America’s Cold-War Hubris Is Messing Up My Life
Somewhere over the Atlantic in December a courteous Turkish Airlines
flight attendant handed me that rectangular blue paper that every
person headed to the U.S. at one point has to fill out.
The form is standard and designed to eliminate most of the work
customs and passport control would normally have to do. You write down
for them your flight info, the countries you visited before this
particular U.S. arrival and other information readily accessible via
air-travel manifestos and the stamp sections of your passport.
You then answer “no” to a series of questions about any fruits,
animals or disease cultures you may be carrying with you. Even if you
do have them in your baggage, those “no’s” ensure that customs will
not check them. Bizarrely, U.S. customs continues to operate on a
self-reporting system, meaning the only thing that will hold you up or
get you into trouble when arriving to a U.S. airport is honesty. (They
will ask you to step aside so that they can investigate any exotic or
banal declarations of papayas, salsa – or in my case a few years back,
mirabelles – as if they were defusing a chemical weapon.)
The State Department operates under a similar principle, which brings
me to the only section of the little blue form that irked me. Under
“Number of friends or family traveling with you,” I begrudgingly
That was not the plan.
In addition to the usual Christmas festivities, this particular trip
back to the United States was supposed to be about my family getting
to know my fiancée, who is a Georgian citizen. For some naïve and
misguided reason, we didn’t think that would be much of a problem.
Instead, we entered the strange world of U.S. State Department logic
with a smile.
If you are a foreigner traveling to the United States with no
intention of staying long-term (or even a month) then you are looking
to apply for a non-immigrant visa. Looking at the menu of
non-immigrant visas on offer for Georgian citizens, it was easy to
narrow down which ones applied to my fiancée’s particular situation,
and our particular trip – not going for work, study, etc. Just a visit
and a bit of sight-seeing.
So, we applied for the typical DS-160 Tourist Visa like any other
unsuspecting would-be visitor to the United States. Thus began a
feverous document-gathering process – verification of a $140
application-fee payment, a mugshot befitting the U.S. embassy’s
exclusive specifications, a long and detailed application and an
appointment for a face-to-face interview with a consular officer. It
should be noted that, by contrast, citizens of the U.S. and dozens of
other countries can come to Georgia visa-free as a tourist for up to
360 days. To renew the tourist visa, all one must do is leave the
country and re-enter during that 360-day period. I have been living in
Georgia since June 2009 on a series of tourist stays, none of which
have required any documentation.
We made it clear in the application that the purpose of the trip was
to visit my family, and that my family was helping to pay for the
trip. We were a bit unsure as to whether or not it was wise to
officially state that we were engaged, but we (again, naively) assumed
that the risk of being caught in a lie was far greater than the
benefit of fibbing on a few points. Plus, although the fact that we
were engaged might raise a few red flags, the purpose of the
face-to-face interview, in theory, is for the applicant and the
consular officer to iron out those details and for latter to make a
judgment call on whether this person appeared to be the type to
violate the terms of their visa.
In the end, the officer asked a few quick questions to my fiancée that
were already on the application, and then stamped the denial
form. Why? “You applied for the wrong visa. You are engaged to an
Now, there is such a thing as the K-1 “fiancée visa,” which I took a
look at, but quickly discounted as inappropriate for our particular
circumstance. According to the State Dept. website:
“The K-1 visa permits the foreign-citizen fiancé(e) to travel to the
United States and marry his or her U.S. citizen sponsor within 90 days
of arrival. The foreign-citizen will then apply for adjustment of
status to a permanent resident (LPR) with the Department of Homeland
Security’s (DHS) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).”
Now, I apologize for all of this mundane detail, but as in all
bureaucratic nightmares, that is where the devil resides. For a
variety of reasons, this K-1 visa made no sense for us because: 1.) We
did not intend to go to the U.S. for 90 days or more 2.) We did not
plan on getting married during the trip 3.) I do not live in the U.S.
and therefore could not file the paperwork from there 4.) My fiancée
and I live and work in Georgia and had no intention of immigrating.
But alas, the State Dept. operates under the assumption that anyone
who is even thinking about coming to U.S. plans to stay indefinitely,
and if they are in a serious relationship with an American, well, then
there is absolutely no doubt about their aims. The State Dept.
website’s section on visa denials betrays even greater hubris.
