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TOKYO — Representatives from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo are visiting military bases in Japan this spring to help Americans married to foreign nationals navigate the complex and lengthy process to acquire an immigrant visa.

Josh Handler, vice consul at the embassy, is making one point particularly clear during his visits: don’t wait.

“As soon as you’re married start the process,” Handler said.

“One of the misconceptions we’re trying to overcome is that you have to wait to get your PCS orders to start the process,” Handler said. “Our concern is making (the visa process) as painless as possible. And what has made this most painful in the past has been waiting [until] the last minute.”

Getting an immigrant visa in a straightforward case — where the applicant is from Japan and the spouse is an American citizen — can take three to four months. If the spouse or another family member is from a third country — not Japan — the process can take much longer.

With a visa, the spouse can get legal permanent residence status (known as a green card) with a quick trip to any U.S. territory, including Guam.

Under a provision for people living overseas on government orders, permanent resident status doesn’t expire as long as the couple continues living overseas under orders.

The first step in the process is a petition to the embassy. Most of the problems can be uncovered at this stage, Handler said. Once the petition is approved, it can stay on record forever, so Handler recommends that step at the very least.

Also, once the petition is approved, the American citizen doesn’t need to be present for the remainder of the process, so if the servicemember is deployed, the spouse can continue on his or her own.

The embassy approves about 90 percent of the petitions it receives. Those it can’t approve are sent to the Department of Homeland Security, Handler said. That can add weeks of waiting.

Most of those cases involve spouses or dependents from third countries — not Japan. And most of those cases’ applicants are servicemembers, Handler said.

Since servicemembers and others with Status of Forces Agreement status account for three of every four Americans living in Japan, embassy officials have launched a campaign to help them specifically.

In the fall, the embassy’s visa unit created a new section to assist SOFA status holders, called the Military Outreach Portfolio.

As part of it, embassy officials are visiting bases. On Friday, about 150 people attended a 45-minute briefing at Naval Air Facility Atsugi and asked questions for more than an hour after.

The visit follows others to Yokosuka Naval Base, Yokota Air Base and Camp Zama. The Embassy will visit Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni on Thursday and Sasebo Naval Base on Friday. In mid-May, they plan to visit Misawa Air Base.

During the visits, the embassy folks also drop in to talk to the base legal and personnel offices about any problems and misconceptions cropping up.

So far, the briefings have had tremendous turnout, Handler said.

“It seems to be very much on people’s minds,” he said. “There’s a lot of young folks [in the military] and they’re of marrying age.”

The process ...By Juliana Gittler, Stars and Stripes

Here are the basic steps for getting an immigrant visa, which leads to legal permanent residence documentation — commonly known as a green card (although it’s not green).

There are stacks of required items and documents and you can’t get by without them, said Josh Handler, vice consul at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. “That is one of the most frequent causes of delays or even denials.”

It might seem like a lot of work but he notes it’s much more serious than getting a driver’s license.

“At the end of this rainbow is citizenship … so we want to be quite certain people are who they say they are and that the relationship is valid,” he said.

But it is possible: In fiscal 2005, the embassy issued 3,509 immigrant visas.

For help and a full list of necessary documents, visit your base legal office or use the online resources. The embassy cannot answer questions in person. Telephone and e-mail help is available for a fee.

1. Petition (I-130). The cost is $190. This step proves the legitimacy and origin of the relationship. Include as much as possible to confirm the relationship is real.

One problem the Embassy has seen in the past is prior marriages not terminated. Make sure to have complete divorce and death records if there was a prior marriage.

Although it is not technically necessary until the next step, the Embassy recommends submitting I-864, proof of support, to prevent last-minute problems.

Other forms necessary include proof of citizenship, a statement about how you met, marriage and other certificates, biographical information and passport photos.

2. Application. After the petition is approved, couples can submit their application, but they can start collecting documents for it while waiting for the petition.

Components:

¶ Medical exam. The only military facility authorized to do the exam in Japan is the Naval Hospital at Yokosuka. The embassy has a list of off-base physicians certified to perform the physical. The cost off base is about $300.

¶ Police certificate. From place of origin and any place the person has lived for more than a year since age 16. There are about six categories that are prohibited (for example felony convictions).

¶ Affidavit of Support (I-864). The sponsor must show he or she can support the spouse or dependent with a tax return. Since February, only one year’s return is required — previously, three years of tax returns were required.

¶ Interview. (Bring $380 for visa fee). After the application is approved, the spouse must come in for an interview. The American citizen doesn’t need to be present and it can be held in Japanese. It can take weeks to get an appointment. Be prepared to answer any questions about the documents you have submitted and the relationship.

Possible problemsEmbassy officials note the following problems faced by servicemembers in the past:

¶ Military members wait until the last minute to start the process. To process an immigrant petition and a visa application without complications takes several months.

¶ Servicemembers don’t complete the paperwork carefully. Can lead to delays — trouble if you are departing soon on orders. Seek help from the base legal office.

¶ Servicemembers provide poor documentation or have missing documentation for themselves or their family members. This can be insufficient identification or lack of police certificates from third countries.

¶ Prior marriages not terminated for themselves or their current spouses. A problem or suspicion of fraud can substantially delay processing, and the embassy cannot approve the petition. It is then sent to the Department of Homeland Security.

Helpful resources¶ Your base’s legal office.

¶ U.S. Embassy Web site: http://tokyo.usembassy.gov

¶ U.S. State Department Web site: http://travel.state.gov/visa/visa_1750.html

¶ U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: www.uscis.gov

— Juliana Gittler

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