When I was 1 year old, a beautiful, dark-haired girl was born thousands of miles away. Her parents named her Svetlana Svyataya, which in Russian means roughly "Light of the Saints."
When Svetlana was 4, she played on the muddy banks of a creek running past her grandparents' Ukrainian farm. I was 5, mucking about on the muddy banks of Pittsburgh's Allegheny River, which ran past my grandparents' cottage.
Svetlana eventually moved to St. Petersburg, where she grew up and began to work on a doctorate in astrophysics. I ended up in St. Petersburg as a journalist. We met, fell in love and decided to marry.
But today, more than a year after our marriage, Svetlana cannot enter the United States to stay. She has been there once--with me, after an epic struggle with the U.S. government, one that indeed has still not ended.
Like most foreigners, my wife needs a visa: permission from the U.S. government to enter the country. In the frank words of Duke Austin, a senior spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington: "Just because you're marrying someone doesn't mean they're eligible to come to the States."
Getting a visa isn't easy. It depends on your citizenship, why you want to visit the States, whether you are rich or poor, sick or healthy, married or single, male or female.
Svetlana and I learned all this about 17 months ago when we got engaged and I decided to introduce her to my parents. So we went to the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg for a visa.
The State Department handles all tourist visa applications. Diplomats judge applications at their whim: They are not required to explain denials and there is no appeal. In Russia--and in other countries where the economy is wheezing or the political situation unstable--the State Department is particularly miserly with tourist visas. Diplomats say about 20% of the Russians to whom they grant tourist or business visas don't come back, choosing instead to live and work illegally in America.
Young, single Russians--and especially young, pretty Russian women--are the least likely applicants to return from the States, diplomats say, and so their applications are often denied. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said it denied about 20% of all Russian non-immigrant visa applications last year, and 45% of all such applications from people 18 to 25.
None of which, we thought, concerned us. We were wrong. At the consulate, we were told not to even bother applying. The officer on duty said a single 23-year-old like Svetlana could not receive a tourist visa because "she might marry someone and not come back."
I explained that we were engaged and that I wanted Svetlana to meet my parents. I explained that I had a job and Svetlana her studies, that we had an apartment and a dog and a car in St. Petersburg and would have to come back. The officer was unmoved; the State Department just couldn't trust us. If Svetlana and I sneakily got married on a tourist visa, he said, "it would really screw up our paperwork."
The officer suggested a different route: the K-1 fiancee's visa. This "fast-track, hassle-free" visa would "be ready very quickly, perhaps in a month." But we would have to get married within 90 days of arriving in the States.
For Russian-American couples like us, there are no other options. The government forbids you to introduce your Russian girlfriend (or boyfriend) to your parents unless you're prepared to get married. We were prepared; but not every couple looking down the barrel of Uncle Sam's shotgun can say that.
So we agreed to apply for the K-1. The State Department, at least, was happy: They had passed the buck. The K-1 is an immigration visa, which meant we would be dealing with the INS. The diplomats would have to do much of the work on our case, but technically we weren't their problem anymore.
So, we asked, what does getting the K-1 visa involve? Diplomats that day--and every day for the next several months--gave us wildly different, often incorrect and infuriatingly vague answers. Several insisted that I would have to fly to Washington to collect an INS application in person . Not true; my father mailed one to me.
Despite our requests, no one would lay out the application process for us; most diplomats would instead tell us only enough to get us to the next step in the process.
Frustrated, we called the INS. A computer answered.
"Our automated system is less than perfect," admitted INS spokesman Austin dryly. "We got 7 million telephone inquiries the year before last. If we answered telephones manually, it would take every employee working every working hour."
Indeed, if the diplomats had been evasive, INS officers were too busy drowning in their own paperwork. Our bulky file was added to a pile of nearly 4 million immigration applications, reviewed by a mere 2,166 officers of the 18,000-member INS.
"We're permitting in excess of 900,000 people to immigrate to the United States (annually). In the marriage category, the numbers are running 140,000 to 150,000 a year," Austin said. "Nor is it an easy rubber stamp."
Nor is it. We gathered and filled out a mountain of documents for the INS, only to have our application rejected for using "old forms." The rejected application was sent not to my parents in Maryland but into the black hole of the Russian regular mail system. (Today, more than a year later, it still hasn't arrived.) We got the "new forms"--which were exactly the same as the old ones, except for an errata slip raising the filing fee from $35 to $75--and reapplied.
Meanwhile, the infamously disorganized Russian government issued Svetlana her passport in three days, thanks in part to a chocolate cake and a bottle of red wine given to passport officials. And Svetlana and I got married in her hometown church (unofficially--if we got legally married, Svetlana would then need a wife's visa).
The INS approved our application in June. We arranged to rent a beach house in Maryland in August. Svetlana took leave from her graduate work, while I priced tickets to the States.
But at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, instead of a visa we were given more forms: Packet Three. "After you've filled out Packet Three, you can come get Packet Four," the unsmiling official said.
Packets Three and Four were the beginning of "the Questions."
Ever trafficked drugs? Ever gambled? Do you intend to be a ward of the state? Have you ever engaged in genocide or ordered the killing of any person? Do you plan to practice polygamy? Work as a prostitute or a pimp? Overthrow the U.S. government?
That government, guardian of the Bill of Rights, even asks whether applicants have ever been accused --not convicted, just accused--of a crime.
We turned in Packet Four and were told to report a week later to a grungy Moscow clinic for Svetlana's medical exam. The exam included an AIDS test; an HIV-positive result means no visa. The clinic contacts--by telegram--only those applicants whose results are positive. AIDS tests are notoriously unreliable, but the U.S. government reports all positive results to the Russian government, whose policies strip people with AIDS of many rights.
The summer slipped away without results (and, thankfully, telegrams). We let the beach house go. Finally, in September, we got the visa.
My parents met us at the Baltimore airport with flowers and hugs (but not before INS officers had fingerprinted Svetlana). We got married--officially, this time--at the Rockville County Courthouse in Maryland, where bride and groom take a number and wait in a lobby under signs that sternly forbid rice-throwing. A more substantial wedding--the kind my mother would have liked--would have required long-term planning made impossible by the uncertainties of the visa process.
At the INS Baltimore office, we traded our marriage certificate for more forms. We were unexpectedly asked to pay $120. And then the kicker: We were told to come back in two months for our next interview and--surprise!--not to leave the country in the meantime. (Never mind that the diplomats had repeatedly assured me we would be able to return to Russia immediately.)
I told a supervisor that my job would be jeopardized if we stayed. But he wouldn't consider my request to advance the interview date, so I demanded the $120 back. He refused, explaining that's the fee for getting an interview date.
We got a lawyer. He was sympathetic, but this late in the game, $100-an-hour sympathy was about all he could offer.
So we quit.
Today we are back in St. Petersburg, waiting for a wife's visa. Consular officials say this visa is more complicated than the "fast-track, hassle-free" K-1. We have plans to travel to America later this summer, but when I suggested Svetlana buy a bathing suit for the trip, she just laughed.