Applying for U.S. tourist visa a frustrating challenge
My girlfriend and I were recently planning a 17-day camping trip to Alaska. It’s what we like to do. In the past several years, we’ve made a two-week trek in Nepal to the Mount Everest base camp, we’ve spent a week crisscrossing the mountains around Chiang Mai, Thailand, and we spent two weeks roaming around the pristine beaches of northern Palawan Island in the Philippines.
We coordinated our vacation dates with our respective employers and made plans to fly to Los Angeles this past April, spend three days visiting friends in my old homestead, then jet off to Anchorage, where we were going to rent a camper and drive down the Kenai Peninsula to Kenai Fjords National Park. Then, on to Homer, up the west side of the peninsula, and back to Anchorage. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?
Well, this excellent trip was stopped in its tracks by the United States Consulate in Hong Kong. That’s where Emily and I live. I’m an American, and work as a journalist; Emily is a Filipina, so she had to apply to the United States Consulate for a B-2 tourist visa.
She filled out the online application, closely following the instructions on the State Department website. And, as there would be an interview at the consulate, she carefully prepared to explain our trip to Alaska. She memorized the itinerary and was ready to recite where we would be every day, and every night. She also assembled the requisite documents for banking and bills, and a letter from her employer vouching for her personally, and noting his approval for her time off.
The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act states, “Every alien shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the consular officer, at the time of application for admission, that he is entitled to a non-immigrant status….” That means that the U.S. government assumes all non-immigrant visa applicants—or, tourist visa applicants—are “intended immigrants.” That’s a nice way of saying: applicants are people whose real intention in coming to the United States is to stay.
The State Department addresses it up front, so you know going in that you must overcome the presumption of your intent to stay. Not surprisingly, there’s a thriving online industry to help Filipinos, and other nationals, prepare a resume that will clearly show they are not intended immigrants. They also give tips on how one can illustrate financial stability and likelihood to return home. To establish the latter, applicants are advised to bring to the interview income and investment data, bills covering one’s cost of living, listings of family, friends and regular activities, even pictures and emails related to their trip.
A colleague of mine, another editor at the international edition of The New York Times, recently went through a years-long B-2 application process with his wife, a Thai national. After she was denied a tourist visa twice, he reached out to his congressional representatives in Florida. Members of the staffs of both U.S. senators and his local congressman contacted him and arranged to have letters of support at his wife’s next interview. Her third application sailed through.
In preparing for her interview, Emily found on the State Department website a Customer Service Statement that, among other things, states: “We will use the limited time available for the interview to get as full a picture as possible of your travel plans and intentions.”
To Emily, and to me, this seemed a tip-off on the importance of applicants preparing to answer questions on the details of their trip. So, in preparing her documents, and putting together talking points for the interview, she leaned heavily on the travel plans. Then, to establish her ties to Hong Kong, Emily prepared and practiced a script noting that it was where she had lived for 21 years, that she had the same boss for 19 years, that her brother and sisters and nieces and nephews who also live in Hong Kong gathered often, that she had a group of friends whom she regularly met for lunch; that she had a gym membership and a well-used lending card for the Central Library.
She told me it was odd to have to explain why she would want to return to Hong Kong, when she never thought about not returning to Hong Kong.
Emily went to her interview confident that we would be making our trip to Alaska. At the counter, she introduced herself to the consular official and presented the documents she had prepared, among them the detailed breakdown of the trip itinerary, bank statements, utility bills and the letter from her boss. She was ready for any questions about the trip, and why Hong Kong was home.
But to her surprise, there were no questions about either. The much-anticipated interview ended in fewer than three minutes, when the official abruptly told Emily that she was “not able to demonstrate that (her) intended activities in the United States would be consistent with the classification of the nonimmigrant visa for which (she) applied.”
Removing the legalese, Emily had been told that she had failed to demonstrate that her intention to travel to Alaska, to camp amid the breathtaking panoramas of the Kenai Peninsula, was consistent with activities associated with a tourist visa.
