This post has nothing to do with photography, but it's important to me. Since the site bears my name, I figure I'm allowed to digress when something is important to me. Nothing is more important than the fact that my family comes home today.
Introducing My Family
Here's a snapshot taken by my mother last December at a local restaurant.
I said there was nothing about photography in this post, but I can't help myself. This isn't my photo, but it's OK to steal it because I know my mother didn't register it with the US Copyright Office. She can't sue me.
For the past year, my plans for this site and many other things took a backseat because of the seemingly endless separation we've endured going through the US Immigration process.
That's because I'm on the phone with my family right after work every night and on weekends, typically about four hours or more for each call. That time is all we have together, but it makes it incredibly difficult to concentrate on photos, writing, and pretty much everything else.
Lee and I got engaged early last July and then she returned to Scotland with her daughter, Tové. Many thanks to Apple's FaceTime Audio for our connection, and almost as many curses for its frustrating failures. Quite simply, it was our lifeline every day over the past 328 days. The only days we didn't use it were for visits with each other and on Halloween. Even that night, we were texting.
I hate talking on the phone. After the feeling of knowing my family is coming home, I'm most grateful that I don't have to be tied to a phone call every night.
Going Through The K-1 Fiancee Visa Process
For those of you who have never gone through an immigration process, I'll tell you now that you simply cannot understand just how bad it is on families. After having previously worked with agencies like the IRS, DOD and NSA, I believe that United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) is the most despicable agency in the US government.
After getting engaged, Lee and I thought it would take about three months before should could move here. Once we immersed ourselves in the process, we realized it would take a bit longer, but we still thought she'd be here before Christmas.
It took close to a month to do our research and file our petition for a K-1 Fiancee Visa with USCIS. I live in Florida and petitions from this state get serviced by the Texas Service Center (a state whose name is no longer spoken in our household). They received the petition on August 4th and the waiting began.
When we filed, the stated goal was to process petitions within five months and the petitions being approved at that time were taking four months. OK, one more month. No big deal, we thought.
Let me tell you what happens during that time. Not a damn thing. Seriously. Your petition just sits in a bin and waits for someone to get around to it.
During our wait, USCIS changed the rules and extended the wait. No longer did they declare a five month goal, but changed their site progress page to show that they were currently working on petitions filed at a given date and time.
It was an utter lie. You see, there are online communities like VisaJourney.com and ImmiHelp.com where petitioners gather and discuss their progress (or lack of it). Essentially, these sites provide crowd-sourced information about the state of progress in the USCIS Service Centers. While we know that not every petitioner joins these web sites, enough people do so we could get a good idea of the service center's progress.
That progress continued to slow down. We hit the five month mark. You're allowed to call up then to inquire about the status of your case, since it's over the “normal processing time.”
That's when USCIS changed the rules. There was a new normal processing time and it kept stretching out. Every time we got close, they moved it further out.
I called USCIS several times, which was essentially a waste of time. The folks who staff the USCIS Help Desk have the same information that's on the web site. They parrot back what we already know, but never offered any insight as to the cause of the delay.
Some of those USCIS staffers were quite rude, too. One woman yelled at me “You have to wait! You have to wait!” I never raised my voice to her, but she apparently didn't like it when I told her that the information she provided conflicted. How can you be behind your goal and also tell me that I haven't reached it?
A few staffers were kind, but they also couldn't help.
Neither could my Congressional representative. A few years ago, a call from your Congressman's office would yield results. No more. USCIS isn't funded by Congress. It gets its funding from the fees that petitioners pay.
Adding insult to injury was knowing that this delay wasn't happening for petitions assigned to the California Service Center. Some of those folks received approval in as little as three weeks.
The Head Man Is Clueless
I attended a conference call with Leon Rodriguez, Director of USCIS. He sounds like a nice enough guy, but he has no idea what's happening in his agency. He gleefully reported results about how everything was humming along within expected margins. That's easy to do when you keep moving the goal posts.
Several of us from Visa Journey attended the call and one of our group got through to ask a question about the disparity of processing time between the California and Texas Service Centers.
Leon seemed concerned at the question, but a minion assured him that there was absolutely no way that California was processing K-1 visas so quickly and that they were operating under the five month window for a normal processing time.
That was mostly a factual statement, but completely lacking truth. You see, he neglected to mention that Texas was no longer operating under the five month objective, and ignored the fact that a three week processing time is under the five month objective.
Our issue and complaint about the delays at Texas were deftly swept under the rug and our line to the director was cut off so we could not speak after asking the question.
Why is there such a disparity?
It comes down to President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and the influx of children who were storming the Mexican border last year. All of those cases were dumped on the Texas Service Center. Family-based petitions like our K-1 visa receive the lowest priority to process.
