Overseas consulates get green light for visas
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — There’s good news this week for overseas military families who found themselves in a quandary because of a change in the way immigrant visa applications are processed.
The U.S. State Department announced Thursday that U.S. consulates once again will accept visa petitions for relatives of U.S. citizens living overseas, including members of the armed forces.
The change solves a processing problem that developed in January. At that time, consular offices were instructed to cease accepting petitions for immigrant visas because they did not have the means to perform criminal background checks. The background checks, on American citizens petitioning for their family members, are required under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, passed on July 27.
The consulate offices stopped accepting new petitions Jan. 22, and petitioners were told they had to file requests with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service office having jurisdiction over their places of residence in the U.S. That left some 760 immigrant visa applications filed in Naha and Tokyo after July 27 in limbo. Most of the applications are for the foreign spouses of U.S. servicemembers based in Japan and facing new assignments in the States.
Many of those pending applications were sent to the USCIS office in the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. By the first week of March, about 100 applications have been processed and sent back to consular offices for final interviews, according to the State Department.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert Berry, stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base, said he was one of the lucky ones. He and his wife, Keiko, have a 7-month-old son.
“We got a call from the U.S. Embassy today and got an appointment for Tuesday,” Berry said Thursday. “We were told it takes just two to three days to get the visa stamp once the interview is done, so we should have everything set by the end of next week. It’s just in time.”
He is due to transfer to a new assignment in Bangor, Wash., on April 10.
In the weeks since the Jan. 22 halt to accepting applications overseas, the State Department and USCIS worked out a process in which USCIS would perform the required background checks for petitions accepted abroad by consular officers, said Kathleen M. Goggin, deputy spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.
In addition to working with servicemembers and other U.S. citizens living abroad, the consulates also will accept “true emergency cases, such as life and death or health and safety, and others determined to be in the national interest,” according to a State Department release.
“To demonstrate residency in a consular district, American citizen petitioners must be able to show that they have permission to reside in the consular district and that they have been doing so continuously for at least six months before filing the petition,” the State Department announced. “Individuals who are in the country on a temporary status, such as student or tourist, would not be considered to meet the residency standard.”
Family emergencies include situations where minor children would be unexpectedly left without a caretaker, according to the announcement. It also stated that examples of national interest include facilitating the travel of servicemembers and direct-hire government employees assigned overseas who are pending transfer on orders and need immigrant visas for their spouses and minor children.
In Okinawa, U.S. Consul General Kevin Maher said he was pleased with the new arrangement. “We are happy to once again be able to provide this important service to our military colleagues and their families,” he said.
The consulate office in Naha is in the process of completing clearances for immigrant visa petitioners as required under the Adam Walsh Act, said Philip Roskamp, the Naha consulate visa chief, in an e-mail.
“Once the clearances are completed, consulate staff will contact families to provide instructions on how to proceed with Part 2 of the process,” he said. “Some families with completed name checks have already been able to schedule Part 2 interviews.”
Tony Edson, deputy assistant secretary for visa services at the State Department, said servicemembers who have already filed their paperwork with stateside offices don’t need to refile or revise their applications.
“Those cases are already under way, they’ve already paid the fee, and they should be cleared in the near future,” he said. Still, Thursday’s announcement left some servicemembers scratching their heads.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Eran Buck, a sailor assigned to Yokosuka Naval Base who has a Japanese wife and 2-year-old son, said he is frustrated the process hasn’t been fully explained to those with pending applications. He waited until six months before his discharge date to file the paperwork.
“I am afraid I am going to have to spend the money I had saved to move to Iowa and go to school to rent an apartment here for my wife and son while I am in the States dealing with this mess,” he said.