19 January 2020

Love Without Borders

Grace and I met in New York City in May 2018, and let me really begin by saying it was never Grace's intent to come to America to find someone to fall in love with. That just happened anyway. One of Grace's cousins suggested she get on one of the dating apps following a painful un-engagement just to move on more than anything. Meet some people. Have some fun. Then come back to Kenya and think about what you really want. Grace wasn't looking for me. But she found me.

And I found her. After years of living without feeling, of acting like I was feeling but really trying to sort out the pain from my own relationship trauma, I was finally feeling real feelings again. I was finishing up my master's and living in a city my heart beats in time with. I was ready to find someone like Grace.

This story isn't really about love, though. It is about love. But I really want to talk about immigration.

Grace was in America on a J-1 visa, which is a visa related to cultural exchange and learning. She, with her bachelor's and master's in finance, was working as a trainee accountant at the New York branch of BayernLB, a German bank. But what did I know about visas? I was in love! We clicked quickly, initially over music, because she said she liked classical music. She had lived in London for years; I've only been twice, but I appreciate British culture. We both like Indian food and taking long walks through the city. And coffee! How did I ever think I'd make a relationship work with someone who didn't like coffee? I don't know. Anyway. We clicked quickly, and Grace became the first romantic partner I took to Thanksgiving dinner in years. A month later, we were engaged.

It was around this time that I started to get interested in visas and immigration. Because, when you're about to marry a non-citizen, as a U.S. citizen, you start to wonder about these things. I learned that Grace's J-1 visa came with a two-year ban. This meant that, for a total of two years (cumulatively, not all at once), Grace would need to stay in Kenya before she could even apply for, say, a permanent residency (the so-called green card). Getting married wouldn't change that. So, I pressed Grace to apply for a waiver. There are several reasons you can have your two-year home requirement waived, the simplest being that there's no objection from your home government. The whole purpose of the two-year ban is to foster cultural exchange. The idea is that you come to America to learn a skill that you can then use in your home country to help them out. The thing is, according to Grace, there are accountants all over the place in Kenya. There's no reason for her to go back. She likely wouldn't even get a job as an accountant there, despite her experience and education.

The process of getting to even apply for the waiver took some time, mostly due to some foot-dragging on Grace's part, and also due to some brushing off from the sponsor of her visa. J-1 visas are generally sponsored by a third-party, a company whose mission is to foster some kind of cultural exchange. In Grace's case, her sponsor was the German-American Chamber of Commerce. Why German-Americans might be interested in cultural exchange between Kenya and the U.S., I do not know. All I know is they took their time putting a letter together, only after Grace sent an email expressing concern over the timeline. (If only we knew then how long we would be waiting, and still are waiting, to hear from the Department of State...) Their letter allowed us to get a no objection statement from the Kenyan Embassy in Washington, and we were able to send Grace's paperwork to the Department of State at the end of July 2019.

Some web searching and the J-1 visa waiver website indicate a timeline of about twelve to fourteen weeks to process the paperwork and forward a recommendation to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. But, we should see a status update on the website once the paperwork is in the system.

One month went by. Still no update on the website. There was no contact information other than an e-mail address, so Grace sent them an email.

Still no response, no update. I send an email. I also call one of the phone numbers sent back in the auto-response. The poor subcontractor on the other end of this call probably gets hundreds of these a day. J-1 visa waivers are the only thing this guy can't help with. He says to email the same email address.

Grace's visa expired in October, and she had one month to leave the country. What a daunting prospect! We had been living together since April, we were in the middle of planning an international wedding, already talking about kids and where to move next and all these things. And there was still silence from the government about her case.

I was worried about her reentry into the United States. The horror stories are abundant in the media. I got no sleep for three weeks, including the week of Thanksgiving, when I couldn't bear to be at the family table without her. I went to Connecticut instead. I kept hoping nothing would go wrong, that the customs agents wouldn't bring my darling fiancée into another room for further questioning, that they wouldn't question her about what her intentions were coming back into the U.S., that they wouldn't make her sign documents against her will. These things had happened to her brother only a year earlier; we still have no explanation or update on that situation.

And nothing happened. Grace got through security without a hitch. The customs agent did ask multiple times whether Grace was planning to work or not. (She was and is not until our paperwork comes through. She's not dumb. But, of course, she would like to be working, if only to give her something to do during the day and to help support our family.) But why should I have to bear all this anxiousness over it?

It's been about 25 weeks since we sent out the paperwork. Almost half a year. Last week I sent a letter to my senator asking if there's anything their office can do. We would like to get on with our lives. Wouldn't you?

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