuring police records for an Ecuadorean fiance and how much proof of a relationship -- photos, love letters -- a hopeful British fiance should cart to an interview. (As much as he can carry, one member advised, adding "knock 'em dead.")
"Misery loves company," said Brown, a vocational rehabilitation specialist. "You're looking for any beacon of hope."
That company has grown alongside a jump in these visas: Nearly 33,000 fiance visas were issued in 2005, up from about 9,000 in 1995. Spouse visas rose to more than 16,000 from about 4,600 since 2000. Immigration officials offer no single explanation for the growth, but some observers say the Internet -- with its online dating sites, instant messaging and Web cams -- has fueled transnational relationships.
Uniting in the United States is not so easy. The petitioner files numerous forms and documents that are typically processed within six months, longer than for many other non-family visas. Next come background checks. Then the application goes to a U.S. embassy or consulate, where the fiance or spouse submits more forms and is interviewed. The process can take months or years.
VisaJourney members list a host of complaints: Those on the East Coast are enraged about what they call a recent slowdown in approval times, which they zealously track. They condemn U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' recent announcement that it was prioritizing employment and citizenship cases after a summer surge in work visa applications.
"People who aren't born-and-bred American citizens are taking precedence over American citizens. . . . The government is talking about, 'Let's legalize the illegal aliens' when you're waiting for your loved ones to get here. What happened to family first?" said Faith Keenan, 43, of Ruther Glen, Va. She applied for a visa for her Egyptian fiance four months ago. She said she thinks about her pending application "all day long. It consumes you."
Officials say that waits vary and that decisions are made with the interest of legitimate applicants and national security in mind; foreigners sometimes feign love to get visas, so officials must be diligent, said Immigration Services spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan. The government, she said, is "committed to family-based visas."
That is little consolation to the VJ'ers.