Trudging through bureaucratic thickets: a visa saga

US flagHaving lived through the experience of applying for a United States immigrant visa, my heart goes out to those who recently trudged through the bureaucratic thickets, only to be turned away at airport gates by Trump’s anti-immigration order.

Every immigrant’s story is different, of course. But maybe telling our story, as documented by my letters to parents during that time, will offer some insight into the process which, even in 1966-67, and even with a US company going to bat for us, was exhausting and nerve-wracking.

Born in New Zealand, we were living in England, where my husband Tony designed and tested disk drives for the rapidly-growing computer industry. He interacted with people from US companies, several of whom had shown interest in offering him a position in the US, where skilled high tech workers were in short supply.

9 Aug. 66
p.s. Have you got my B.A. or M.A. certificate? If so, would you please send them airmail.

New Zealand flagA complication was that when we left New Zealand in 1962, we boxed up belongings we didn’t think we needed to take and left them in a friend’s basement. Those friends sold their house and moved, sending the boxes to Tony’s mother, who sold her house and moved, sending them to my parents, who sold … By this time they were (we hoped) with my sister, Evelyn.

22 Aug. 66
Don’t bother any more about the degrees. …we are going to rely on a statement from the university registrar instead. It is for American visa – we need proof of special qualifications etc. to get onto special entry list. However, there is no hurry as yet, as American job is still a mirage on the horizon – needless to say we are both a bit edgy with all this uncertainty.

US flagAn excellent job offer from a Silicon Valley company came through in early October, and we put our house on the market immediately.

17 Oct. 66
The property market is very depressed here at the moment … so we can only hope for the best.

We don’t expect to leave until after Christmas anyway. The visa will take quite a few weeks to come through, & Tony can’t give his month’s notice until he gets it.

… After so many months of waiting around, we are finding it hard to believe that it has actually happened.

31 Oct. 66
We had our first viewer for the house yesterday….

You may have heard that we have had a delay over visas – U.S. authorities have stuck over this question of Tony’s degree & they insist on the fancy bit of paper. I wrote to Evelyn last week, so hope she has managed to do something about looking for it. Could you find out how she is getting on? It is possible she may still be assuming that it is in a mailing tube – it ain’t necessarily so – it could be flat in an envelope – or anywhere. Another thought – has she got all our things, or has Mrs. L. still got some? It really is urgent that it be found.

Apart from these problems, things are going quite well. We had a note from the removal firm the other day asking when we wanted them to come in – it seems that everything will be packed for us, transported, & unpacked at the other end – unheard-of luxury!

New Zealand flagHaving gone through every box, Evelyn finally found the degree certificate in a box labeled “Dining-room stuff.” She registered the package and mailed it with first class air mail postage.

12 Nov. 66
I suppose you will have heard of the latest little crisis – bloody N.Z. Post Office managed to send the degrees by ship, due to reach us about Christmas! However, it mightn’t be disastrous.  B.Sc. sent by Mrs. L did arrive safely, & the firm are cabling the university to send a duplicate of the degree. But it has got to the stage where I am beginning to wonder how much else can go wrong before we actually leave.

15 Dec. 66
…[Have] had another difficult week – actually, I had been putting off writing until we got our affairs a bit straighter. Anyway – on Monday we learned that the visa petition had not yet been filed – they are still waiting for the M.Sc. degree. The ship was supposed to berth yesterday, but as the mails are already in chaos with the Christmas rush, heaven knows when it will turn up. So, having found out where the petition had got to, we thought we might as well check up on the time scale from the embassy. Here we got a horrible shock – we were cheerfully informed that it was going to take five months from the time the thing was filed in San Francisco – don’t ask me how they manage to stretch the red tape that far – that’s just what they said. Contracts half-way through being signed for sale of house – still legally possible to back out – just – but very inconvenient for everybody else, so we are going on with sale, & still negotiating a deferment of the completion date. Even so, we will probably have to find somewhere else to live for a while, which is going to be a bit of a problem. Tony very depressed at the thought of staying at [his current job] for another six months, still waiting to hear whether California are prepared to wait that long.

30 Dec. 66
How up-to-date are you with our plans? The degree has been sent to America, we haven’t heard yet whether it & its associated papers have been presented to the authorities, we have until the middle of April to get out of the house, & the name of someone in the American embassy whom it is possible (possibly) to push to get a visa sooner, and at present are gathering together all the documents (in triplicate) we require, such as birth certificates, marriage certificate, photographs, etc.

18 Feb. 67
I forgot to tell Evelyn that we have received a letter of apology from the Postmaster-General, though no compensation – didn’t really expect it!

US flagTrying to get information about the status of our application proved almost impossible. Before 8:00 am, the phone at the US Embassy would ring and ring. From 8:00 am to 5:00 pm we’d get a busy signal. But finally, one day I got lucky.