“Every alien shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he (sexism!)
establishes to the satisfaction of the consular officer, at the time
of application for admission, that he is entitled to a nonimmigrant
“Failure to do so will result in a refusal of a visa under INA 214(b).
The most frequent basis for such a refusal concerns the requirement
that the prospective visitor or student possess a residence abroad
he/she has no intention of abandoning. Applicants prove the existence
of such residence by demonstrating that they have ties abroad that
would compel them to leave the U.S. at the end of the temporary stay.
“Please Note: Under U.S. immigration law, American citizens may not
have any role in the non-immigrant visa application process. Visa
applicants must qualify for the visa according to their own
circumstances, not on the basis of an American sponsor’s assurance.”
In short: everyone in the world who might, for any number of reasons,
desire to come to the United States is an immigrant until proven
otherwise. There is nothing any American citizen can say to vouch for
any of these so-called tourists. We know evil-doers and gold diggers
when we see them.
In addition to not trusting me, the State Dept. also apparently does
not trust the governments of Germany, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and a
host of other countries my fiancée has worked and studied in – never
overstaying her visa in the process.
In a clear attempt to irritate me further, representatives of the
embassy’s consular service contacted over the phone claimed there was
no rule that fiancées of American citizens were ineligible for tourist
visas – although that is exactly what the officer stamping the refusal
said. Instead, the voice on the phone said that it would be “very,
very difficult” for a Georgian fiancée of an American citizen to be
granted a tourist visa, but she encouraged us to try again – starting
with a new $140 application fee. According to their website,
re-applicants stand no better chance of being accepted until their
“circumstances change considerably.”
Translation: Until she dumps me, my fiancée is barred from entering
the United States as anything other than an immigrant, but, by all
means, continue wasting your time and money trying.
In addition to this being a great disappointment for my family and I,
the whole episode disturbed me because it is indicative of a larger
trend playing out in U.S. embassies across Eastern Europe, and likely
the world. It reminded me of a semi-mandatory meeting my fellow
American students and I attended at the U.S. Consulate in St.
Petersburg at the beginning of our studies in Russia in 2007.
Apparently, although our coordinator had been ducking their calls as
much as possible, the consulate had insisted we go in for an
There at the consulate, a panel of awkward young Foreign Service guys
– one of which admitted he had just arrived in the country – droned on
about the dangers of living in Russia. Russians, in general, were not
to be trusted. That much they assured us. Beyond that, we should be
wary of public transit, bars, meals prepared by locals, and should
probably keep to our own kind — a wonderful introduction to a
In Georgia, the U.S. Embassy is a fortress, impregnable by U.S.
citizen and foreigner alike without a very-difficult-to-arrange
invitation by one of the bureaucrats of the Emerald City. The embassy
employees, which number in the hundreds, live in walled-off villas on
the outskirts of town and very few ever venture out to meet any locals
or expats who intermingle with the natives. All receive hazard pay
despite the fact that the crime rate in Washington is exponentially
higher than that of Tbilisi.
Earlier this year, I spoke with a friend of mine who has long worked
as an American journalist in Moscow and is herself betrothed to a
Russian. Although her husband is a successful businessman, she said
she had received all manner of condescension, inconvenience and
outright insult on official and unofficial levels from embassy folks.
Despite the fact that Eastern Europe made a stunning rebound out of
the ashes of the Soviet collapse over the last 10 years with
stabilized societies, strong economic growth and plummeting crime
rates, most U.S. officials seem to continue to cling to the notion
that it remains the chaotic hellscape that it was in the worst
chapters of the 1990’s, all research and data to the contrary be
Meanwhile, the preferred assumption is that anyone born in an Eastern
bloc country, given the opportunity to set foot on American soil,
would bolt off into the woods like a rabbit free from captivity. I
would expect that sort of myopic vision from the America’s less
worldly citizens, but it continues to stun me when it comes from State
Dept. employees as their own numbers and research contradict that
perception, and a simple stroll around town or conversation with a
local would tell them otherwise.
Although U.S. Immigration Services do not publish statistics on
applications for visas to the U.S. (for some reason), they do publish
data on the people it does give permanent residency and non-immigrant
visas to, from which I think it is fair to extrapolate relative
demand. And, based on the data on visa recipients, the draw of moving
to the United States from Eastern Europe is rapidly declining.
