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Getting a US visa

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THE TRUMP administration is really tightening the screws on immigration to the US.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services is set to close its Manila field office on July 5. The US embassy in Manila has announced that it “will assume responsibility for certain limited services previously provided by USCIS to individuals residing in the Philippines.” This, even as it directed those seeking petitions for alien relatives (Form I-130), to file them “by mail with the USCIS lockbox facility in Chicago.”

Reuters reports said the move “is the latest from an administration that has worked to limit both legal and illegal immigration since Trump took office in January 2017, including cuts to the US refugee program and heightened vetting of US visa applications.”

Earlier, invoking national security, the US State Department was reported to have started implementing “a new rule” that would require US visa applicants to provide details of their Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other social media accounts.

“National security is our top priority when adjudicating visa applications, and every prospective traveler and immigrant to the United States undergoes extensive security screening.”

So was the US State Department quoted by AP last week, and furthered that the additional information collected from applicants “will strengthen our process for vetting these applicants and confirming their identity.”

The proverbial donkey through the eye of the needle to enter the kingdom of the USA henceforth, we can only reminisce of the good old days when seeking the holy grail – that US visa, dummy – was difficult but not impossible to attain.

JUNE 15, 2006. 9:20 A.M. Shaded by a small parasol from the fast heating morning sun, the guard handed back my all-important confirmation notice and courteously said: “Your schedule, Sir, is at 9:30 yet. Come back after 10 minutes.”

Behind the concrete barricades I sought shelter under the canopy of those old balite – or are they banyan? – trees to while the time away. A heavily-jeweled lady, in the shade too, started a conversation: her schedule was 11:30 pa, she felt certain she’d have her visa renewed as she’d come back and did not go TNT on her trip to the States, “unlike some miserable folks abusing the hospitality of America.”

I asked her how long was the visa given her? “Ten years, multiple entry.” And how many times had she used it? “Just once.” Okay. I wished her luck.

Exactly 9:30 I was told to go through Gate 3, where I had to pass a metal detector and place my bag through an X-ray machine, before taking my place at the end of long queue to a window marked “A-L surnames.”

Snatches of animated conversation eavesdropped along the line run the gamut from the spiritual to the illegal.

“I did not miss a single Wednesday in Baclaran praying the novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help for two months,” said a youngish matron pining for her first visa.

“My novena was to St. Jude,” replied an older one, adding that her supplication to the patron of impossible cases was prompted by her two previous rejections, err, denial of her request for a visa.

“The minimum three months is all I need,” said a thirty-something. She had no qualms in revealing her intent to stay in America, no matter the cost, “even marrying a bed-ridden octogenarian.”

“We have visas na. We frequent the US, you know. We’re here to apply for our baby,” a young couple bragged, an infant asleep in his father’s arm. On their turn at the window, the wife was horrified to find that her baby needed a photograph in his application.

“It was not stated in the requirements,” she tried to rationalize with the stern-looking American lady at the window.

“The slot for the photo is just too big for you to miss,” came the retort.

To her rescue, someone in the line said there were photographers just outside the guardhouse offering five-minute services. So, with her husband and baby, off she ran.

After 25 minutes, it was my turn at the window. Passport and visa application were checked, found in proper order and passed on to an assigned consular officer, I presumed. A numbered stub was given me with the instruction “Go to the pavilion and wait for your number to be called. Good day.”

A hundred others were waiting there seated on benches under a signboard “Waiting to be finger-scanned.” Instructions on the proper placement of the left and right index fingers on the scanner were posted all around to facilitate the process. Numbers were being called – in batches of five, and fl ashed on a lighted digital bar at the top of the door.

It was 11 A.M. when my number, 3184, was called. So, with 3180 onto 3185, I entered an SRO consular office. Windows 1 and 2 were for finger-scanning, Windows 3 – 11 for the interview.

A scar on the left index finger of number 3183 warranted 20 minutes of questioning. It took another five minutes for the scanner in-charge to finish scribbling notes on a yellow post-it she affixed to 3183’s passport. “Denied ito,” I mused.

My own turn to be finger-scanned was a breeze. It did not take more than two minutes. And I got myself a seat after five minutes.

Guessing game

To pass the time, I engaged in a guessing game. At every flash of a number, I took a quick look at the visa applicant and deemed if a visa would be forthcoming or not.

Nine of ten, I was right in my judgment. Based not on psychological profiling but on mere observation. Two extreme types of character were denied visas: those who came in too weak – angst-ridden, nervous, fidgety, obsequious; and those who came in too strong – swaggering in confidence, obnoxious.

There was this business-type guy in coat and tie who, soon as he came to Window 4, pulled out the contents of his bulging attaché case – land titles, bank books, SEC papers, and laid them on the counter. The consular officer was not apparently impressed by this display of wealth as he promptly denied the application, without even asking him any question. Lesson: Don’t pre-empt the officer. Take out your supporting documents only when asked.

A matron made the sign of the cross when her number was called. She went to Window 6 as if she was ready to faint – ashen, trembling legs and all. She too was denied.

On Window 8, a group of three women and one lawyer-looking guy engaged the consular officer in a heated argument when one of the ladies was denied her application. Even after a new number was fl ashed for that window, the four refused to leave. A guard had to escort the four out of the office.

Pity those who would be assigned to Window 8, I told my seatmates. It would be rejection there henceforth.

Much to our chagrin, 3180-3185 were assigned there. And so it was as I said. It was hello and goodbye to 3180 in less than one minute. One question and it was all over for the rest. A denial, seemingly at face value, for 3183. Then, it was me.

“Good luck po,” 3185 called out after me.

“Good morning, Mister Caesar,” greeted the consular officer. It was 11:55. Of course I answered “Good morning too” and added “How’r you doing?”

Good, was the reply. As he scanned on his desktop what I presumed to be my application and some other data of my previous stay in the USA.

“So you were in the States last year?”

“Yes, and in the two previous years.”

“What was your longest stay?”

“Five months in 2000.”

“Why did you stay that long?”

“Had to seek refuge in the States and let things cool back home after an ambush that killed three of my friends.”

“Oh. Are you a travel writer? Did you write for newspapers when you were in the States?”

“I am a political and economic journalist. I did some writing when I was there for the newspapers here in the Philippines.”

“Would you like to avail yourself of a journalist visa so you can pursue your profession in the States?” “I prefer a tourist visa. I go to the States for leisure not for work.”

“Okay. How about your wife, does she have a visa.”

“Yes. She was in the States in 1981, err, 2001.”

“Are you traveling with her?”

“Yes. It will be our first together.”

“Okay. Enjoy your trip. Here’s your yellow card. Make arrangements for your visa delivery at the pavilion.

“Thanks. Have a nice day.”

“Have a nice day too.”

At the Del Bros counter at the pavilion, I was making my delivery arrangements when 3185 came. She too got a visa. For three months to Guam. No, she won’t go TNT there. She told me she had an examination to take pursuant to her masteral degree.

June 19. 4:42 P.M. A Del Bros messenger in motorcycle delivered my passport. Affixed is a five-year multiple entry B1-B2 visa. Deng Pangilinan would have ejaculated: “God bless America!”

IT WAS even breezier with my US visa renewal in 2011. I was just greeted a “Good day” at the consular window, all my documents received and told to just wait in a week’s time for 2GO to deliver my fresh 10-year multiple entry visa at my doorstep.

Yeah, how times have been trumped.

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