Thursday, 28 July 2011

Staring at the ceiling

It's something I never particularly cared to get dragged into. It's something that my husband refuses to talk to me about. It's purely political not economical (for now), and I mean politics with a small 'p'(for now), despite what the media would seem to imply.

Is it a Shakespearian farce?
Is it a Greek comedy?
Is it an episode of Monty Python?
No, siree, it's the DC beltway tussle over the US debt ceiling.

I only mention it now, and selfishly so, because it's coming very close to the time that I thought a 'midnight hour' deal would have been achieved. I do still truly believe that they'll pull a ragged looking, beaten ol' rabbit puppet out of their magicians' hat by August 2 and the world will be saved and the DC belt can keep on turning. It does make me very nervous however, and like I said, Mr won't talk about it. He is nervous too.

His government is having a huge, embarrassing domestic at the supermarket checkout.

The best basic description of this housekeeping argument can be found in genuine 'house keeping' terms courtesy of the fantastic pop-economist Tim Harford. He explains what happens if mummy can't find a job and keeps on buying handbags when the family still need to pay the mortgage.

Propublica offers a more extensive discussion which boils down to this: The US Constitution says that Congress has 'power of the purse' and decides what can be spent where. The US Government is into its overdraft, but also has high-interest loans to pay and a number of pre-agreed direct debits coming out of its account. Congress needs to decide whether or not to increase its overdraft limit, even though Congress knew (by tracking their interest-rates and expenditure) they'd reach the limit of their overdraft in August. Congress has increased its overdraft before, but not without a huge, rancourous tiff about household expenditure and income.

But this tiff is not about the US Government deciding to spend more than it has already agreed. As the US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner explained back in April: Increasing the limit “does not increase the obligations we have as a nation; it simply permits the Treasury to fund those obligations that Congress has already established.” Ignore all the potential deals and tax-rates and budgets for now, because they aren't really part of the short-term issue and nor should they be if a budget has already been agreed.

Poynter published some super background details on the subject, in its article "Seven mistakes journalists make when covering the debt ceiling debate." This article provides some important additional details to Tim Harford's simplified depiction of dinner table arguments.

If, after that, you want even more background reading, here's a handy reading list of some of the media's attempts to explain this very political crisis.

Pay special attention to the section of the reading list on what happens if the debt limit isn't raised. This is where the politics ends and the speculation begins. The Financial Times put it best last week, envisioning a scenario as the Treasury reaches the dregs of the overdraft and receives a call from the Fed: "would you like to put more money into your account or stop the payments going out?"

It is widely predicted that if the debt ceiling is reached next week, then the US government will have to stop paying for 'non-essential' items, stuff that it had already commmited to paying such as staff members (including military staff), social security, unemployment benefits, etc. This wouldn't happen immediately, as I understand; only when the Treasury is unable to balance revenue (tax) versus expenditure (spending plus debt interest) will things get halted, cut back, prioritised.

This ABC news article from April, when the US Government was close to shutdown over budget negotiations, has a list of offices and functions that would cease operation. I shall be explicit that this is not the same situation as in April, but it's worth looking at for an idea of what could be cut back on if the US sees 'no deal' in the coming weeks.

The reason I said I was selfish in mentioning this issue is because one of the functions that would likely halt is, of course, visa processing. Visa applications and petitions would pile up on empty desks, creating bureaucratic backlogs for when the budget situation was solved. If it came to this, though, at least we could wait, and we're certainly good at waiting.

Unfortunately I'm not sure those who await pay packets or benefit cheques could wait as long as us. I hope those taking part in this check-out conveyor-belt barney do realise that it's not just the stock markets that are anxiously following this tussle, but that ordinary peoples' lives are affected too.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Visa Vis

There are two assumptions that people often make about our situation:

1. Immigrating to the USA only takes a few months, and;
2. My husband and I get to see each other on a regular basis.

Unfortunately neither are true.

First of all, as I've already explained, the spouse immigration visa is a two step process. Before I can apply for a visa, Mr has to petition for me to be able to apply for it. Realistically the whole process takes 10-12 months. But we both make the situation work, and usually approach the visa process with a calm zen-like patience and 'vis'. It helps that we are fully aware of the process and all its minutiae: I have read stories from couples who have submitted forms with no supporting evidence, only to find out eventually that their application has been denied and they have wasted $420 and several months of separation. I have also read stories of those who have started the petition process with no idea of how the rest of it works, or indeed how long it takes. Before Mr and I planned our wedding in any detail we made a sincere decision about the way we'd go about it. You need to read the recipe before you attempt to bake a cake.

