I had heard many nightmare stories about getting U.S. travel visas for Costa Rican citizens and was putting it off for Carla and Laila for a long time because of it. I couldn't bear the humiliation if they were to be denied. But in October or November of last year, I decided to bite the bullet and begin the process.
The rules for Latin Americans are different than those for, say, Italians or Irish, who can enter the country on their passport alone. All people are not created equal in the eyes of the U.S. government. That infuriates me!!
The U.S. embassy's website in S. Jose states, "Every alien shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the officer, at the time of the application for a visa... that he is entitled to nonimmigrant status..." It should be followed by an asterisk *Except for Europeans and people from other rich countries.
It goes on further to say, "Under this standard, each applicant must demonstrate that he or she has a permanent residence outside of the U.S. that he or she does not intend to abandon. The burden of proof is on the applicant to show that he or she qualifies for the visa. Proof may come in many forms, but when considered together, it must be strong enough for the interviewing officer to conclude that the applicant’s ties to Costa Rica (or other country of residence) will compel him or her to return at the end of a temporary stay in the United States."
The visa application process is a bit complex. You have to call the embassy using a credit card, and make an appointment for an interview. You also have to pay for the application process in advance at Banco de Costa Rica and bring the receipts to the interview. You then have to fill out several forms, some online, obtain certified birth and marriage certificates from the registro civil, get divorce papers certified, and painstakingly document reasons that would compel you to return to your homeland. That means gathering documents to show that you have enough money in the bank, a job, a car, a house and family ties. Since I am the sole supporter of my wife and child, I had to demonstrate the compelling reason.
After a few of weeks of getting together forms and documentation that gave me a good enough comfort level, I set up an interview for my daughter, who was less than a year-and-a-half in age. I then piggybacked my wife's interview on top of that one - kinda difficult to interview a toddler.
We had a 9AM appointment so we left for S. Jose the day before and spent the night at, Casa Roland, a B&B nearby the embassy (great place!). Upon arrival at the embassy, we had photos taken of Carla and Laila, then proceeded to the interview area. The place was packed with people, but because of Laila's age, we went to the front of the line.
My heart was pounding and my palms sweating as we were immediately directed to the first window. The guy behind it put me immediately at ease by cracking a joke about the amount of paperwork I had brought with me. He then had me sign a couple of documents I had left blank because I was unsure of who had to sign, and directed us to another window where the same thing occurred and all of the fundamental paperwork was deemed in order. I couldn't believe it: This was, so far, a PLEASANT experience! I was actually having FUN!
We then waited at the head of another line for the interview. Within about 5 minutes the shutter on the window went up and a pony-tailed young man appeared. He waved us to come forward and began the interview. He asked for Laila's birth certificate. I handed it to him. He reviewed it and then asked if it was OK to switch to English. I said my wife didn't understand much English. He just brushed it off. Now I was scared. He was interviewing me. My palms began sweating again and I had cottonmouth.
He asked me where we lived, what business I was in, how the real estate market was and why I wanted to bring my family to the U.S. I said, Playa Hermosa, real estate, tough market, and that I wanted my daughter to be able to visit her grandparents and to take my family to a White Sox Baseball game. He hesitated, looked up at me confused, and asked me WHEN I was going to the U.S. (Keep in mind that this is Decebmber and baseball season doesn't start 'til April)? I said in June or July. He then asked me why I was applying for visas NOW? I told him that if a good airfare came along, I wanted to take advantage of it and leave. He nodded his head, "Ahhh...", and remarked, "Why don't we get more people like you in here?"
The interview topic then abruptly shifted to White Sox baseball - the "...team of our new President" - then to Notre Dame football - "...when are they going to have a team?". After a few minutes of bullshitting, he said that the visas had been approved and that they would be sent to us via DHL. I was dumbfounded. I froze and didn't know what to say. Had I heard him correctly? APPROVED!!!! YESSSS!!!
I whisked Carla and Laila outside to the DHL counter before he could change his mind. The visas arrived in Liberia 5 days later (10 year for Carla, 5 year for Laila). We can now travel freely back and forth to the U.S. as a family.
When I look back at all of the horror stories I had heard and the resulting stress I put myself through, I can't help but wonder whether the visa process is just a crap shoot, a gamble. I have friends with more money, stuff, etc. than I, who have been shot down 3 times. I was in and out of there in half an hour.
Sometimes, you get a break. But I like to think I just did a good job of doing my homework and that I arrived prepared. Or maybe it's the family ties that outweigh all else.
Whatever it was... Pura vida!!