I have lots of new learning and new experiences built up from our wonderful trip to Ecuador, so I’ll try to write about some of it over the next few weeks & months while still trying to keep up with the “one new thing a day” effort. Lately, other than the trip, its been more like “one new thing a week” unless you count work-related stuff.
One of the main things I learned from our travel experience is how awful our own US policies are for foreign visitors. On our end, when we wanted to visit our daughter in Ecuador, we just made sure our passports were up to date, bought a round trip ticket for our week-long visit and showed up. We got our passport stamped in Quito, our bags scanned, and were sent merrily on our way.
While there, we met Kim’s 2 host families. These are people she met through her University who have welcomed her into their families and social lives. They have cared for her, taught her, fed her, traveled with her, included her in their daily lives, and love her. Both families are typical Ecuadorian middle-class – adults are business owners, professors, high school teachers, and government workers; college/grad students are doing things like med. school, teacher training, and studying psychology plus holding part-time jobs and doing what 20-somethings do in their spare time (socialize, dance, party, go out), while the teens and younger kids all go to school just like kids here. They participate on soccer and basketball and dance teams and are frequently busy with school or work-related events. They have dogs and drive Toyota’s. Sound familiar? Sure there are language and cultural differences, but for the most part, its very similar to our lives here. While we were there, both families hosted us for dinner and entertained us and made us feel welcome.
So, what’s the polite thing to do in this situation? It is (at least in my mind) to invite THEM to come visit YOU sometime! Not only do they know Kim and now us, but they have family members who live in the US. So maybe they’d like to visit and do wild and subversive things like go to Disney World, eat BBQ and go to Wal-mart. Dress like dorky tourists and buy new fanny packs. Oh wait, that’s us.
Guy in the background is thinking: they let this guy come here, but they think I'm too big a risk to go to HIS country?
Megamaxi - the Ecuadorian Wal-mart
So the apparent solution is to make it close to impossible for anyone from a country that isn’t on an “approved list” to visit, no matter what the reason. There is no just getting a passport and buying a ticket. If they really want to go to Disney World, or visit Abuelita in New Jersey, they have to successfully jump through hoops of fire to make this happen.
A potential visitor from Ecuador has to first travel to a major city such as Quito or Guayquil (possibly hours away) and interview with the US Embassy for a visitor’s visa. The Embassy is very clear (yes, they state this….its not a subjective opinion), that unless the person can STRONGLY prove otherwise, they assume that the person is trying to sneak in and become an illegal immigrant and will not approve the application. They are particularly suspicious of anyone under the age of 30. Gee, what age group in any culture generally likes to travel and see the world – wouldn’t that be the young people?
The applicant has to bring lots of documents to the interview and be prepared to defend them. The “proof” that the Visa applicant has strong enough ties in Ecuador that he or she wouldn’t leave (even though we KNOW they all really, really want to) may or may not be reasonable or even culturally appropriate. For instance, the applicant should have a few thousand dollars in an Ecuadorian bank account. Now what 21 year old do you know who has a few thousand dollars in a bank account? Certainly not mine, unless its the Bank of Mom and Dad. If the applicant is a young adult, in addition to a job and school registration, they want that person to have rent and utility receipts showing that he has his own apartment and is independent. He must have important things to come back to, like a landlord. The problem is that in Ecuadorian culture young adults for the most part continue living with their parents until they get married and start their own families. Its the norm, and doesn’t mean the kid is a slacker or secretly desires to give up Medical School and clean toilets in a seedy Miami hotel. In fact, Ecuadorians seem to be slightly appalled in a politely curious way that Kim not only prefers to live alone, but that we support this.
The difficulty in getting a Visa to the US is apparently legendary. If any family member, ever, at anytime, has “overstayed their welcome”, you might as well forget even applying. If anyone in your family has committed any crimes, you’d better hope your US cousin has Skype, because you’re not going to her wedding.
Potential visitors better make sure they don't have any of these types in their family tree. Most of us would be in trouble if we were held to the same standards
Interviewing is nerve-wracking. Remember, these aren’t just people showing up at the Mexican/US border saying, “Hey, yeah….I just want to go over buy some of those cheap US prescriptions, then I’m coming back. Really.” They have typically prepared for this for months if not years, made an appointment well in advance and bought new interview clothes. And even if everything is perfect, its still a seemingly random crap shoot. This process has resulted in a proliferation of tips and guides for potential applicants such as this: “Prepare a list of anticipated questions and practice answering them again and again.” “Prepare perfect documents, especially your family photographs, property documents, bank statements, and income tax records. Make sure the documents are perfect and nothing is missing.” and “You should know by heart the order the documents are arranged in your folder so that if you need to present a particular document it can be presented in 2 to 5 seconds. The interview officers are highly impatient, and any delay/fumbling in pulling out a document and presenting it to the officer can trigger an emotional reaction that might lead to visa rejection.”
I don’t know if this is true, but while reading up on this topic I came across one website that said Brazil, in retaliation for the USA’s draconian measures has instituted the same policies for US citizens wanting to visit there. Can’t say I blame them.
So speaking as a US citizen it really is embarrassing not to be able to say to our friends, “Please come visit!”. Instead it comes out as something akin to “Gee, if my government ever deems you worthy of stepping foot in our country and after they have fingerprinted and photographed and implanted a GPS-tracking device, if you’re not already totally fed up, I hope you’ll stop by.”