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URASOE, Okinawa — The mountain of immigrant visa applications in Japan that built up due to a change in processing has been leveled, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said.

Edward McKeon, minister counselor for consular affairs, said Thursday that more than 760 applications that were left in limbo in January have been processed and the new system set up in March is running smoothly.

“This was a bombshell for us,” McKeon said at the American Consulate General’s office in Naha.

In January, consular officers were instructed to cease accepting petitions for immigrant visas because they did not have the means to perform criminal background checks on American citizens petitioning for their family members.

Under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, passed on July 27, the Department of Homeland Security was given the responsibility for such checks.

But it wasn’t until Jan. 22 that petitioners were told they had to file their visa requests with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service office having jurisdiction over their places of residence in the U.S., leaving the petitions filed with the consular offices after July 27 hanging.

Most of the petitions were for the foreign spouses of U.S. servicemembers based in Japan and moving to new assignments in the States. To ease the process, the State Department and Immigration worked out a system in which the latter office performed the background checks for petitions accepted abroad by the consular officers.

“We sent road teams out to Iwakuni and Sasebo on the weekends to do the necessary interviews,” McKeon said. “That certainly saved people there from making the long trip to Tokyo. We wanted to show them that we really do care and we’re doing everything we can do to make the process easier, including diverting personnel from the tourist visa side of the house to the immigrant visa side.”

McKeon said he had just visited the Consulate General’s Office in Fukuoka, which resumed accepting non-immigrant visa applications on May 9.

“That’s going to spare some servicemembers from Iwakuni and Sasebo from having to make that long trip,” he said.

Emergency cases will be processed as rapidly as possible, he added. And cases that involve servicemembers and direct- hire government employees assigned overseas who need immigrant visas for their foreign-born spouses and minor children are high priorities.

“The best way to avoid delays, though, is to plan ahead,” McKeon said. “Deployments can happen pretty quickly without a lot of warning. So if you are married to someone who will need an immigrant visa, it’s best to apply for one as soon as you can, even if you don’t have orders yet.”

McKeon said the toughest family cases are ones involving adoptions from other countries.

“It’s not a problem in Japan, but with persons born in some countries there may be a lack of valid documents, such as birth certificates,” he said. “Or when a background check is done we find out the child’s not an orphan.”

In some cases it is discovered the foreign-born spouse was not properly divorced before marrying an American.

“The Philippines, for example, does not allow divorces,” he said. “So the spouse has to get an annulment before an immigrant visa can be issued.”

Traveling? What to do before making that trip

Before heading back to the States this summer — or before going on a vacation to another part of the world — make sure your passports are up to date.

Every year U.S. consulates overseas get calls from Americans stranded at foreign airports because their passports expired.

Edward McKeon, minister counselor for consular affairs for the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, said people should review the information on their passports regularly and apply for renewals way ahead of the expiration dates. Passport renewals can take up to six weeks, he said.

He also urged servicemembers with foreign-born family members to be sure they have proper tourist visas if they are planning on vacationing in the States.

Japanese citizens going to the States for less than 90 days are exempt from the requirement, but citizens of Thailand and the Philippines who are married to Americans will need to obtain tourist visas.

For more information concerning passports and visas visit http://travel.state.gov/index.html.

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