Mr's original preference was to apply for the fiance(e) visa, because it would have united us sooner rather the spouse visa would, which has us endure most of the long data-less wait individually. The fiance(e) visa involves a similar process to ours, although I think it can take longer because couples are not married when they begin the petition. Once the visa is approved, and the 'alien' arrives in the USA, the couple must marry within the USA and within a certain time limit, and then let the government know so that residency status can be affirmed. Many couples opt for this because it means that they can start their married lives together straight away. It was my decision not to.

Instead we got married and then applied for the spouse visa. The plus points are that my grandparents and the rest of my family could attend our wedding, we have split the cost of the wedding and visa to allow us to save up for both, and I can save up for my first few months of life in the USA. I will also be eligible to work from the moment I arrive on US soil (as a fiancee I would not have been).

But it does mean that we remain separated during the first year of our marriage, and by the time we will be living together again we will have been apart for almost three years (writing and realising this does make me rue my decision a little). And after all that we definitely plan to throw a super-fantastic BBQ/anniversary/homecoming party once I arrive in the USA. Two parties are always better than one, and especially when they involve a well-baked cake!

Secondly, while we have been apart we have managed to see each other about three times a year. Going on a date costs £400 in air-fares at present, not to mention 7-21 days of annual leave each time, so we are limited by both time and money. But we make it count - we've been to DC, NY, Malta, dancing lessons, jeep riding, swimming in blue lagoons, visiting deco hotels and local bars all over the world for pub fare and varying quality of service, and of course many trips to airport hotels, trysts in airport arrivals (and teary goodbyes in airport departures).

People often remark how romantic it sounds, but after 14 hours of travelling through grey terminal buildings and sitting jammed in coach for a sleepless nine hour flight and being questioned by a skeptical immigration officer about numerous passport stamps then stumbling to Mr's arms after having freshened up earlier with wetwipes and eyeliner in the plane's rudimentary plastic toilet cubicle, one's image of romance is certainly rendered more real than the phoney depictions of rose petals and candlelit poetry, or whatever.

Plenty of people have asked when we'll see each other next after our wedding soiree and honeymoon two months ago, and the answer is Christmas. Mr's coming back for more bacon-topped turkey, cracker jokes and mince pies, and we're both super-excited that we'll be able to see each other during the visa journey. We had both been concerned that it wouldn't be possible to see each other at all with 'visa pending', which would have required an even stronger kind of 'vis'.

Friday, 22 July 2011

On the Visa Journey: First base and getting touched

Sorry about the crude title, but it was too easy.

And thus concludes Act 1 Scene 1 of our petition. Nothing much will happen for about five months, as the other 100,000 or so June visa applications and petitions in California are also logged, filed, checked, approved and moved from desk to desk, person to person, until someone ticks a box and our little life story then gets sent from California to New Hampshire.

We will expect one of three things to happen in the coming months:

1. We will receive an NOA2, another I-797 form, to say that our petition has been approved and that the package is being sent to the National Visa Center in New Hampshire. Then we can officially 'apply' for the visa; or

2. We will receive an RFE, a Request for Further Evidence. If we filled out the form incorrectly, missed something, or didn't provide enough "evidence of a bonafide, ongoing marital union" then we will be asked to send particular documents to California; or

3. We will receive an NOA2 to say that our petition has been denied. This would happen if they didn't think that Mr was a US citizen; or didn't think that we'd met in person in the past two years; or if they had asked us to send more evidence to counter either of these two suspicions and we were unable to provide it.

Until then we read the scripts that let us know what to do when Act 2 comes around and we can (hopefully) apply for my visa!

There are actually some other things that we can do at this stage. Our petition is sitting like a duck in a sea of paperwork. You know, when it looks like not much is going on, but under the water surface is a frenzy of frenetic activity as the duck's webbed feet paddle frantically to get the old bird from A to B. Or California to New Hampshire. Or UK to PA. I'll explain what I'll be doing as we wait for our petition decision, in not so long a while, when the time comes.

There is one other fun little thing we can do while we wait for our petition decision. As well as being able to check our individual Visa Journey timeline to see how quickly or slowly petitions are being processed (note that link is not ours but overall current processing trends), we are also able to check the progress of our petition at the USCIS website. The USCIS website also allows us to login and check the status of our visa application, and the last date our petition file was 'touched'.