Although the guidelines in the State Department’s Customer Service Statement say she should be prepared for the interview officer to “get as full a picture as possible of your travel plans and intentions,” that clearly had not happened. Nor had he asked her any questions about her financial documents. The official had no interest in her trip, or her life in Hong Kong.
I asked Emily immediately after she left the consulate to walk me question-by-question through the interview. Here’s how she described it:
When she arrived at the counter, a gentleman greeted her and immediately began asking questions:
- “How long have you been working in Hong Kong?” (19 years)
- “Is your employer your boyfriend?” (No.)
- “Have you ever traveled abroad?” (Yes. Philippines, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam.)
Emily said he stopped for a couple moments while he glanced over her documents. Then:
- “Is your boyfriend Filipino?” (No, he’s American.)
- “Who is traveling with you?” (My boyfriend!)
- “What does he do?” (He’s a journalist)
- “Where does he work?” (The New York Times)
- “How much do you earn?” (11,500 Hong Kong dollars a month)
- “Have you ever been to the United States?” (No.)
And that was it; less than three minutes, and, despite her preparation for it, not one question about her proposed trip, or why she believed she was not an intended immigrant. Five seconds later, the officer handed Emily a piece of paper stating that, among other things: “You have not demonstrated that you have ties that will compel you to return to your home country after your travel to the United States.”
He then nodded and told her: “We’re sorry. Good luck.” … “Next please.”
I understand why the State Department might want to be especially diligent in vetting Filipinos applying for tourist visas. The Department of Homeland Security reported in 2014 that there were 360,000 undocumented Filipinos in the United States facing deportation. That’s a problem.
But what Emily experienced at the consulate didn’t address concern about her potentially becoming another undocumented alien. You would think that a question like: Why do you want to come to the United States?—would be almost mandatory in these circumstances. Clearly, despite what is stated on the State Department website—that an applicant’s intentions in coming to The States will be thoroughly reviewed during the interview—that is not followed in reality.
Funny thing about the interviewer was that nearly half the questions he did ask were repetitive of questions already answered on the online application, sitting right in front of him. For instance, he knew that I was her boyfriend, and that I was to be her traveling companion. Not only that, the State Department had already asked her for my email and phone number. And he knew the name of her employer, and the number of years she had been working in Hong Kong. I wondered if he asked because he wanted to see Emily’s responses – looking for that obvious blink of a terrorist – or if he simply had not prepared for the interview. Yeah, maybe what occurred was sheer incompetence.
Or who knows what.
But I did wonder if Emily’s case was over before she ever reached the counter. Here are sobering numbers to give that some credibility: The State Department’s 2017 denial rate on B-1 (business) and B-2 (pleasure) tourist visas, percentage by country: Austria 5%; Germany 5.91&; Israel 4.88%; France 7.43%; Italy 12.54%; Cambodia 41.05%; Philippines 25.54%; Thailand 20.15%; Nepal 46.42%.
It’s no surprise that high numbers of undocumented aliens from a given country will make the U.S. immigration authorities more heavily scrutinize all levels of visa applicants from that country. But Emily’s application didn’t appear to be scrutinized at all.
So, Emily has decided to apply again. A friend of hers, a Filipina, owned a half-million-dollar apartment in Hong Kong and managed a flashy restaurant in Kowloon, and she was denied a tourist visa on her first try. She said she changed the application the second time by removing mention of an American boyfriend, and with everything else being the same, it was accepted. She told Emily it was that serendipitous.
Now Emily hopes that by removing me as a boyfriend, flipping a couple answers around and making reservations for several expensive future events in Hong Kong, the interviewer will see that she’s not an intended immigrant. And we’ll still get to go to Alaska.
And if she gets an interviewer who again offers her neither avenue to prove her worthiness to go camping, she’ll punt and consider lining up for attempt No. 3. Several friends have told her that’s a lucky number.