Visa quandary casts shadow on Vietnamese family

Surrounded by the mounds of paperwork he has sent to various government agencies, Thanh Van Nguyen holds up the visa application his brother, Tho Hoang Nguyen, submitted to the US Embassy in Vietnam.


By MICHAEL MATZA | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: August 4, 2015

PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — Thanh Van Nguyen said he served in South Vietnam’s navy and risked his life for U.S. troops before escaping in April 1975, a day before Saigon fell to the communist North Vietnamese.

Now 62 and a naturalized citizen, the print shop supervisor and his wife, Gai Thi Tran, 63, live comfortably in East Norriton, Pa.

And this summer, the couple had two reasons to celebrate: Their sons were getting married, one in New Jersey, the other in California.

But with the joy has come an unexpected and confounding sadness that’s unique to foreign-born citizens: the decision by U.S. officials that some relatives may attend while others may not.

For Nguyen, the relatives in question were his brother and brother-in-law — nearly identical in age and status, with jobs, children, and deep roots in Vietnam. “Both brothers have equally strong ties to Vietnam ... and a desire to return,” not immigrate, he wrote to the State Department.

His brother-in-law, from Da Nang, won a tourist visa spanning the six weeks between the weddings.

But Nguyen’s brother was told to stay home in Can Tho. In effect, officials deemed his ties to Vietnam insufficient to assure his return there to his wife, job, house, and 12-year-old daughter.

Immigration lawyers say the case illuminates the plight of more than 1.5 million would-be visitors to the United States each year. Their rejections under a section of federal immigration law highlight the luck-of-the-draw nature of the visa process — one in which everything rides on how the applicant comes across in a brief embassy interview that some say has the charm of a transaction at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Under Sec. 214(b) of the code, a consular officer can reject an applicant for a tourist visa without explanation.

“We issue tourist visas so people come here, spend money and invigorate our economy,” said Vietnam-born Djung Tran, an immigration lawyer in Philadelphia, who is unrelated to Gai Thi Tran.

But for some applicants, she said, “the officers conclude very early that the person intends to stay — and there is no way around that.”

Having a rich or even moderately self-sufficient relative in the U.S. doesn’t help, because an officer might see them as someone who can support an undocumented immigrant.

No one can be sure.

“It’s kind of a Catch-22, and introduces an element of arbitrariness,” Djung Tran said. “How do you give it your best shot when you don’t know what the officer really cares about?”

Philadelphia immigration lawyer John Vandenberg knows the dilemma.

One of his clients is a legal permanent resident from Pakistan awaiting the imminent birth of a child. Her pregnancy is considered high-risk and the woman wants her parents and sister to come from Pakistan for the birth.

“The father is a well-known nephrologist who gives talks all over the world. He was approved for a visa. The mother was approved,” Vandenberg said. “Arbitrarily (the State Department) said no to the sister, who has an income with a good employer in a fashion house” in Pakistan.

Vandenberg suspects the sister was rejected as a way “to assure that mom and dad come home.” But, he said, “It was 214(b), so who knows?”

Nguyen and his wife, began planning in February to bring their brothers here for the July 10 and Aug. 15 weddings. They assembled packages of documents to show they would pay for the airline tickets and be responsible for the brothers’ financial needs.

The packages, which they forwarded to the brothers in Vietnam, included the wedding invitations, the couple’s 2014 joint tax return; proof of employment; their bank balances; passport pages; and certificates of naturalization.

“At the end of the vacation,” reads their notarized cover letter, “we will see that our brother(s) return to Vietnam safely.”

Surely, thought Nguyen, his pledge should carry some weight.

His brother and brother in-law were interviewed separately on March 19 at the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City.

His brother-in-law, an electrician, was approved. Nguyen’s brother, a construction worker, was rejected — and refused again June 2 after he reapplied.

State Department spokeswoman Katherine Pfaff said the law prohibits it from disclosing details or discussing individual visa cases.

In telephone calls after each rejection, Nguyen said, his brother told him that officials didn’t look at the supporting documentation he submitted.

He later learned that was not unusual.

“In a typical day, a consular officer may need to interview 80 applicants or more, which only allows a few minutes per applicant,” the consulate wrote to him in a June 2 e-mail.

Nguyen is the oldest of nine siblings. The next oldest died in the Vietnam War. The others, except for the youngest, a 44-year-old sister, live in Vietnam, South Korea, and Taiwan.

“I have nobody in this country,” he said in an interview. “I invited my brother” as the family’s representative, to go back to Vietnam and tell how the weddings “looked, felt, and tasted.”

Hoping for reconsideration, Nguyen has written to President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius, to no avail.

Letters of support from Sen. Pat Toomey and Rep. Patrick Meehan have fallen on deaf ears.

Seeing their father’s dejection, Nguyen’s sons have advised: “Give up.”

But the former Special Forces sailor, who fought alongside U.S. troops, is still pushing while the clock’s still ticking.

“Somebody,” he said hopefully, “will open the heart that helps me.”

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