Saturday, September 18, 2010

Comprehensive Immigration Reform? - Part 2

Duang Wearing Traditional Lao Loum Pakama On Her Head
My first installment of this series was written on July 20th of this year.  I actually wrote this Part 2 of the series a while ago (July 23rd) but a complete night's efforts was lost due to an Internet issue.  I wrote about being frustrated and sulking over the experience.  Well I am over the sulking , much has happened since then, and nothing has happened since then.

Nothing has happened?  In my first blog I rhetorically asked several questions regarding "Comprehensive Immigration Reform".  The first question, and perhaps the most important question of the lot was "What is Comprehensive Immigration Reform?"

Politicians, perhaps due to the lazy and hazy days of summer recess, have yet to elucidate their individual definition of Comprehensive Immigration Reform.  However it does appear that the nation is united and in agreement that 1.  We need "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" and 2.  I am in favor of "Comprehensive Immigration Reform".  Very difficult to disagree with either of those statements - as long as no one starts to be specific or even hint at any specifics regarding those statements.

The American media seems to have moved on to other issues but the problem along with causes as reported earlier in the year remain unchanged.  The media's as well as the public's short attention plan have moved on to other distractions for the time being.  Perhaps now that we are in the campaign period for the mid term elections this issue will be resurrected and rightfully so.

I am writing regarding our personal experience regarding legal immigration using the current process as it exists today.  Only in developing some understanding of the current process can we identify and have a reference up on which to develop viable alternatives and modifications to address weaknesses or deficiencies.

Whereas nothing seems to have happened in regards to defining what "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" means, many things have happened related to our personal quest for an Immigration Visa.

On Thursday 22 July, we commenced the formal process of applying for an Immigration Visa to allow my wife to go to the United States. As I wrote in a previous blog, my wife is qualified to receive an Immigrant Visa. The process starts with me submitting a petition, Form I-130 "Petition for Alien Relative", to the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security.

Because I live outside of the United States my petition and the processing of the visa will be handled in Thailand rather than being handled through the mail to one of the regional centers back in the USA. If I were living back in the USA with my wife over here in Thailand or if I had only been staying here in Thailand for less than a year, the process could only be handled through a USA regional center.

On July 6, I started our effort to obtain an Immigrant Visa for my wife.  I had done some research on the Internet utilizing the US Embassy Bangkok, United States Department of State, and the Department of Homeland Security websites.  I became convinced that we qualified and should apply for a K-3 Visa.  A K-3 visa is a special visa that allows a qualified applicant to immigrate to the United States while their complete application for an Immigration Visa is being processed.  The stated process for obtaining a K-3 Visa is to first submit in person a petition, Form I-130 "Petition for Alien Relative", to the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security.  There is a USCIS Office in Bangkok so we would have to travel to Bangkok, one hour by air or 8.5 hours by bus, in order to personally submit the Form I-130 along with its required documentation.

After the Department of Homeland Security received the I-130 package they would send me a "Notice of Action" Form 797 indicating that USCIS had received the petition.  Once I had the "Notice of Action" I could then submit to USCIS another petition, Form I-129F "Petition for Alien Fiance(e)", along with its associated documentation to the same USCIS office in Bangkok.  Fiance(e)?  A fiance(e) petition for my legal wife?  I don't make the rules.  I just try to follow the rules in order to obtain what I want.  Both websites stated specifically that the Form I-129F Petition was required even for legal spouses.
Not wanting to have to make an additional trip to Bangkok and wishing to expedite the process, I wanted to know if  I could go to Bangkok, submit the I-130 Petition, immediately receive the required Form 797 (a receipt notice), make a copy of the Form 797 and immediately submit the subsequent completed Form I-129F package.  This would essentially kill two birds with one stone and seemed to be very practical  as well as logical - practical and logical to me.  Having dealt with many bureaucracies over the years, I knew that what appeared  to be logical and practical to me and others, may not be allowed by "the rules" or "the way we do things".  I called the USCIS Office in Bangkok to see if I could submit both petitions on the same visit.
As I wrote before in a previous blog - things are not as simple or easy as you would expect or as they should be.  My phone call to USCIS was the start of my introduction or rather reinforcement to this truth in regards to Immigration.  The phone call to USCIS was answered by a Thai employee.  After explaining to her that I wanted to obtain a K-3 Visa as identified on both the USCISLesson #1 Learned or Affirmed - Things are not always what you read or are told.
She assured, but not necessarily convinced, me that I only needed to submit the Form I-130 and asked me for my Fax number because she had some additional requirements to send to me.  Fax number?  Do people other than those in third world countries still use fax machines?  I assumed that a large and important department of the United States of America government would have retired their fax machines long ago.  I asked her if she could send the information to me as an email attachment.  She informed me that she could only send it by fax.  Lesson #2 Learned or Affirmed - Things are not as simple or easy as they could be, should be, or as you expect.
In order to receive the USCIS information by fax, I would have to go into town and find an Internet cafe or copy business that had a fax machine, call the USCIS Office on my cellphone, give the USCIS representative the fax number and await the transmission of the information.  I then realized that my computer had a modem that was capable of sending as well as receiving fax transmissions although I had never done so to date.  After configuring my computer to function as a fax machine using Microsoft Windows, and calling the rep at USCIS in Bangkok to give her my land line phone number, I received one page of additional information.  Lesson #3 Learned or Affirmed - Where there is a will there will be a way.
The fax indicated that the $355 fee could be paid credit card Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Diners - this was a relief since I had been told "Visa" on the phone and I only have a Mastercard.  I did not want to pay in cash by Baht since I prefer to use baht only for Thai living expenses.  When I apply for Retirement Visa each year I must provide evidence of a Thai banking account with a specified baht balance for the previous three months.  The fax also required evidence that I had lived in Thailand for the past year whereas the websites did not specify a minimum time period to be able to have the visa application handled in Bangkok rather than back in the USA.  The fax also indicated that the office was closed on Wednesday afternoons - a fact that was not indicated on the Bangkok website.  Lesson #4 Learned or Affirmed - Things are not always what you read or are told.

