I married my Peruvian wife in April 2012. I had seen a lot of the American visa industry, which is nothing less than an industry. Long before I ever moved to South America, I was offered money to marry a foreigner for money. I learned a U.S. citizen can charge more money for marriage in big cities like New York and Miami than smaller cities like St. Louis.
I was nervous about the visa, not only because of all the cases I’ve seen of Latin Americans being denied. The stakes were high because not only was Milagros pregnant, but I also had to work in the United States for a few months in order to pay for the birth of a baby, even if in Peru. If she were denied, I would have had to go without her and we would have spent at least her second trimester apart – probably more.
I filed an I-130 Petition for Alien Relative, which is not a Tourist Visa or Temporary Visa. I decided against the tourist route because, although faster, non-immigrant visas require the applicant to convince the embassy official that he or she will return to their home country. The embassy interviewers explicitly assume that each applicant is looking to emigrate, so there is a burden of proof on the applicant to prove that he or she will not stay in the United States. This is done by showing deep roots in their home country – real estate, businesses or corporate careers, etc. They also have to demonstrate significant financial resources (i.e., that they’re not impoverished and desperate), which the State Department justifies by pointing out the high healthcare costs in America. If something happens to the tourist, will they be able to pay their hospital bill?
That burden of proof is why most legal Latin Americans in the United States (not the Mexicans or Central Americans who entered on foot) are, while you probably wouldn’t have guessed, from the upper classes in their home countries. Middle and lower-class Latin Americans usually can’t prove sufficient need to return to their home countries, so they don’t get visas. So all the Brazilians, Colombians, and Peruvians you see at Disneyland – they’re the elite.
The I-130 Petition for an Alien Relative solicits an immigrant visa, which grants permanent residence and a green card. Therefore, it’s more difficult and takes more time. However, Milagros is not from an upper class family in Peru, and I didn’t have much faith in our ability to prove she wouldn’t emigrate, especially while pregnant. But more importantly, I didn’t want to spend only a few months in America. Asking for a tourist visa wouldn’t be honest because I wanted to spend an extended period of time not only to have the baby, but also to earn a significant savings for the family. Plus, she needs to perfect her English and get to know my family and culture.
I applied for permanent residence for my Peruvian wife. The Lima Embassy Application Process lists:
Step Two: National Visa Center (NVC) Processing
Once you file the I-130, you are in the National Visa Center system and receive regular updates by email to send more forms and fees, which can be done online. The Choice of Address and Agent (DS-261) and IV and Alien Registration (DS-260) forms ask for more personal information. The Affidavit of Support (AOS) requires you to demonstrate sufficient income on your tax records to support the foreigner you’re sponsoring. So if you’re unemployed or on the dole, you probably can’t bring your wife in. Moreover, in the Affidavit of Support, you sign a statement pledging to be responsible in case your immigrant relative becomes a public charge, which is someone who receives more government assistance than they pay in taxes.
The IV Application Processing fee is $230; the AOS fee is $88. That’s $318 on top of the $420 I-130 fee ($738 before any medical exams, FedEx shipping costs, notaries, Peruvian government documents, etc.). By the time it was all said and done, I had spent more than $1000.
From what I knew of the visa process, the interview is the most difficult part. In a temporary visa interview, the applicant is being screened for possible emigration motives as well as sufficient financial resources. An immigrant visa interview, however, is designed to catch applicants who (A) paid the citizen petitioner to get married or (B) married an unwitting petitioner only for the visa.
The burden of proof is on the applicant to prove this is not a sham marriage. Getting this visa was so important not only because we would spend her second trimester apart if she didn’t get the visa, but it was also a priority for me that the baby be born in the United States. I wanted no question about his citizenship. Even though there is a citizenship process for children of citizens born abroad, I didn’t want to take the risk in case the boy gets in trouble later in life, causing him to be deported. And given how I behaved …
You’ll spend significant time and energy getting ready for the interview. You’ll need a medical examination. See exam info for Peru or Colombia. Then there’s this list of required documents for the interview. One of those bulletpoints:
Family-based cases: All original documents establishing the relationship between the petitioner and the applicant
This means the embassy wants to see more than a simple marriage certificate. They want to see documented proof that the couple is a legitimately married couple, and not a pay-for-visa scheme. I presented extensive documentation to prove this point.
In addition to the marriage certificate, I provided two different apartment lease contracts (one in Arequipa, one in Lima) which listed both me and Milagros as residents with signatures. I got notarized affidavits from my brother and a friend who was in my wedding – both American citizens. My brother’s affidavit stated that he met Milagros in 2009 (which he did), returned to Peru in 2012 and saw our apartment, and stood as my best man in the church wedding. My pal’s affidavit said that he arrived a week before the wedding, stayed in our apartment, and attended not only the church wedding, but also the legal wedding a week prior. I included Milagros’ positive pregnancy tests (2) from a Lima clinic, and even the first two ultrasound images of the boy. Finally, I collected pictures of us over the years – in Arequipa, Lima, Bogota, San Andres honeymoon, and more – into a one-page document and printed it off in color (see that document).