Our file is 'touched' when someone scans the file's barcode with our file number on it. To be honest, it doesn't really mean much. It could just mean that our file has been moved from one desk to another. As one person creatively described: it could mean someone spilt coffee on our file and just moved it to a clean desk. It could also mean that someone is reviewing our case, laughing at our facebook photos, making a decision on our petition, reading our Skype chat transcripts, or issuing an RFE for more Skype chats or notarized affidavits. Who knows. It's just a kinky way of describing the kind of action our package could be getting. Sorry, I don't think there's any other way to make bureaucratic processes sound fun.

But I know you're curious now, yes? When were we first touched?

The last activity on our file was 27th June. So we have a way to go yet to get past first base.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Californ I A: Visa petition hits the west coast

Our paperwork landed in Chicago and a few days later we received what is known as 'Notice of Action 1', or an I-797C, which is basically a notification to say USCIS received our inch-thick petition pack and forwarded it onto a Service Center for processing.

So now we wait.

But we can spin it rather nicely and say that the petition is on its way; it's just taking a slow, scenic roadtrip across America. USCIS has sent our little package from Chicago to California, where one of the four visa services is located (the other three are Vermont, Nebraska and Texas). As Pennsylvania is closer to Vermont we were a little surprised, so purely out of curiosity, and while our petition is rocking its Hollywood lifestyle, I tried to find out the difference between the four locations. Some Service Centers don't process petitions for all visa types (immigrant/non-immigrant/work/family/asylum/tourist and all their various subsections right to 'potential entrepreneur'), but usually petitions are distributed according to geography. Sometimes, though, they are sent elsewhere to ease the processing burden on a particular centre if they are busy or backlogged. I guess that's it.

For example late last year about 36,000 petitions were re-routed from CA to TX to clear backlogs at the CA Service Center. The measure failed when TX couldn't handle them all and they were sent back to CA. This resulted in huge delays for the poor petitioners and beneficiaries who had to wait helplessly as their paperwork was shifted from state to state with little to control its whereabouts in the system. 36,000 relationships were put on hold, while other petitions that hadn't been re-routed were processed in ordinary due course.

And another example: shortly after the Haitian earthquake in January last year the USA allowed Haitian citizens in the USA to apply for "Temporary Protected Status" (TPS). This status, while not an immigration status or a route to immigration, is a kind of visa or temporary asylum status allowing recipients to stay (and work) in the USA for a set period of time, while it's deemed unsafe for them to return to their home country. It's previously been offered to other nationalities such as to Hondurans and Nicaraguans after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and is available to Sudanese citizens as well. I have read accounts (mostly at Visa Journey) that most of the Haiti TPS applications were sent to the Vermont Service Center, though it's unclear if that resulted in an actual slow down in processing in Vermont. Regardless, there was a cut off point for TPS applications for Haitians, and most (if not all) have been processed now.

The Arab spring and the earthquake in Japan, similarly to the situation in Haiti, could also theoretically affect US visa processing times, although USCIS monitors these events and tries to pre-empt potential fluxes in visa applications.

The good news is that California is currently on target and processing petitions in about 5 months. We can even track down the approximate week when we should expect to be contacted next. Visa Journey is a clever and supremely useful site that allows immigrants to enter in their key petition/application dates and compare them to others in similar situations and at similar stages of the process. As more people enter in data the site updates the average waiting times and the likely date of our next milestone.

At this stage, according to the VJ timeline, we should hear again from USCIS in October. If all goes well in October we'll be able to put in an actual visa application and will have a new set of forms to fill out and another 5 or so months to wait (more on that later). However, things can change, and with July/August being popular wedding months I wouldn't be surprised if things slowed down again towards the end of summer, but we can only wait and see.

According to USCIS, 1 million people become US permanent residents every year. That's a simple average of 83,333 a month. If, theoretically, each Service Center had an equal part in processing 1 million petitions (and I know the number of petitions will be higher than the number of approvals/visa applications), then mine would have been joined by 19,999 other petitions sent to California in June. Obviously these numbers are flawed. That 1 million is only those who have been approved, so there will be many more petitions to account for, as well as peaks and troughs within a yearly cycle. I can only presume July/August/September is busy post weddings, but this isn't even to mention the visa burdens experienced by Service Centers for any of the many other visa types available. My very rough uneducated guess is that mine could be one of almost 100,000 envelopes that landed on a desk in California in June. And with that in mind, a 5 month wait for an email would not seem unreasonable at all, really.

And so we wait.