I then proceeded to assembling the required documents to accompany the Form I-130 Petition.  Form I-130 and the USCIS fax requires the following documents:
     1.    Original completed Form I-130 Petition for Alien Relative
     2.    Original completed Form G-325A "Biographic Information" - Allen
     3.    Original completed Form G-325A "Biographic Information" - Duangchan
     4.    Recent Passport sized Photograph - Allen
     5.    Recent Passport sized Photograph - Duangchan
     6.    Original and Copy of Passport - Allen
     7.    Original and Copy of Passport - Duangchan
     8.    Copy of Divorce Decree - Allen/First Wife
     9.    Copy of Divorce Decree - Allen/Second Wife
    10.   Copy of Divorce Decree - Duangchan - Certified Translation in English
    11.   Copy of Wedding Certificate - Allen/Duangchan - Certified Translation in English
    12.   Birth Certificate - Allen
    13.   Birth Certificate - Duangchan - Certified Translation in English
    14.   Marriage Registration - Allen/Duangchan - Certified Translation in English
    15.   Certificate of Name Change - Duangchan - Certified Translation in English

There were also some generic requirements to provide documentation proving that we were in deed living as husband and wife.  To address these requirements we provided the following:

     16.   Affirmation of Marriage - Witness Statement by Duang's son
     17.   Affirmation of Marriage - Witness statement by Duang's son's girlfriend
     18.   Yellow House Book - Allen - Certified Translation in English
     19.   Blue House Book - Duangchan - Certified Translation in English
     20.   Pick Up Truck Title - Certified Translation in English
We encountered another obstacle to assembling the document package - Duangchan's Birth Certificate or rather her lack of a Birth Certificate .  When Duang was born in 1963 Thailand did not issue birth certificates.  When a family had a baby, the baby was added to the village records kept by the Village Headman.  When a child attained the age of 7, they would go the Amphur (County) Office with one of their parents and the Village Headman to have their name added to the Blue House Book and be added to the Amphur records rather than the Village records. The Blue House Book is a record of the Thai residents for each house.  Foreigners, like me, are listed in a Yellow House Book.  At 17 years old the child receives a Thai National ID Card.  ID cards are reissued due to name changes related to divorce or marriage.  Lacking name changes, the ID cards are reissued every ten years.  However, we had to submit a Thai Birth Certificate and not a Thai National ID Card for Petition I-130!  Our first stop was to Amphur Kumphawapi Offices to determine how we could obtain a "Birth Certificate".  Fortunately, Duang's situation was neither unique or rare.  Many Lao Loum women in Isaan have experienced the same problem in applying for visas to immigrate to foreign countries.  We were told that we needed to return with one of Duang's parents, the current Village Headman, a passport sized photograph, and Duang's parent's house Blue Book.  We returned the same day with the required people along with the necessary documents and left after a while with a brand new birth certificate.  One more obstacle removed and confirming that where there is a will there will be a way.
In order to get married in Thailand, we had to have some documents translated from English into Thai so we knew where to obtain certified translation service here in Udonthani.  Our documents were translated in 5 days and cost about $120 USD.
Rather than take a 8-1/2 hour bus ride from Udonthani to Bangkok, we decided to fly down to Bangkok.  Flying to Bangkok allowed us to spend one less night in Bangkok to accomplish our activities and was much less wear and tear on our bodies as well as minds.
We arrived at the USCIS Office across from American Consulate in Bangkok at 7:30 A.M. for the opening of the office at 8:00 A.M.  The Department of Homeland Security office is located at the top floor of a modern building.  From the elevator lobby at the top floor we walked to entrance of the USCIS office where we were greeted by the Thai security guard.  he indicated that we would have to wait in the elevator lobby but was kind enough to bring two plastic chairs for us to sit on while we waited.  During our 30 minute wait we saw two obvious Americans arrive and seemed to skulk into the office through a side door.  These were the only two Americans that we got to see and we never spoke to an American representative that morning.