28 Feb. 67
You’ll have to excuse me if my letters are a bit erratic in the next few weeks. We have to be out of the house in six weeks, and it is just possible that we may be leaving for America about then. The papers arrived from San Francisco last week. I don’t think I told you that we had the petition changed a few weeks ago, on the advice of the American consul in London. We had applied for 3rd preference – for those with degrees, etc., but the waiting list for this category goes back to last September for NZers – as there are only 100 immigrants a year total [from NZ] and 10% for this preference, this is not surprising. Anyway, he suggested trying for 6th preference – skilled workers not easily available in U.S., for which Tony, being an electronics engineer, would qualify, & for which there are places available now for NZers. So a frantic dash to London by me, to bring back yet another lot of forms to fill in. Can you remember all the addresses you’ve lived at since you were 16? …

15 Mar. 67
The petition has now gone for clearance to Wellington (checking up on our murky past). I don’t doubt there will be another delay, in which case we will have to move into a flat or something here. The estate agent who sold the house is looking for something for us, but I expect we shall have to pay through the nose for it.

New Zealand flagWe were lucky to find a furnished flat. On April 14 packers moved in and packed our household goods for shipment to California. We took with us only the clothes for ourselves and the two children (ages three and one) that would fit into suitcases weighing under the economy class limit, and borrowed a few items from friends, such as a cot and stroller for the baby.

15 April 67
… The clearances have now arrived…  Now we only need a quota number from Washington, a medical check & formal interview, and that is the lot. At least we have this place until the end of May, which gives us a breathing space.

1 May 67
Believe it or not, we now have immigrants’ visa to the United States. We spent all day at the Embassy today. Having got up about 5:30 in order to be there by 8:30 as instructed, eight hours of sitting around – though I must give them credit for having things reasonably well organised, considering the numbers of people they had to get through. We were through the whole rigmarole by about three o’clock, & they offered to post the visas out to us instead of making us wait around with the kids for another couple of hours while they finished the processing – offer gratefully accepted. Actually, the kids were extremely good, considering David’s boundless energy & Simon’s lack of sleep. We were well stocked up with sweets & biscuits & story books, & of course there were plenty of other children to play with…

We are booked to leave England on Sat. 20th May, flying direct to San Francisco over the pole.

 US flagMy letter of 18 May 67 speaks of farewell visits with many friends. At the last minute I learned that the company was flying us out first class, so I could have had more of the children’s gear with me for the last few weeks. But that was a minor irritation compared with the relief of having the ordeal over with, and gratitude that the Californian company kept the job open for Tony all those months. I wish all today’s visa-holding immigrants and visitors could have an equally happy ending to their story.

6 Responses to “Trudging through bureaucratic thickets: a visa saga”

  • Karen:

    Maureen, so glad your path brought you to California! Your essay highlights for me what a privilege it is to have choices about where one wants to settle. Also, the theme of “when the system is frustrating” keep working on your own life and occupational skills! I love your essays!

  • Alice Richards:

    Hi Maureen,
    You seemed to have both countries making your belongings a burden to get to you.
    The world is a different place now. Terrorists, many illegal immigrants are attacking and killing our citizens. The recent ban on people from 7 countries that Obama designated countries that have no restrictions, borders or vetting were the same countries President Trump said needed extreme vetting to PROTECT Americans. This is a temporary ban and needed to determine proper methods to really determine illegal and immigrant people who may not be here for our advantage.
    My Grandfather had to apply for Citizenship,have a USA sponsor, have a job waiting and wait 5 years to finally be in a class to make sure he spoke English and would obey American Laws.
    He also paid to land in Boston where his sponsor traveled to Boston to greet him.
    You and Tony went through the process, and know what it takes to become an American citizen. Why should it be easier for non citizens to not stand in line and take their place. Surely immigrants with valid green cards, visas here for a purpose should be allowed in but, I personally know of some who have lived here on these cards and visas with no follow up or review of their stays.
    America, like other Countries know the problems encountered when they have few restrictions and vetting as well as OPEN Borders.

  • Joan M. Hansen:

    Most of your problems were caused by the documents you entrusted to family who moved around. However the bureaucratic system is and always has been a nightmare. Times are different now. The same countries Obama listed are in now a threat to America. We have seen Christians sacrificed and terrorists (Muslim) declared us infidels. Only an idiot would welcome them to America.Watching be-headings on t.v. and learning about their culture has convinced me they must not enter our country. We need to protect our freedom.

  • Norma Watkins:

    The poor stuck immigrants’ best hope now is a delayed Supreme Court seating. With a four-four split decision, the decision will revert to the lower court and refugees who have been vetted (for two years!)can keep coming. Average time to vote on and seat a new justice: seventy-five days.

  • Maxine Binning:

    Oh Maureen, I felt for you every step of the way. Nothing like that happened when we moved to Australia and we have moved back and forth several times.
    I envy your and Tony’s courage and tenacity. Maxine

  • Judith Pogue:

    I chuckled over remembering addresses since 16 and teared over your last paragraph. Imagine going through all that and then being turned back when you landed in SFO! What a mess we are in.

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