Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Don’t count your pixels before they fire

Having exceeded expectations at a pioneering digital media company for over 30 months, my employer decided to reward me with a trip to a global conference from 28th-30th January 2013 in Las Vegas.

Excited, I got the flight tickets and itinerary in place even as my company sent in all supporting documentation for my visa application.

With everything in order, on 27th December 2012, I completed the DS-160 application for a non-immigrant B1 (business) visit visa.

Before the actual interview, an applicant gets an OFC appointment wherein his/ her fingerprints and photographs are taken. I completed this on 4th January. [More about it here]

And, the earliest ‘interview date’ which the system could offer me was 15th January.

[Observation: No early bird prizes here. My colleagues who applied on 31st Dec got an interview date of 10th January.]

On 12th January, while attending TEDx Masala, I struck a conversation with a couple at the venue and it turned out that they worked at the US Consulate. After exchanging pleasantries, they moved on.

On 15th January, I arrived early at the Consulate for a 7:45 AM appointment.

I waited for 2 hours for my turn, overhearing a number of interviews as they happened right in front of me. From the lady who had to show “wedding photos of you walking around the fire with your American husband” to the gentleman who stammered “I can explain why they filed a case against me” to the girl who cried “I don’t want to go the US but my father is insisting”, they had it all.

[Observation: If the PA systems were anything to go by, the Patels definitely have a strong community in the USA. In fact, I have a feeling they had a little reunion at the Consulate because the announcements kept requesting them to “come to the interview window immediately”.]

My turn arrived at 10 AM. With all supporting documents in tow, I headed to the interview window. Lo and behold, it was the TEDx attendee interviewing me!

Me (Handing over the passport): Good Morning
Visa Officer: Hi. You are visiting the USA for a conference?
Me: Yes. It’s a Global Sales Conference.
Visa Officer: Which team do you work in?
Me: Sales Strategy
Visa Officer: Can you tell me how much your annual salary is?
Visa Officer: Okay. Thank you. Your visa is approved and you can collect the same in a day or two.

That was it. Three simple questions and my documents were not even asked for.

My colleagues got an email the same day, informing them that their visa-stamped passports were ready for pick-up. I gave it a couple of days thinking “Man, it sure was a busy day for them. Maybe mine will take an extra day or two”.

After hearing nothing for three days, starting 18th Jan, I tried every possible way to get in touch with the Consulate – from email to phone calls to chat. I even made 3 trips to the collection center at Trade Center to see if they might have an update.

Every single time I reached out, I got the exact same response:

With regards to your concern, we would like to inform that, the passport status is "Created", which means your visa application is under process. You may check the case status of your application in the following link by selecting “Check my Visa Application Status” under “Non-Immigrant.”

This is what I got on the above link:

Curious, I started searching for ‘Administrative Processing’ and landed on a link on Quora.

It didn’t help when I repeatedly read about applicants’ helplessness regarding ‘Administrative Processing’ across forums.  Meanwhile, my query on Facebook drew responses from friends who had been in similar situations too.

Regarding 'Administrative Processing', these were among the hypotheses running through my mind:

1.        “Maybe my common name’s led to a Name Hit in the system”
2.       “Maybe my graduate degree falls under the Technology Alert List
3.        “Maybe my Turkey transits draw attention due to the unofficial List of 26

Even as time was running out, I was hopeful because I hadn’t been handed a 221(g) slip at the interview.

And then, when I’d given up all hope of flying for the conference (on 25th January night), I got a call from the Consulate at 12 PM on 25th January:

Lady: Hi. I’m calling from the US Consulate. Is this Vijay?

[And this, because the Consulate required me to enter my first name as Vijay and surname as Abhishek because they don’t accept “Abhishek Vijay” for someone whose documents say “V Abhishek”]

Me: Yes, Abhishek here.
Lady: This is regarding your case. There was a technical error and we need to capture your fingerprints again. You can come any time next week.
Me: Can I please come there now? My entire team is flying tonight for the conference and it would be great to get the passport back today.
Lady: Let me check with the Supervisor and call you back.
Me: Ma’am, may I know your name?
Lady: Sorry, we cannot divulge our identity to anyone. I will call you back.

A few minutes later, she called:

Lady: Sir, you will have to come to the Consulate immediately if you want to give your fingerprints today. Please quote XXXX extension number at the entrance and they’ll lead you to my window.

I ran, hailed a rickshaw and got there as soon as I could.

There were at least 2-3 other applicants giving their fingerprints again.

When I was done:

Lady: Sir, you can go home now.
Me: Ma’am, my entire team is flying tonight for the conference and it would be great to get the passport back today.
Lady: Please check this evening but we cannot guarantee it. Else, you should get it by 28th January, Monday for sure.

After a few hours, I went to the collection center to check on the status, in vain.

Dejected, I got my flight rescheduled for 28th January night as I’d sought approval to attend at least half of the conference.  

28th January passed without any sign of the visa and with that passed my chance to be rub shoulders with my regional and international colleagues at the biggest company event of the year.

I cancelled my flight tickets, losing a total of 25,000 INR (450 USD), besides the ill-fated non-refundable Universal Studios Front-of-Line pass worth 7,000 INR (130 USD).

By this time, I just wanted my passport back – with or without the visa; considering I had read forum posts about folks who had waited months for their passports to be returned.

On 29th January, I received an update at 3:30 PM (exactly half-an-hour before the Collection Center closes, which anyway is at least a 'traffic hour' away from my office):

I picked up the passport on 30th January. Turned out the US Consulate had issued me a 10-year visa for a 3-day conference that they didn’t let me attend! K

I’ve travelled a bit and lived abroad too. During these journeys, I have been treated unfavorably at some airports because of my skin color but I have never ever had to give up my passport for 2 whole weeks, while waiting for a visa.

For USA, a country that has attracted millions of people from all over the world for its promise of freedom, it’s ironic that it disrespects visa applicants’ rights by holding onto their passports - assuming that there aren't other countries we might need/ want to travel to, in the interim.

As for ‘Administrative Processing’, I’ll never know if I was classified as a fauna species or if it was really a ‘Technical Error’ that caused the delay.