After returning from Pakistan a little over a year ago, I have been observing with some alarm and exasperation the wave of populist uprisings – the conflation of economic insecurities, anti-trade/anti-globalization demagoguery with general insecurity and paranoia specifically targeting immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and all institutional forces serving as cornerstones of our post-war march towards greater global integration. All around the world.
I was personally struck by the horrendous San Bernardino attacks and the aftermath – now old news of course! The male/husband was a Pakistan American and the wife was a Pakistani who legally immigrated to the U.S. on a K-1 “fiancé” visa. At the time, this horrific news sent me shuddering for a few days. While in Pakistan, I spent half of my days standing in front of consular windows interviewing visa applicants – meeting thousands of local Pakistanis; and vetting vigorously and rejecting lots of people by enforcing the tough U.S. immigration law. Yes I made more than a few people cry in front of me. Sadly, I probably broke the dreams of some aspiring students – who were unfortunately unqualified. More common rejections were aspiring economic migrants who were simply looking for better opportunities in the U.S.
More difficult emotionally however, were unqualified applicants who happened to be the elderly – grandmas looking to visit their grandchildren, or members of religious and ethnic minorities who were being persecuted inside Pakistan….or cases of unmarried/divorced/widowed adult women looking to escape cultural repression and thought America as the savior…all obviously looking to get out of Pakistan, sometimes quite desperately, using whatever means they could apparently. Unfortunately there are no shortcuts around the tough US immigration law.
But those were just the non-immigrant applicants – nowhere as complex as adjudicating the hundreds of immigrant applicants. Many of these legal immigrants have been waiting to see an American visa officer since they were a toddler (given the sometimes one decade plus waiting period for certain categories of relatives-based immigration). The welcoming of hundreds of new immigrants to the U.S. was personal and emotional to me at times – how the faces of children lit up when I told them their visas were approved. These children were sometimes separated from their parents at birth, and now years later reuniting with these American parents and starting new lives. Other times, these were elderly parents who have waited years to see their sons and daughters and the grandmas would just totally break down…when was the last time your son visited you in Pakistan? yikes I’m sorry I shouldn’t have asked that question! …and these grandmas would bring photo albums of their children when they were 10 or 12 years old because that’s all they’ve got to prove their relationships. Yikes…..or age 30+ sons and daughters of American citizen parents counting down to the day they can finally get married – yes lots of adult children delay their marriages by years simply because they have to according to US immigration law (once you are married you have to go to the back of the immigration queue for years to come).
The most ridiculous cases were the brother/sister cases where the wait time is the longest…in one extremely sad case, I had to tell a family of two adults and nine children that they were all disqualified because the principal applicant had died just a few weeks before, therefore severing all direct ties to the U.S. sibling relative according to our strict immigration law. This was despite the years of waiting they endured and the thousands of dollars spent on all the health exams/certifications/vaccines etc to prepare for this big immigration move. These children were literally born and grew up with the sense that they would leave Pakistan. Now their father died and they can’t go to the US either. Probably the saddest thing I had to announce all my life…
Yes besides making people cry from rejection, people also cried out of joy – especially these immigrants who have been waiting a decade+ for this moment to be united with their families in the US. Once again, this was Pakistan – ranked as a country with supposedly one of the highest unfavorable views of America – thousands upon thousands of people desperate to go to America. This is the portrait of a typical legal immigrant, my friend. The long and arduous process they have to go through to make this happen. And yes, in Pakistan, we also processed lots of applicants from Afghanistan – millions of Afghan refugees live in Pakistan; I also vividly remember interviewing refugee/immigrant applicants from Sudan, Somalia and the Uyghur people from China. Each case with its own anecdote.
That’s why all this talk from some quarters that the government is just letting in “thousands and thousands” of people into the country without vetting is just so enraging. Not to mention the total and complete shutdown of all Muslims. Sigh.