With all the hooplah over illegal immigration into the US and EU -- especially with the overnight attacks in Paris and Trump's "humane" deportation plan -- it occurs to me that most Americans are probably ignorant of what it takes to legally enter the US. As it happens, my wife is currently applying for a US tourist visa so we can visit family at Christmas, so I presumably have become an expert on the subject.
The US has a class of visas called "Non-Immigrant Visas," which include business travel (Class B1) and tourists (Class B2). We want the B2 visa, so naturally we click over to the US Embassy website here in Jakarta, and after a little poking and prodding, we find the NIV (non-immigrant visa) page, and the fun begins. It lists 5 steps to apply (notice I didn't use the word obtain) for an NIV.
Step 1: Pay
The first thing you are told to do is pay the visa application fee. Scanning down the left-hand column, we find the link called "Fees." Ooh, this is easy, we think. Clicking on it gives us lots of information about non-refundability and lost or stolen visas, but -- and I challenge you to find it -- not one line giving the AMOUNT of the fee. To get that, we googled "US NIV fees" to find a State Department page giving the fee amount as USD160. If you poke around, it tells you that all fees must be paid in the local currency, even though they are all listed in dollars, so a second google session converts the fee to whatever coin of the realm you use.
Back to the Embassy page to find out which banks we can use. If you follow the link from the Embassy page, you may note that the site is a .com, not a .gov site. We choose CIMB for no particular reason, except maybe there is a branch relatively close to the house. Though the site lists an option to pay by electronic transfer (a relatively new option), we opt for the physical payment in order to receive a hand-written receipt, just so there are no 'complications' leading to the non-refundable part of the deal.
Step 2: Complete the Nonimmigrant Visa Electronic Application (DS-160)
At this point, if you are a foreigner with basic tourist English skills, you may want your lawyer and a certified translator at your side.
So, now we are ready to start the application form. The site tells us that the form is online and provides a link. Here we find a handy checklist of everything you will need to do to complete the DS-160, which is not a hopeful sign, as we were hoping we would be able to fill out the form with just the information in our heads, and maybe cheating to look at the passport number.
We gather all the necessary data and prepare for the Big Moment. Back to the .gov site, where we select the "Tooltip Language - Indonesia, Jakarta" on the handy drop-down menu, which gives us another page, still in English, but now indicates at the top of the page that we are applying in Indonesia. OK, so at least our point of origin is acknowledged, even if we don't speak English. Scanning the page, we find links to Overviews, Guidelines and Information -- all in English -- and a handy tool to see if the online form will accept our photo, which has it's own set of Overviews, Guidelines and Information.
After multiple adjustments for file size, type, perspective, percentage, colors, and other fun stuff, it finally is happy with our photo. Now we are ready to start the application, so Click on Start Application.
This takes you to a page written in the glorious dialect of Governese, wherein we find more of those Overviews, Guidelines and Information links, and a novella telling us how we should proceed. I draw the reader's attention to the bottom, where you will find a drop down box containing a series of security challenge questions. Fans of Monty Python will note the distinct similarities to the Pilgrim's Challenge when crossing the Bridge of Death. I nearly shorted out my computer laughing to tears. Naturally, we answered "European Swallow."
After several days starting, downloading, saving, accessing, and collecting data to enter into the form, we were finally ready for the Next Big Step (NBS).
Step 3: Scheduling Your Appointment
We now return to the .com site, after a week of frolicking on the .gov site. WARNING: the link crashed our browser several times and required a reboot to get out of whatever mess they have made here, so caveat emptor.
Here we discover that every single person applying for a visa that is over 14 and under 80, must come down to the Embassy for a face-to-face interview. A family of four with a couple of older teenagers could end up spending a week or two on this step. Fortunately, we only need one visa, though.
After reading about waivers and necessary supporting documents and procedures for changing appointments, we found the link at the bottom of the page to actually schedule the appointment and find out if we will be Group A or B. It's at this stage that we learn that we must complete an online profile in order to proceed. We must give a delivery address for the completed visa, a screen name, and various other information so that we can track our passport, and THEY can track us. Note that we are still on the .com site, and not the .gov, meaning that none of the information we enter is protected and will probably be sold to advertisers, not to mention used against you in a court of law.
Steps 4 and 5: The Appointment
Finally, my wife was scheduled for her appointment. She was in Group B, meaning her appointment time was 9a. on a Wednesday.
We arrived at the embassy at 7:30a, and got in the cattle chute outside the Wall.
Now, I've been in most of the embassies for major countries here in Jakarta. I had meetings at the Russian and Chinese consulates, been to several functions at the Italian, German, Austrian, and Fujian consulates. I've been in the Phillipines, Singapore and Australian consulates. For the most part, the security is minimally invasive and the embassies look like stately manners or large houses.
The US embassy looks like a high-security prison. There is a 12-foot high security opaque security fence lined with cameras around the compound. The entrance looks like a hardened bunker with 3-inch thick glass, steel doors and angles concrete walls to deflect blast waves. Getting into the compound is rather like trying to board a plane in the US: strip to your skivvies, no electronic devices allowed, etc. Once through, you are herded across the basketball and tennis courts in a cordoned walkway to another hardened bunker near the center of the compound.
I wasn't allowing inside (my own embassy!). My wife was herded in with a group of people and I would be called if needed. About an hour and a half later, she emerged, having been approved for her B-1 tourist visa. For all the trouble, it was at least good for 5 years with multiple in-out privileges. Within two days, her passport arrived at the house with a big, officious decal all over one page, that had her photo and details neatly emblazoned on it.
The interview consisted mostly of checking to make sure my wife wasn't going to stay in the US, at least not on the "cheap" visa. She was asked about her reasons for going there, what my plans were (would I stay or would I go?) and double-checking the details on the application form. While her approval seems rather smooth and easy, she reports that a number of people before and around her were not approved, and I could tell outside who had gotten theirs and who had not by the looks on faces.
An example of things that can keep you from getting a visa is a blank passport. If your passport is new and never used before, that is one sure way to get denied. Fortunately, my wife had done some travelling over the past few years and had stamps from 9 different countries. Other friends of mine have not been so lucky when applying to bring their spouses to the States. Some have spent upward of $500 trying to get tourist visas and most were denied for this reason.
In any event, this should be enough to show that the current visa system is not easy and by no means convenient. There is a "vetting" process in place, and when followed and enforced, it seems quite sufficient to screen out most undesirables.
The problem with the current immigration system is that it is not enforced at the actual borders (not the soft airport borders) and there are far too many 'exceptions' being made for 'refugees' and other unknowns with most likely loose documentation who haven't gone through the above process.
One would think that it is a no-brainer to simply enforce the current system evenly across all access points to the nation's interior. For God's sake, the embassy entrance is better protected than the 1,000-mile Texas border. I know, I've been there. I've walked across the Rio Grande in some places multiple times and even straddled the imaginary line known as the 'border'.
Every other country on Earth, outside the US and Europe, seems to have no problem controlling their borders, with less complex and intimidating systems than are currently in place in the US. I know. I have spent eight years strictly adhering to the Indonesian laws. I pay $800/year to stay here, complete with annual check-ins, fingerprinting, photographing and signing. And Indonesia has a much more complex border than anything the US has to deal with.
Just enforce the current law. Problem solved.