The man standing behind the counter said to us in his thick Indian accent “I’m sorry, but your visa won’t get approved.”
Walking into the Abu Dhabi US Embassy was in itself intimidating. The place looks like a fortress. A massive culmination of stone that looks like an angular piece of rock jutting out of the sand. There are barriers up and Marines on guard. Past three separate check points was the consular services center. It was a dark modest room that had rows of chairs and our President and Vice President’s pictures hung on the wall. On the far side was a long counter spanning the whole length of the room. We made our way to a man behind the counter who gestured us over.
I had met my husband years earlier, practically the moment I stepped foot in the Middle Eastern country I was going to call home. Since then, our lives became a whirlwind of change. Falling in love, new jobs, moving in together, my conversion to Islam, and getting married. We were very much in love and still are a decade later! We settled in to a comfortable routine but after a few years in this foreign country I was ready to go home. I wanted to be closer to my family and I wanted to enjoy the ease that comes with living in your own culture. Driving, shopping, joking with friends. So I asked him if he’d be willing to move.
So there we were at the US embassy waiting for our appointment with the consular who would determine if my husband would receive preliminary approval for a residency visa to the US which would move him into the extensive background check phase of the process.
We had spent months waiting and hours preparing. Forms were filled, attested translations of official documents obtained, photos of our sweet wedding collected. I’m not what you would consider an organized individual but I had catalogued, labeled and copied every document we had submitted online into a large binder that I had carried in to the embassy wrapped in my arms.
As the man said those words my heart sank. It was his job to ensure our paperwork was in order prior to our meeting with the consular. Flipping through the pages of my precious binder he added “It’s your taxes,” he said. “You don’t pay enough.” I could feel my husband get ready to say something and I squeezed his hand and gave a very slight shake of my head.
“Go sit and we’ll call you when it’s your turn” the man added as he snapped my binder shut and pushed it towards me. I knew it wouldn’t help if we tried to argue or make any kind of a perceived scene so I just smiled and thanked him as I found a seat.
I sat down with my husband and he whispered, “They can’t do that. They can’t just say no! We’re married and you’re American!”
I was too busy second-guessing my confidence in how well prepared we were to pay much attention. One of the major things you have to prove when applying for a visa is that you won’t become a burden on the State. I knew we wouldn’t. Our taxes looked low because we were living abroad and that changes the state and federal tax regulations. But I had filed every year I was abroad and always paid anything owed.
We waited what felt like forever for our name to be called but what was probably closer to an hour. Watching those around us shuffle in to wait their turns. Some were turned away immediately for not having the correct documents. Stories had swirled around from friends who “knew people” who were declined “for no reason” and people being scammed out of money by fake “appointment makers.” The process is filled with anxiety. I’d spent hours wondering to my self “How do you prove to someone your truly in love with your partner?”
Finally our names were called and we practically ran to the window. The glass cover slid open a smiling woman stared back at us. “Good afternoon! You’re here for your residency visa application.” she stated.
“Yes.” I felt compelled to respond. I rushed on “I… I have this binder of everything. All our documents. Taxes, letters, pictures… It’s all there.”
“Ok great!” She replied with a big smile. She turned the binder around and flipped through a couple pages then back at her computer. She looked at me and asked, “So you’re from Oregon? I’m from Seattle…. do you miss home?”
“I do! I miss the rain so much! 50 weeks of sun just isn’t right for someone from the PNW.” She laughed and agreed.
“And the trees…” she said wistfully
“Oh yes the trees too!” I agreed. The endless sand dunes were gorgeous, especially at sunset. But I never quite got use to the lack of mountains or roads cutting through dense forests.
She looked up at my husband “I need to ask a few questions and I need you to answer. Ok?”
“Ok” he responded with a nod and smile.
She looked at me “ok?”
“Ok” I responded quickly, wondering if I should get a stapler for my lips.
She asked him a lot of standard questions. Birthday, place of birth, family members’ names, job history… all of which my husband nervously answered as I bit my tongue to keep from saying a word. “And when did you get married?” She asked.
“Umm.” He looked at me and I looked back. We had just celebrated our two-year anniversary! He couldn’t have forgotten yet I hoped. “Like it was yesterday,” he said.
My eyebrows shot up and my mouth opened to correct him and then I snapped it shut again. Images of his visa being rejected ran through my head. A life of us never moving to the U.S. or him ever even getting to visit played through my mind. Once you show your interest in moving to the U.S. it can be nearly impossible to keep or get a visit visa. They assume you’ll fly in and just never leave.
“Like it was yesterday but two years ago,” he blurted it out with a puff of air.. I looked at the consular and she looked at him.
Her eyes dashed to me and she must have seen some marital look on my face of…fear? Frustration?
Then she laughed and said “You’re going to want to remember that date in the future or she won’t be happy.”
After a few more questions she finally concluded the interview. “Well I’m going to go ahead and approve your application to move on to the next step! You two have a great day and enjoy the trees for me when you’re home.”
We gathered our documents and thanked her profusely and ran out of the embassy like giddy school kids. We knew we were nowhere near the end of the long road to a green card or citizenship but we were one step closer.
The truth is that by allowing the U.S. government to do a security check on us, they now know more about us in nearly every way your average American. We willingly gave up our privacy for the benefit of moving to the U.S. It was worth it, but I have no doubt that we were both thoroughly vetted. Had we committed crimes? Did we know anyone linked to any groups on watch lists? Did I pay my taxes? Were we who we said we were? It took 3-4 months before the security check was completed and the residency visa (Green Card) was approved. At that point we had 6 months to move our lives to the US or the visa would expire. Once in the US we had to live in the US for 3 years before he could apply for citizenship.
Years later in U.S., as I stood holding our sleeping son in the back of a federal courtroom I thought of the day we interviewed for his visa. My heart filled with pride and a tear slid down my cheek while my husband stood with dozens of others from all over the world as he took the Oath of Allegiance and became a U.S. citizen. He turned to me, holding the piece of paper saying Naturalized Citizen with his name prominently displayed and gave me a smile that has only been rivaled by our wedding day and the birth of our son. For that moment it was all worth it.
As we left the courtroom giddy with relief I turned to my sweet husband and said with a smile “welcome to a lifetime of taxes!” and gave him a kiss on the cheek.