Judging from the speed with which some US immigration officers reach their verdicts, they must endure rigorous schooling in embassy policy.
photo: Ján Svrček
As an American citizen, I have never been through a rigorous visa application process. But I got my first taste of what one is like when I accompanied my 51-year-old second cousin Ján Kasanicky to try for his visa recently. Expecting to be just an observer, I soon found my insides turning with anxiety.
It was masochistic of Ján to have applied at all. Just three months earlier, another one of my relatives, Ján Debnár, was rejected in his bid for a tourist visa. We had thought there would be no problem. At 36, Ján Debnár is healthy, employed as a carpenter, married, and father to two children. He had an invitation from relatives in California. But we underestimated the importance of one fact: Ján comes from the east-central Slovak town of Revúca - population: 10,000, unemployment: 20%, morale: rock bottom. That one strike may have been all the US government needed to send him home bitter.
Against that background, Ján Kasanicky, who lives down the street from Ján Debnár, was tempting fate. But my aunt Zora, who defected in 1975, was intent on showing her cousin her adopted country.
So Ján asked his boss at the factory where he has worked for 11 years if he could use a vacation day to go to Bratislava. At 10 p.m. on Monday evening, Ján borded a bus in Revúca. When he reached the U.S. Embassy at 5:55 a.m., a line had already started to form outside. Half a dozen people had arrived just after sunrise.
At 8:00 a.m., three guards ushered us through a metal-detector and into the waiting room. Soon, a voice over the intercom started calling applicants in to pay the unrefunable $45 fee and submit their applications, passport, invitation letters, bank statements, and other supporting documents.
Then came the agonizing part. Over the next two hours, the intercom summoned applicants one-by-one for their interview. There were people young and old, people going to visit friends or relatives, people going for business, school or tourism.
The waiting room drama held everyone's attention. Each time someone emerged from an interview, all eyes were upon him, seeking a clue: success or failure? Most applicants gave hints. A smile or a frown was clear enough, but some indulged their audience with a nod or headshake, a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. And some, like the singing woman in pink, seized their moment with Hollywood flair. If no signals were broadcast, we could always count on one tell-tale sign. If an applicant was carrying his passport, - about half were - it meant he had been rejected. Those people granted a visa were asked to return to the embassy to pick up their passport at 4:30 p.m.
I watched the morning's events carefully, searching for some clue about Ján's chances in this apparent lottery. What are the odds? Does reason dictate this game? Were only young people being accepted or also old? Did people who slicked up for the occasion stand a better chance than slobs (there were several of both)?
Finally, Ján was paged and thrust into the spotlight. After a tense interview, he was granted a visa and the agony was over. As we unwound over coffee, Ján didn't celebrate long. To pick up the visa, he would have to miss the afternoon bus, losing another vacation day.