At 8:00 A.M. the guard allowed us in.  After indicating why we were there, showing our passports, and signing in we passed through a metal detector and entered into a secured area at the end of a short corridor once the guard released the door lock from his station.  We found ourselves in an antechamber facing a wall that had several stations reminiscent of bank teller stations - heavy bullet proof glass with sliding metal drawers beneath them.  A large sign instructed us to approach a window, press the button once, return to our seat and await being summoned by a representative.  In about three minutes I was summoned and spoke to a female Thai employee - I suspect the same representative that I spoke to previously.  I told her what I was there for and handed her the assembled I-130 Package through the metal pass though drawer.  She leaved through the documents and verified that the package appeared to be complete.  She instructed me to return to my seat and wait for her to complete her review of the documents.  After awhile she called me back to the window and returned some of the documents to me with some highlights that she had placed on them.  I needed to fill out some additional information.  The I-130 Form had a place to write in the "Case Number".  we did not have a case number and I left it blank based upon my assumption that the USCIS would assign a case number at some point and add it to the petition.  I needed to indicate "NONE" per the Thai USCIS representative.  OK - no problem - I complied.  According to the instructions for the Form G-325A Biographic Information, I needed to fill out only those items of information that were not previously provided on the Form I-130 Petition.  The representative wanted me to fill out my current wife's name, my Social Security number and several other items that I had provided already on Form I-130.  OK - I added the duplicate information as she requested since it is like that old saying "It is my field, my ball, and my bat.  If you want to play baseball you play by my rules."  I didn't want to play baseball but I did want a visa for my wife as quickly as possible.  The Thai employee went back to the recesses of the dimly lit space behind the thick glass to continue her review of the package.  Once again she returned with some additional requirements.  Her requirements were obvious due to English being her second language.  The form required a petitioner to list the names of their children who would be immigrating to the USA.  My children are US citizens by birth.  Duang's children are too old to be considered for immigration on her petition.  Duang and I do not have any common children so I did not list any children.  The Thai employee wanted the names of all children listed.  Once again I reminded myself of why we were there and added whatever information that she considered necessary.  After a short while, she summoned me back to the window.  She gave me an invoice for the submittal of the petition - $355 USD.  She instructed me to cross Wireless Road to the US Consulate to pay the fee and return with the receipt for payment.  I complied and returned with the receipt.  She then informed us that we would be notified by mail in three weeks of the USCIS decision regarding the petition.  She told my wife that we had submitted the most complete and accurate petition that she had seen.  After one hour and fifteen minutes our business was completed.  I had budgeted a day and one-half for our business so besides being pleased I was relieved that it was concluded so quickly.  Lesson #5 Learned or Affirmed - Things are not always what you expect - sometimes they are better!

You may have noticed that I have made a point in identifying the USCIS employee as a Thai national.  I am not prejudiced - hey I married a Thai! I live staying here in Thailand!  However I am resentful that as an American citizen, when I have to deal with the US government in Bangkok I do not get to deal directly with an American but with a Thai citizen.  Lesson #5 Learned or Affirmed - Things are not always what you expect.
We were actually fortunate in having to deal with a real person directly with the submittal of the I-130 Petition.  When we left the Bangkok Office we knew that the I-130 Petition was complete and acceptable.  The only question that we had was if the petition would be approved.  If I had not stayed in Thailand for at least a year, the petition would have to have been submitted by mail back to the USA.  I suspect that differences in interpretation for providing an "acceptable" petition might also have occurred dealing with the regional office back in the USA but would have to have been resolved through the mail - 15 days or more transit time each way!  We got to that point in 1-1/2 hours rather than weeks or perhaps months.
I have gone into a great deal of detail on purpose.  I am attempting to share with you the exact process for immigrating legally to the USA under the currrent process.  I am attempting to accurately describe as well as to share the impediments encountered in following the current process.  As I close this part of our Odessy I need to remind the reader that because I am a citizen and we are formally as well as legally married, our process is a streamlined and expedited process not available to the vast majority of would be immigrants.

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