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Home for winter break, my daughter, Sara, was eager for help deciding which study abroad program to take during her last semester in college.  Society, Culture and Gender in Amsterdam?  Social Movements and Human Rights in Argentina? International Perspectives on Sexuality in Prague? More than 20 different opportunities, in a dozen and a half countries, were available on her university’s website. “I have to warn you,” Sara grimaced.  “The website is a bit wonky when it comes to searching.”

While Sara was mulling over her options, my wife, Debbie, and I were simultaneously grappling with a mirror image challenge, if the mirror was in a carnival house:  how to secure a student visa for a Rwandan teenager.  Jessica is a charismatic 16-year-old who dreams of becoming a doctor. We know her family from my work in Rwanda. When she expressed interest in attending high school for a year in the United States, we offered to sponsor her.  With the help of former San Francisco Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, we secured a full scholarship for her at Archbishop Riordan High School. Despite this support, her visa application had been rejected twice, with no explanation.  Dejected, and wondering whether it was her race or character that were at fault, she mustered the courage to try one more time.

Sara chose the Multicultural and Conflict Resolution program in South Africa.  The application process required answering a handful of short essays, uploading a resume, and wrangling a letter of recommendation from a university advisor.  All were completed within a few hours.  After she pressed the send button on her submission, Sara worried out loud, “I hope I get in.”

For Jessica’s third try we retained an immigration attorney, who revised her application, making sure every “i” was doted, every “t” crossed, and drafted a letter outlining why she qualified for an F-1 visa to study in the U.S.  The family collected testimonials about Jessica’s dedication to her church and community, to demonstrate she would not overstay her travel permit, the U.S. State Department’s biggest worry. 

America doesn’t give visas to Africans easily, something I confirmed with a friend at the State Department, who told me that Rwandans illegally and indefinitely prolong their stay 80 percent of the time, a factually incorrect assertion oft propagated by U.S. representatives in Africa. Official State Department data put that number at closer to 10 percent. The real problem, according to our attorney, is that Africans are Black. To bolster Jessica’s chances, we asked former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos and State Senator Scott Weiner to connect us with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s Office, which they promptly did.  Pelosi’s staff, in turn, sent a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda, asking that Jessica’s file be fairly evaluated. Having done as much as we could, we fitfully waited for Jessica’s visa appointment, scheduled just a week before the start of Riordan’s second semester.

Sara received an email from the School for International Training, the program to which she’d applied, requesting her transcripts, which she passed on to her school’s Office of International Programs.

Debbie and I nervously monitored WhatsApp on the day of Jessica’s visa appointment, anxious for good news. We heard nothing, a silent indicator that things went badly.  The next day we received an email from Jessica’s father, Eric.

Jessica was denied a visa again and reasons weren’t disclosed to us. The officer refused to take the letter from the lawyer. I know it is very frustrating and devastating news to all of us, especially Jessica. 

Eric said he told the officer that he had a letter from an attorney addressed to him, but he declined to review it, saying “it is my right to get a lawyer, but he is not obliged to take the document.” Eric went on to detail the questions the consular had asked Jessica, which revolved around her relationship with Debbie and me and how she secured a scholarship. 

A few hours later our lawyer responded to Eric’s message.

Based on the questions and answers, I believe the officer had made up his mind to deny the F-1 visa even before the interview began. Nothing in your responses would sensibly explain why Jessica was denied. The only logical conclusion is that the officer had this mindset before you got to the window for the interview. This is not how the process is supposed to work and Jessica deserved both a full review of her application and a full explanation as to why she was denied.

The attorney promised to follow-up, and Debbie continues to lobby public officials to pay attention to the racist undertones of America’s visa process. But there’s little hope of any kind of remedy. Consular offices, unlike most other parts of the government, have little oversight and less transparency. Riordan started its second semester without Jessica, who remains in Rwanda, wondering if it’s her fault she wasn’t able to secure a U.S. visa, maybe because she’s Black.

Sara probably won’t hear back about her South Africa application until the Spring. Her college assures her, though, that she’s likely to get in.