US immigration law denies visas to US citizen parents
It’s a story of keeping promises to family and strong cultural values mired in the complexities and arcane bureaucracy of the U.S. immigration system.
U.S. citizen parents Valrick and Turianna Welch have been trying to bring to Saipan the children of their daughter, who passed away last year in March, but their efforts have been met with failure again and again.
Their adopted daughter, Esther, is Turianna’s niece, whom she had raised since Esther was a child. Both were born in Kiribati.
Known before as the Gilbert Islands under the control of the British in 1892 and a colony in 1915, Kiribati was captured by the Japanese during the war in 1941. Today, the Republic of Kiribati is an independent country, independent from the United Kingdom since 1979.
The Welchs moved to Saipan in the 1990s, during the time when immigration control belonged to the CNMI government. After a few years, the Welchs gave Esther the opportunity to attend boarding school in Kiribati during her teen years, unsuspecting of immigration issues that would ensue decades later.
Esther passed away on March 18 last year due to an infection, possibly caused by her third childbirth only weeks before her death.
Valrick and his wife legally adopted all three children of their daughter through the Kiribati High Court, with the eventual plan to bring them to Saipan. All attempts, however, to bring them to Saipan have failed.
The three children currently reside in Pohnpei, the closest place to Saipan where their grandchildren—now their court-adopted children—are allowed to travel using Kiribati passports. Currently, the children are dispersed amongst extended family members, while paying for costly childcare for the youngest.
According to Valrick, the children’s biological father follows cultural beliefs and has relinquished control over his children, since under their culture, responsibility for child-rearing lies solely on the mother.
The Welchs have tried but failed to obtain non-immigrant visas for their adoptive children but the three have been denied tourist visas.
On Dec. 15, Valrick was found ineligible for a non-immigrant visa known as a temporary Bridging Visa that allows for travel until a substantive visa is processed, especially since the children are minors.
According to the denial letter issued by the U.S. Embassy in Majuro, a denial means that the Welchs were unable to demonstrate that their “intended activities” in the U.S. would be consistent with non-immigrant visa categories— “intended activities” that simply involve bringing their late daughter’s three children to Saipan to care for them.
The embassy said the decision cannot be appealed and the application process must be repeated again.
A futile process, Valrick said, under the current law.
Further complicating the process is that Kiribati is not a party to the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in respect of Intercountry Adoption.
Under the Hague Convention, Kiribati’s cultural practices and their determination of the children’s legal adoption does not guarantee the same validity under U.S. immigration law.
The Welchs are currently working on a one-year permit that will lead to eligibility for their adoptive children to apply for Federated States of Micronesia citizenship, a process that takes two years, so that their children can move to Saipan with them.
“We are very frustrated. At the same time, we are not blaming individuals but an immigration system unable to accommodate the specific needs of the CNMI,” he said.
The non-Hague adoptions unit of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service contacted the Welchs via email to inform them that when President Obama signed the Intercountry Adoption Universal Accreditation Act of 2012 on Jan. 14, 2013, which became effective July 14, 2014, this required that all international adoptions adhere to specific requirements regarding home studies, home study preparers, and primary providers of adoption services.
The issue with this, the Welchs say, is that it requires them to reside in the United States or to find an embassy or an accredited adoption service provider, which Kiribati and the CNMI lack. Either way, he said, all options have proved costly and lengthy.
“U.S. immigration laws are one-size fits all,” he said.
Due to USCIS restrictions and the lack of a nearby U.S. Embassy, the Welchs are considering moving to the U.S. mainland to meet the requirement for an accredited U.S. adoption service provider.
“We’ve gone through the Division of Youth Services, through family court and went to Guam,” he said, but none of the adoptive processes are recognized as accredited.
“Now because of the law change in 2014, it is impossible to adopt a child in Kiribati and bring the child to the CNMI,” he said.
The Welchs have submitted an application for humanitarian parole last week, in hopes that U.S. immigration recognizes the urgency of their children’s predicament as a compelling emergency.