We waited eight and a half months to get past USCIS for someone to take 15 minutes to review our case and forward it to the National Visa Center. During that time, life became turmoil.
The Waiting Is The Hardest Part
For Lee and Tové, this is where it turned into hell. We couldn't get any information about when to expect our approval. That meant putting life on hold.
How do you plan for a wedding when you have no idea when you're going to be together? That's not the only question, either.
- How do you tell your employer when you're going to leave and provide adequate notice?
- How do you end your lease with your landlord?
- If your lease expires, no landlord in the UK is going to grant you an open-ended lease knowing you may be gone in less than six months…or not.
- How do you plan ahead for activities?
One of the most heartbreaking examples were school trips for Tové. The trips were planned well in advance. Based upon what little we knew, we often expected to get approved within a few weeks. She ended up sitting alone in class while her classmates took trips, both locally and abroad.
There was also another problem from friends and family. Everyone wants to know “Have you heard anything yet?”
If we knew something, we'd tell you!
I know that those inquiries were well-meaning, but they also drove home the point that we didn't know anything. We belong together and we're being kept apart by a governmental agency that has absolutely no sympathy for the people behind those petitions they process.
After approval from USCIS, things started to move with the National Visa Center and the medical appointment. The folks at NVC were wonderful! They moved quickly and they were completely transparent about the process. Unlike USCIS, who guards information about your case like a national secret, the NVC staff would tell us what was happening and when to expect completion.
Then the damn London Embassy adopted the same “national secrecy” aspect and kept us waiting for another three months with no idea when we could get an interview, approval and delivery of the visas.
Despite the fact that we have a US Consulate an hour away from Lee in Edinburgh, all medical appointments and interviews happen in London on separate days. That meant two trips to what may be the most expensive city in the world, over seven hours away by train.
By this time, Lee's apartment lease expired. She and Tové ended up living with her parents in a very small retirement apartment. She's been sleeping on the floor for a little over three months waiting for the London Embassy to get its act together.
The Final Insult
The interview itself wasn't very difficult. London is one of the easier embassies for this kind of petition. The interviewer gave Lee a scare that some information wasn't correct and that she'd have to come back with Tové, but they straightened it out. Lee is a remarkably organized person and had copies of letters to show that Tové wasn't needed and everything was settled. The interviewer told her she'd have the visas in her hand in two weeks.
Except that isn't what happened. We booked flights and the visas didn't clear processing in time to deliver them before today's flight.
Like USCIS, the London Embassy was flat on its ass and not processing the visa in the time it promised.
The Universe Gives Me What I Need When I Need It
I have a saying and I've found that it's generally pretty true. The universe gives me what I need when I need it. Sometimes it's big. Sometimes it's small.
A couple of years ago, I was at Epcot with some friends when one suggested that we go to Soarin', a very popular attraction with long waits of an hour or more. When my friend said it was a shame we didn't have some fast passes (Disney's version of a reservation to get past the standby line), I simply told her that the universe gives me what I need when I need it.
A moment later, we cross paths with a man who had five fast passes in his hand and he asked me if we wanted them. His friends hasn't shown up. We thanked him and our little group of five people got on the ride right away.
It's really nice when I can say something and have it come true right away in front of witnesses.
On Friday, the universe gave us a man named Thomas who works for DX, the express service that the embassy uses to deliver visas.
Thomas could not tolerate the idea that Lee was gong to miss her flight. After first telling her that he couldn't do anything, he had an idea. He called a co-worker in London who is the embassy liaison for DX.
She reported that the visas hadn't even been printed yet. There was nothing to ship. Thomas got her to work the issue and get the visas on their way.
He was up at night, tracking the package at every station. He alerted the staff at the distribution center that Lee would arrive on Saturday to pick them up. When she arrived, everyone knew her name. She had her visas in hand thanks to the universe and a kind man named Thomas.
Thomas had absolutely no authority over the London Embassy, but he had initiative. I've learned that's a trait sorely lacking in US Government agency workers.
My Family Comes Home Today
As this article posts, my family is hurtling over the Atlantic in a metal tube. I won't get to see them until later tonight when I picked them up at the airport. In a couple of weeks, I'll be married to a loving wife and suddenly have a teenage daughter. Never even had to change a single diaper!
Immigration is a hell of a thing. They've given up all of their possessions that won't fit in a few suitcases. They've endured an arduous process that seemed like it would never end, filled with people who would yell at us and tell us not to make any plans while questioning us about what we're going to do for our wedding. People openly mocked them for saying they were moving to America, yet never left.
There is more to immigration than illegal aliens who are already here. It's almost a year after we decided to get married. We've had a few visits together. I did the match on our phone calls and it is just over 52 days of solid talking time.
We still have more paperwork and expenses with the US government to adjust their status, but at least now we can do it side by side.
To Lee and Tové, my family: I love you. Welcome home.