Privileged, Prepared, and… Powerless

An American professor advocating for his Congolese niece comes face to face with the capricious and cruel realities of US Immigration

by Craig Keener

As the small overloaded boat veered to one  side, I feared the water would pour in and submerge us. I was praying fervently; boats have been known to capsize on the massive Congo River, and I had never swum outside a pool. The voyage already had complications. We had just enough money to spend one night cheaply in  Kinshasa and then make the return voyage; the guards at our embarking port in Brazzaville had made sure we had no more cash than that.

Keren 1

Keren in Brazzaville

Nevertheless, we were determined, no matter what the risks, to try to help my wife's 7-year-old niece, Keren. My wife's brother had named Keren for one of Job's daughters, since she was born just after the war in which they had all been refugees. Like her father, a professor, Keren was smart; she was working at two grades above her age level, and she learned English words as quickly as I could teach them. Yet she was living now with just one parent in Brazzaville, one of the world's most dangerous and least healthy cities. Some of my in-laws had nearly died by violence several years earlier; our son had nearly died of malaria there, and Keren had often been dangerously ill. Multiple sources had informed us of roving gangs raping girls, and at this time various circumstances gave us good reason to believe that Keren's life was especially in danger.

In Africa relatives routinely take in other relatives; in the United States adopting a niece or a nephew is one of the easier forms of adoption. That does not apply, however, to relatives overseas. An immigration lawyer advised us that current US laws allowed no other means to get Keren out of her situation and have her live with us in Pennsylvania than to enroll her in a private school and bring her here by means of a student visa. Always determined to live simply for the sake of other needs in the world, we had to weigh the costs of paying for many years of private schooling, but in the end we resolved that we would do whatever necessary to help Keren.

This was not Keren's first visa interview. Twice before, her father, with her mother's blessing, took the boat across the Congo River to the US consulate in Kinshasa. At the time, the US consulate in Brazzaville, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was not functioning. Thus all applicants for US visas had to make their way to the consulate in the DRC. In both instances, however, Keren's folder was placed in the long rejection line before she and her father were even called to the window. This treatment was in spite of the consulate's nonrefundable US $131 fee, a sizable sum of money for a Congolese citizen. The first time, the vice-consul wanted more proof of my wife's relationship to Keren, which was easily supplied.

The second time, the vice consul objected that the course of study was unclear but refused to explain what she meant by this. She insisted that if Keren's father wished a foreign education for his daughter he should send her to South Africa. But my wife, Médine, his closest sister, was the only sibling to whom he would entrust his daughter; no relatives lived in South Africa, and at that time the killing of foreigners in South Africa was in international headlines.

On this third trip to the consulate, we had hundreds of people praying for our success. Keren believed that God would grant her the visa, and her faith encouraged the rest of us. Though harboring no illusions, we hoped that as US citizens my wife (though a Congolese citizen before our marriage) and I might receive a better hearing.

A quest predestined to fail

The next morning, we waited while people who had arrived after us were granted visas. They were fingerprinted before their interviews, showing that their folders had been placed in the approval line beforehand. One of them was someone notorious for having oppressed and exploited many other citizens of his country! Like those that followed us, we were not fingerprinted before our interview, since we had been placed in the rejection line before being interviewed. Several months of preparation would culminate in a few brief moments before the vice-consul.

She asked us several questions until she found one useful for rejecting our petition. She inquired how long we intended to sponsor the child; we noted that we would do so for the seven years permitted on the I-20. Nevertheless, we also chose to  answer honestly that we were prepared to sponsor her beyond that period. Renewal of status while remaining in a program is a fairly standard procedure, specified even on the form, and other international elementary students at the private school we were working with often continue through high school. The vice-consul responded, however, that our answer revealed that we had no plan of study, hence by "law" she had to refuse us. "This letter explains the law," she noted, handing us a form letter from the stack.

