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DIPLOMACY AND IMMIGRATION

Reciprocity: US should ease Visa application process

The majority of those who seek American visas are those who would cling to dear Kenya were you to tell them that going to the US would deprive them of the right to come back

In Summary

• This Big Brother syndrome, which manifests itself in many ways from time to time, is worrying many people in the developing world.

• Many Kenyans have suffered, and are likely to continue suffering silently if this “process” of getting US visas is not soon looked into.

US Ambassador to Kenya Kyle McCarter.
US Ambassador to Kenya Kyle McCarter.
Image: FILE

I do believe there is something called reciprocity in diplomatic relations, especially among states that have signed up as members of the United Nations and are presumably equal as international actors.

Recognising that some powerful nations have been members of the UN Security Council since the Second World War by dint of the fact that they saved us from possible domination by fascism, that alone should not make the Security Council, nor anyone of its powerful members, belittle other “earthlings” in the General Assembly.

Peace and stability in the world today can only be guaranteed if all members of the UN realise that we are all “one another’s keeper.” But I am afraid that there is a Big Brother syndrome that is rapidly emerging among the permanent members of the Security Council, particularly the US, Russia and China.

 
 

This Big Brother syndrome, which manifests itself in many ways from time to time, is worrying many people in the developing world who would like to coexist with our Big Brothers provided there is reciprocity in national sovereignty and diplomatic etiquette. The two are closely related. But let me discuss diplomatic etiquette in particular.

When two governments recognise each other, they express this recognition by opening up diplomatic relations. They begin to exchange envoys or authorise an envoy from another nation to represent their interests in each other’s jurisdiction. In this regard, when citizens are traveling between the two nations, they are accorded visas that give them the opportunity to enter and leave each other’s territories in line with well-known international conventions.

Sovereign governments usually set up rules that regulate these movements. Thus, Kenya may allow US citizens to get their entry visas into Kenya by paying $50 at the port of entry. The US, on the other hand, has an elaborate process that Kenyans have to go through in order to get visas to travel to the US. I have always wondered why there is this disparity between the two nations.

Why am I thus wondering? Because, of late, notwithstanding the fact that Kenyans have always been uneasy about this unequal relationship, diplomatic etiquette seems to be breaking down between Kenya and the US. As I see it, the responsibility for this breakdown lies entirely at the doorstep of the US, and not Kenya. But nobody is brave enough to say so. I will elaborate.

The rule — or is it regulation — of getting a visa to the US is that as a Kenyan, “you must go online and apply.” Good enough. In any case, we must embrace the digital age. Once you are online the most important thing is to get a date for your interview at the Consular Section. Quite often most of us apply to go the US for very specific reasons at very specific times. Apparently, that “online character” has a way of fixing interview dates irrespective of an applicant’s timetable.

You can, for example, get an appointment on May 29 when your daughter’s graduation was actually on May 22. To make you feel even more idiotic, you went online on April 4 a good enough time for the “online character” to consider your case in time. It is said — and to be fair we must accept this fact — that there is an option of informing the online character to “expedite your appointment”. I am told there is a box in the application form where one can resort to this particular “court of appeal.” I would like those who have appealed to this court and were able to redeem themselves to stand up and be counted. 

The point is many Kenyans have suffered, and are likely to continue suffering silently if this “process” of getting US visas is not soon looked into by the two governments on the basis of “mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty” with regard to proper diplomatic etiquette. Please remember the word “reciprocity.”

 
 

In a proper court of law, an accused must be given a proper and “fair” hearing before being judged guilty or innocent. I believe the process of subjecting Kenyans to a complicated process of getting US visas is because, in the final analysis, the US believes the 48 million Kenyans are likely to fly across the Atlantic to sojourn in the US if the process is too simple.

Nay, not so. The majority of those who seek their visas are those who would cling to dear Kenya were you to tell them that going to the US would deprive them of the right to come back! Those who want to escape and settle in the US at all costs usually get there by other means anyway.

I was once caught in this “consular suspicion” regarding why Kenyans seek to go to the US. My brother Prof Aggrey Nyong’o had just passed on in May 2002 in a road accident in Nairobi. His wife, Dr Jean Turkish, a White American by birth, practicing medicine in Michigan, came to his funeral. While in Kenya, she visited Mama Fozia’s children’s home in Pumwani where she offered to take a young girl to the US and educate her.

To cut a long story short, in her attempt to get a US visa, the young girl ran into some problems. Mama Fozia came to see me as the then Minister for Planning and National Development to see how I could help.

I did not know the young girl but I knew my sister-in-law and Mama Fozia. I also thought that giving this girl a chance to study in the US was a good idea.

The US Embassy in Gigiri, Nairobi
The US Embassy in Gigiri, Nairobi
Image: MONICAH MWANGI

That was in 2004. I picked up the phone and called my friend, US Ambassador Mark Bellamy, to see what I could do to help. Mark told me to write a letter on behalf of the girl. And she succeeded to get her visa.

Wind the clock forward to 2006, when I was no longer Minister and a functionary at the embassy calls me seeking an appointment, which I granted.

When we met, he asked me whether I knew that my sister-in-law was trying to adopt the girl in the US. Of course, I did not know. She, being an American, I thought it was best that the US government could sort the matter with her in Michigan. The functionary thought so as well.

Wind the clock forward again and you find me at the US Embassy now needing a visa to go to the US. The same question pops up again. I give the same explanation. Then I am told to go away waiting for further correspondence from the embassy.

A few days later, I got a form that required me to sign that I had been involved in “human trafficking” contrary to section x,y,z of the whatever law. If I wanted to be exonerated then I had to pay a fine of “x” amount of dollars.

I neither signed the form nor paid the fine. Instead, I wrote a letter explaining again what had transpired and protested vehemently against my being branded a human trafficker.

I thought the offsprings of slave traders are abundant in the US, not Kenya: I have no such traits in my genes. The US Ambassador was at least kind enough to tell me that I could still apply to go to the US provided each time I travel I get “exemption” from the immigration authorities in the US.

In practice, this means that whenever I am entering the US I go through a tedious and humiliating “clearing process” which can take three hours or even more at times. I thought slaves, not slave traders, were subjected to such audios proofs of suitability!  

At a recent inquiry at the US embassy regarding whether there was any due process in law to be followed to appeal this injustice, I was told none existed. I am doomed for a period of time to walk this dark night until I am 90 years old, when the restriction will be automatically uplifted. 

In the meantime, the young girl who studies law did very well in school. She graduated “magnum something…” Proceeded to Turkey for her post-graduate work. My sister-in-law keeps in touch with her when she is in Kenya or anywhere else. The US government never raised the adoption issue with my sister-in-law. That, dear reader, may easily happen to you in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

I rest my appeal.

The writer is the Kisumu County Governor.