A new United States immigration rule set to take effect in less than two weeks will impede the ability of American citizens living in foreign countries to return home with their non-American spouses and children, and may leave them stranded in a “bureaucratic nightmare”, the chairman of Democrats Abroad Cambodia said yesterday.
Speaking before an “emergency meeting” of expatriate Americans in Phnom Penh last night, Wayne Weightman said the change would lead to delays of up to three years in obtaining a visa to bring non-American family members back to the US.
“It’s a sad step backward that will force Americans in foreign countries to choose between being with their families and going home,” he said, echoing concerns raised last month by the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
In a July 18 letter to the US Citizenship and Immigration Service, the association of 11,000 attorneys and law professors said it was concerned about the “impact” the new process for requesting an alien relative visa would have on expatriates. The association also questioned the “fairness” of the process.
At issue is a rule that takes effect on August 15 that will prevent American citizens living in foreign countries from submitting an alien relative visa request form via their nearest embassy or consulate. The submission is the first step in the process of obtaining citizenship for non-American family members.
From August 15 it will not be possible to do this at the US embassy in Phnom Penh.
“Since Cambodia does not have a USCIS office, petitioners should file with the Chicago Lockbox facility,” embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh said. The “Lockbox” is a mailing address in Chicago.
Democrats Abroad estimates that about 10,000 Americans living in 172 countries will have to submit the form by mail. They will also have to pay with cheques drawn from US bank accounts and submit additional documentation and evidence by post, the group said.
The present one to three month wait will become one to three years, Democrats Abroad said. Mark Norris, an American who has lived in Cambodia for 17 years, described the change as “Kafkaesque”. He said he would like to return to the US with his wife and daughter so his daughter could start pre-school and had planned to just go to the embassy to arrange this.
Like most of the 30 people who attended the meeting yesterday, he expressed concern that a relatively simple process was about to become bewilderingly complex, and dependent on invisible bureaucrats and international mail.
One woman, who asked not to be named, said she feared being separated from the daughter she had adopted in Cambodia.
Due to a ban posed on adoptions in Cambodia by the US, she said she has faced a two-year waiting period before she could take her child back to America. The waiting period extends past August 15.
“I understood that I had to wait two years and I couldn’t go before then. My time is almost up and now they’re changing it,” she said.
“I’ve been counting down the days and packing the suitcase … and now they’re saying that it could be a year to three years. It’s heartbreaking.
“We just want to be able to come and go as a family. We just want to be together. If there was some sort of international emergency, I would be separated from my babies by a passport. I’m a single mum so I’m the only one they have.”
Sokh Frank-McKenley has American and Cambodian passports, but his three boys were born here. He said he attended yesterday’s meeting because “I heard that the rights of US citizens will be in doubt”.
“I can go to the US at any time, but I want to bring my son and my wife,” he said.
An official with US embassy tried to offer reassurance, but also said that there was nothing that could be done at the embassy after August 15.
“It’s a USCIS policy and we’re following it,” C Drew Hoster, the embassy’s consul said.
“We issue petitions because USCIS authorises us to, we follow what they tell us. We expect USCIS will come out with additional guidance very soon.”
A statement from the USCIS says the new rule preventing expatriates from submitting the forms at embassies will improve its “efficiency” and “flexibility”.
Weightman said this efficiency would break up families. “We’re talking about basic rights. The right to go back to your home and the right to bring your family with you.”