Officials promise changes in visa policies for military families overseas
TOKYO — A top visa official with the U.S. State Department pledged Tuesday that a solution is in the works to resolve confusion among military families overseas and government agencies caused by an abrupt legal change.
“Servicemembers — you are really our highest priority,” said Tony Edson, deputy assistant secretary for visa services at the State Department, during a phone interview from Washington. “There has been some confusion. We want to do what we can.”
Edson said the State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services are close to a resolution that will once again allow immigrant visa applications to be accepted at overseas embassies, then transferred electronically to the proper immigration offices for review.
Once that system is in place, he said, he believes that a bottleneck of pending I-130 visa applications will be handled “so quickly that the problems will evaporate.”
Yet that promise of a solution comes as some military families already have been pulled apart by the new policy, which has stalled immigrant visa applications dating back to last summer and caused frustration for troops facing military-ordered moves and wives who lack the proper visa stamp to immigrate to America.
Some troops face the possibility of losing government subsidies for their children while supporting two households on opposite ends of the earth. Others have written proof of approval for their wives’ visas only to discover that approval has been revoked.
Still others wonder how long to wait before sending their families back to their wives’ native land if they are not Japanese, a move that would comply with Japanese and U.S. visa laws but would cut off any hope that the military would pay for the families’ eventual move to the States.
“It hurts,” Navy Lt. Marc Nuzzo said from Hawaii while his wife, Seiko, was waiting Wednesday in Yokosuka, Japan, for answers about her visa application.
“The rules literally shifted under our feet.”
The rules changed last summer when President Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act into law. Among measures to control sexual offenders, the law puts stricter background checks on those who sponsor immigrants into the United States.
Following the law means immigration services, controlled by the Department of Homeland Security and not local embassies, must do more to vet each immigrant visa applicant. That discovery caused the embassies to stop taking immigrant visa applications in the fourth week of January, according to Edson.
It’s hard to estimate how many families might be affected, though State Department officials are working to define the number.
There are about 760 applications that were pending from consular sections in Tokyo and Naha as the process changed in January, according to the State Department. Those cases include servicemembers’ families, but also other immigrant applications. So far about 100 of those cases have been accepted for continued processing, a major step toward final approval.
The 7th Fleet is collecting reports from sailors to gauge the problem and helping them seek solutions.
“We are concerned about the impact this change is having on our sailors and their families,” Cmdr. Dawn Cutler, spokeswoman for the Navy’s 7th Fleet, wrote in an e-mail response to a query about the issue.
Nuzzo and several sailors and airmen interviewed this week commended their military commands for trying to address the issue. Some have received extensions on their orders. Others say their local legal offices are doing what they can to keep servicemembers abreast of the situation.
Still the problem, the servicemembers say, is the lack of answers for families who have done their best to follow past guidelines for moving a foreign-born spouse to the States.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert C. Berry has a wife and a son, and an approval notice from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo stating, “Congratulations! Your immigrant visa petition has been approved.”
The notice is dated Aug. 1, five days after Bush signed the law. Berry learned a month ago the approval is no good. He is supposed to move April 10, so in recent days he’s been on the phone looking for answers from embassy and immigration officials.
“I got kind of pushed around with people not able to give me the right information,” he said.
Finally, he got a person in the Seoul immigration office last week who gave depressing news that may shed light on the location of his application. “He said four boxes were sitting on the floor, and they wouldn’t be opened for four weeks.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security confirmed the pending applications from Japan are in Seoul, and she said that the agency is working diligently to review them.
“It’s very, very top priority,” Chris Rhatigan said from Washington during a phone interview Wednesday.
Berry’s wife and son also participate in the Women, Infants and Children program on base, which provides vouchers for food. When Berry leaves, access to that federal program will end, he said.
He does feel lucky on one account: His in-laws live in Japan and can house his wife and son if needed.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Rory Thomas has no such luck.
Last fall, the Air Force moved up the date of his station change from Kadena Air Base on Okinawa to Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas by four months. That shortened timeline left him only four months to apply for his wife’s visa. They did the paperwork as fast as they could, filed the application, then learned of the logjam about a month ago.
Now, he has orders to leave March 17 and is making plans to send his wife and child to the Philippines, her homeland. They can’t stay in Japan because once he leaves, her military visa expires.
“Now, I would have to support two households off of my staff sergeant income,” he said.
But the worst ironies are perhaps for Nuzzo, already apart from his wife.
As a Navy lawyer, he said he has three years’ experience helping other sailors navigate the forms and requirements for obtaining immigrant visas for family members.
“If anyone knew (about the application process), you’re talking to him,” he said.
He wants to know what immigration services will do about visas that were approved and used after July 27, but before the embassies shut down their role in January. If those visas are being used, despite being approved after the new law took effect, why should his wife’s pending case be put on hold?
“Nobody can explain to me why we are being treated differently,” he said. “I would love somebody to explain that to me.”
According to the State Department, unexpired visas issued after July 27 will remain valid.
Answers to some questions about visas
Stars and Stripes interviewed officials with the departments of State and Homeland Security, which runs the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, to get answers people have been asking about changes to the application process for immigrant visas.
Here’s what officials say so far:
Why has there been a halt to the application process for immigrant visas?
The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act was signed into law July 27. Part of the law requires stricter background checks for people sponsoring immigrants to America. To comply, CIS now must handle all facets of immigrant visa applications, called I-130s. Before, applications were collected at embassies and consulates and forwarded to immigration for approval.
So why did the embassies continue to accept the applications until the fourth week in January?
According to a top visa official at the State Department, his agency and CIS had been trying to determine what the law required. They eventually decided the law compels them to put the applications in CIS possession. A factor that has hamstrung officials was that the law provided no compliance grace period.
What about people who submitted applications to an embassy after July 27 but before the embassies stopped accepting them?
Those applications have gone to Seoul, according to the State Department, and that’s been a large part of the problem. But servicemembers have had limited success in recent days in checking on the status of their spouse’s files. Homeland Security says to call the Seoul office to check pending cases. The office is open weekdays from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The numbers are 82-2-397-4282 and 82-2-397-4548. Faxes may be sent to 82-2-720-7419; e-mails to CIS-Seoul.Inquiries@dhs.gov.
Should families with pending applications start the process over?
Officials from all agencies say no.
But what about approval letters that came after July 27? Are those visas valid?
Officials are still trying to sort that out.
What about people who haven’t yet filed their I-130s?
For those who don’t want to wait, the State Department advises sending applications to a CIS office in California.
The address is: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, California Service Center, P.O. Box 10130, Laguna Niguel, Calif. 92607-1013.
For overnight delivery, use: California Service Center, 24000 Avila Road, 2nd Floor, Room 2312, Laguna Niguel, Calif. 92677.
But in coming weeks, a State Department official said, the new system should allow for those same applications to again be handled at local embassies.
Can people with pending I-130 applications still travel to the United States on a tourist visa?
According to Homeland Security: No.
Can they enter the States under any other visa?
Yes. A person with a pending I-130 can also apply for a K-3 visa with CIS.
To apply for that visa, servicemembers in Japan should contact the Seoul office, according to Homeland Security.
The K-3 visa covers adults; children who are not U.S. citizens can be issued a K-4 visa.
In the end, after CIS approves an I-130, can the potential immigrant still have his or her interview at an embassy?
Yes, according to a U.S. Embassy spokesman.
— Teri Weaver