According to Homeland Security (DHS)’s “Yearbook of Immigration
Statistics 2011,” over the last 20 years, roughly 6 percent of all
people who have received permanent resident status in the United
States were from Eastern Europe. While DHS provides incomplete
breakdowns of small countries like Georgia, Russia, which represents a
large portion of the post-Soviet population, serves as a reasonably
good indicator for ex-Soviets seeking residency in the United States.
And, with Russia, the trend is stark.
While 433,427 Russian citizens received permanent U.S. resident status
from 1990-1999, only 167,152 did so between 2000 and 2009 – a 61.5
percent drop. Furthermore, the number of Russian residency recipients
in 2010 was 55 percent lower than their yearly average from 2000-2009.
That trend bears out across Eastern Europe, with the numbers of
residency recipients from Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia dropping
39 percent and 64 percent respectively in 2010 as compared to their
2000-2009 averages. Therefore, unless Eastern Europeans are suddenly
being arbitrarily denied residency in the United States, the numbers
show that perhaps they just don’t really want to live in the ole’ U.S.
Meanwhile, the numbers of Russians getting non-immigrant visas is
soaring – to 229,725 in 2010 from 111,270 in 2003. What does all of
this mean? Citizens of the ex-USSR are honestly more interested in
visiting the U.S. than living there, although the State Dept. does
their darnedest to make that difficult. Also, immigration into Russia
has greatly outpaced emigration from it in every year since the fall
of the Soviet Union. But, in the case of my fiancée, visiting the U.S.
is still not an option because of unofficial visa regulations — a
circumstance that fits nicely into consular officers’ arrogant
assumptions about desperate Eastern Europeans and their singular
mission to get a green card.
In the end, according to the World Bank, only 12,480 Georgians have
permanently emigrated to the United States over the past several
decades as compared with 634,372 who have resettled in Russia. Face
it, Washington, they’re just not that into you.
Speaking with my Moscow journalist friend, we were only able to come
up with one clear reason for the great discrepancy in the numbers and
the perceptions of U.S. embassy people – after the Cold War, the U.S.
can’t help but be a sore winner. Just like those consular officers in
St. Petersburg describing a parallel Russian universe where foreigners
have a strong chance of being kidnapped aboard public buses or awake
after a one-night stand missing a kidney or two, it was clear they
were reveling in a sort of collective victory.
These fantasies that are absurd for anyone who has really lived in
Eastern Europe are part of a deeply engrained desire by U.S. officials
to continue to look down upon these supposed failed states and the
desperate masses that were impoverished due by their empire’s defeat,
ostensibly at the hands of the U.S. It is all part of a continuing
victory lap, a touchdown dance made all the more inane by its clear
break from reality.
Unfortunately for me, that general annoyance with misplaced
triumphalism has now turned into a serious inconvenience as I will
reluctantly begin filing paperwork for the K-1 “fiancée visa,” which
is clearly designed for mail-order brides. The fact that the paperwork
has to be filed by me in the U.S. and I am officially referred to in
the documents as my fiancée’s “sponsor” makes this offensively
obvious. In fact, due to two laws passed by Congress in the wake of
several mail-order marriages gone wrong over the past 20 years, as a
K-1 applicant, I will also be issued state-ordered reading materials
on domestic abuse and will undergo a background check before they let
me carry out my “sponsorship.”
In reality, the fact is that it was I who voluntarily emigrated from
the U.S. and choose to continue to live abroad with no plans to return
the self-styled land of freedom on a permanent basis. While living in
Georgia, I fell for a wonderful, bright, independent and successful
woman. We live together and have been together for more than two
years. Before planning this trip, we hadn’t even thought about, and
certainly didn’t plan on, living in the U.S. or her getting
citizenship. In the end, we’re pretty much your average young couple.
Unfortunately, we will have to indulge my government’s outdated
fantasies and undergo months of migraine-inducing and mildly insulting
bureaucracy (plus a $350 fee) for the opportunity for her to go
through the rather routine step of visiting my hometown and meeting my
family. At the same time, with U.S. population growth at its lowest
point since America sent most of its virile male population off to war
in the 1940’s, my country should only hope that my fiancée and I
decide to settle down there. At the moment, they’re not making the
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