Because this form letter was precisely the same one that she had twice handed to my brother-in-law, I had already read it. It did not "explain" any law, but specified Section 214(b). Our lawyer had located the relevant laws for us, and this one assigned the consular officer the right to decide but did not specify the criterion the vice-consul used, a criterion that could exclude virtually all elementary students (in contradiction to law N17.2 and the regular admission of elementary students from many other parts of the world). Of the three sample proofs of ties to one's home country listed, Keren met the only one relevant to a 7-year-old. The law thus did not require a negative decision.

Like a good academician, I started to raise an objection. "You have total authority to make whatever decision you want," I offered, "but I have read the laws in question, and …" I was going to add that since many US private schools do have elementary international students, many other consulates do not interpret the law in the way that the vice-consul had. She cut me off before I could say anything, however, noting curtly that her decision was final. I'm sure she was not accustomed to having anyone speak back to her; as a US citizen, I was not accustomed to dealing with agents of government unaccountable for their actions.

Both sides of Keren's extended family in Congo attributed the refusal to "the wickedness of the US government." We and many of our prayer supporters in the US felt the same way.

A misplaced faith in "rights"

This was not our first experience with immigration difficulties. After Médine had survived 18 months as a refugee, we confirmed our love for each other and applied for a fiancée visa. Because the US consulate in her country had been shut down  during war, she waited for the visa in neighboring Cameroon, away from her family, for a period that eventually stretched to eight months. After a senator intervened, the immigration service sent us their approval of our petition. The consulate could not accept our copy of the letter, however, needing it to come by diplomatic pouch from the immigration service. Immigration service and the consulate each accused the other of having lost the file; the former told us that we would need to start the process over again. The consulate was gracious, however, and after we had missed our first wedding date, we were finally able to marry. Our current petition, however, did not end so happily.

Keren was silent as we made our way back across the river, discouraged. I, meanwhile, struggled with anger and despair. When our government assigns some countries lower immigration quotas than others, consulates in those countries presumably must refuse more petitioners. I have no way of knowing if immigration quotas affected our case, but it is clear that the laws are interpreted differently in different consulates. The private school noted that they had never experienced these difficulties with students from other countries, for which the process had  always been straightforward. Yet the situation could have been even more difficult; a missionary friend in Congo told me that his own nation's consulate in Congo had standing orders to find excuses to reject all applicants.

My concern is less with the laws, however, than with compassion and truth. Legally the vice-consul could make whatever decision she wanted. But what moral purpose does it serve to bar our 7-year-old niece from the country where we are living? All the objections people raise against immigration were irrelevant in her case: She was not a potential terrorist, not illegal, and not a burden on society; we had legally obligated ourselves to cover every aspect of her support. Some may object that everyone would like to bring their relatives here, but Keren is the only one we have tried to bring, because of her special circumstances. Because we have had a series of miscarriages, we cannot be accused of contributing to overpopulation. The harshest critics of immigration might finally suggest that if we want to be a family together so much, we should simply emigrate. That is an option  we have discussed; however, due to my linguistic deficiencies, Congo itself would not be a likely destination.

Devastated but unwilling to give up, we waited two years and applied again. This time the consulate, now in Brazzaville, was courteous and noted that all our papers were in order. Nevertheless, they refused the visa. My brother-in-law pointed out to no avail that the private school has students from many other countries. As I have mentioned, however, some countries are more favored by US immigration policy than others. At the time this article goes to press, Keren is 10 years old, staying with her father, whose job requires him to be away from her for many  hours each day. The most direct original danger has apparently passed, though new threats arise periodically; in any case, life remains much less secure in Brazzaville than in the States; Keren's father was wounded by robbers as this article went to press. The Congo region has the world's highest incidence of rape, and we still want to make life better for her. If US immigration policy makes this impossible, am I wrong to ask why the policy is written and implemented in this way? Spoiled with our many "rights" in this country, it never occurred to me that what initially and instinctively seemed a matter of course—to be able to take in a child who is a relative—would be denied us.

Craig Keener is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., and the author of 14 books. He has trained ministers in various parts of Africa, primarily Nigeria, Cameroon, and Kenya.

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