I had a strong case not only because of our solid evidence, but we also had no red flags. I had never been married before, much less to a foreigner, nor had I applied for a visa for anyone. Milagros had never been married before, much less to an American. Milagros had never visited the United States, nor overstayed a visa, nor had she even applied for a visa. There is a nine-year age difference, but we don’t look as odd a couple as a 45-year-old man and 20-year-old woman. I had been in Peru for a long time, and I appeared at the interview speaking Spanish.
This sounds trivial, but keep in mind that many U.S. citizens who marry for money do it more than once, and many applicants who apply for permanent residence have been to the United States before and overstayed their visas. Not having red flags is just as important as having strong supporting documentation.
Despite my strong case, I wasn’t too confident because I knew about all the Latinas who troll the web for gringo husbands. It’s a full-time job for a lot of these women to surf dating sites all day long. I had a good idea how much a gringo in South America can earn to marry for money($5,000 – $8,000). I had also met gringos who married Latinas and moved them to America. As soon as the papers were finalized, the Latinas left them heartbroken. None of these scenarios are rare, which is why the American embassies have difficult approval procedures.
I was nervous when we arrived at the embassy in Lima. I had been stressing so much that Milagros was nervous too. Immigrant and non-immigrant visa applicants were separated. Immigrant visa applicants, which there were far less of, were moved to the back of a large hall. I sized up the other applicants and listened to their interviews, which were conducted in full view of the hall by employees behind windows.
I had singled out one woman in particular as a probable visa-hunter. She wore short shorts and four-inch heels. She wasn’t extremely attractive, but good enough to hook a lonely gringo on the internet. I couldn’t hear much of what the interviewer asked her, but she spoke so loud the whole hall could hear her. I heard the interview say “inglés” (English), and the young woman replied “Nada” (nothing). Another answer I heard was “Solo por video” – only by video, which I took to mean she only knew her fella online. She was dismissed in a seemingly polite fashion, with instructions to get more documents together. She thanked the interviewer and left.
Milagros was called for her interview by a Latin woman – not sure if Peruvian or some kind of second-generation American. I accompanied her to the window. I wasn’t sure if I’d be allowed, and this was a significant source of stress. Would Milagros be alone? Fortunately, I was allowed to participate.
This interview was in Spanish, and Milagros incorrectly answered one of her first questions: How old are you? In my wife’s defense, she had just turned 25 a week prior. But she answered 24. I interjected in Spanish that she wasn’t 24, that she just turned 25.
The interviewer asked if we celebrated. Given Milagros was pregnant, we obviously didn’t party. But I added that we went to TGI Friday’s for BBQ Ribs, her favorite meal in the world. I also added that we did that for my birthday as well, even though I would never choose to eat at TGI Friday’s on a birthday or otherwise. The interviewer laughed and agreed that my wife would soon see that TGI Friday’s is not a high-end dining experience in America.
So we got off to a good start with this interviewer. Moving past our good start, she was never difficult or rude. Their job is to expose fraud and ask questions to get inconsistent answers. But I’d go so far as to say she was friendly. She smiled and said goodbye at the end, telling us to wait for a second interview.
Second interview? I sat with my wife, stressing about what a second interview could mean. Good or bad? Standard procedure, or had this blog earned me extra scrutiny?
Almost all the second interviews were called before us. We were among the last three or four people, which I took as a good sign. I told myself that the weak cases went first, so as not to waste those folks’ time, and the strong cases went last. They would leave happy anyway. That’s what I told myself.
Our second interviewer, an American, told Monica to tell him how we met (“Dime la historia de su amor”). She said that we met at a bar in Arequipa through a mutual friend, one of my basketball mates.
This interviewer happened to be African-American. I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes, but suffice to say that basketball is an integral part of African-American culture. And this African-American federal employee played basketball in high school. He asked Milagros if I were any good, and of course she thinks I am. But this tangent presented an excellent opportunity for me to build rapport with the guy. He mentioned that he didn’t know where to find a good game in Lima. He had never even seen a pickup game. I told him about the highly competitive teams that pay their players, most notably Regatas. I also told him where to go for pickup games in Lima, Campo de Marte at 28 de Julio and Salaverry, just below the Paseo Colon, on Wednesday and Thursday nights.
He asked some more questions about the baby and where we live, what we pay for rent, none too difficult. Then he told us Milagros had been approved. He told us her passport, which we had turned over at the first interview, would be delivered to a DHL of our choosing with the visa in it. He gave us a thick packet and told us not to open it, but just present it as is to Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) upon entering the United States. I thanked him, then reminded him about Campo de Marte at 28 de Julio and Salaverry on Wednesday and Thursday nights. I was ecstatic.
The passport arrived to the DHL in Arequipa, where we stayed our last week with Milagros’ parents. All her family took turns poring over the American visa. We entered the United States in May.
My boy, Sebastian, was born September 30, 2013.
I was so worried about the visa process, so inclined to think the worst of the US embassy. I have to say I couldn’t have been more pleased with the level of service, the speed, and the courteous professionalism of every employee I encountered.