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Category Archives: Border story

“Site Visit” completed

In terms of what is happening while I wait, I served as pulpit supply in Saskatoon for 3 weeks and am now in High River. I preach and occasionally help renovate the parsonage in preparation for their new pastor and family. This picture is NOT that parsonage, but another interesting house I found in the countryside.

Abandoned farmhouse near Brant Alberta

But neither the High River parsonage nor the abandoned house are the site visit I set out to report on. No, the important one is the one a gov’t representative made to the church in Oskaloosa Iowa as part of the R-1 visa application process’s next steps. I’ll simply share what the church put in their bulletin to report on it:

USCIS SITE VISIT:
An officer from the US Citizenship & Immigration field office in Des Moines completed a Site Visit at Bethel on Wednesday, June 29. [Three members] met with the officer. He explained that site visits are now required for all first-time R-1 visa petitioners, since there have been many fraudulent R-1 visa applications made in the past. We were pleased to learn that the site visit was acceptable. This is encouraging with respect to the processing of our petition by the USCIS Service Center in California. Unfortunately, the officer was unable to shed any light on the amount of time it will take after the visit for clearance for Pastor Pete to begin his work at Bethel. We remain hopeful that we’ll soon receive word that the process is complete.

So, things are moving along. Still, we do not have a clear idea yet after more than 3 months as to how long exactly there is to wait.

 

R-1 (US non-immigrant Religious Worker) Visa Delay for Canadians.

I’m a Canadian CRC pastor transitioning into becoming a Specialized Transitional Minister (STM) who has accepted an invitation to cross the border to serve a church in Iowa. The crossing-the-border part of that has not gone well, so I am currently in limbo, having been refused entry to the US as a Canadian because my R-1 Visa was not complete at the time I tried to cross. This left me homeless and unemployed for, at the time of writing, almost 2 months already. Anyone planning to make a similar crossing will benefit from knowing the difficulty and delays the church and I have encountered. Sharing the story here, it is my hope to prevent others from experiencing the same disappointing delays.

Since I previously had an R-1 in 2007 when I worked as an Interim Pastor in Washington State for 6 months, I thought I had a good idea what was going to be expected to get a new one. But I later learned that in late fall 2010 the process was changed to become more complicated and require more detailed application filing and information about both the person wanting to come in, but also from the church applying to have a Canadian come work with them. The biggest change though is in the time it takes to process the application.

If what you have read so far feels like it may be relevant for you or someone you know, then you will be interested in reading a full account of the most pertinent steps and details here below. I will likely also create a separate, more personalized and reflective blog posting about the experience of such a delay.

Late in the fall of 2010, living in the Nanaimo area of Vancouver Island, I began conversing with a church in Iowa about coming to serve there as an STM. In January 2011 I visited there, and by March 2 had accepted their invitation to come. I found a website guide to the process of getting the requisite R-1 (Religious worker) Visa,* purchased the forms, sent the church their copy and we began the process of applying.

* I should note that I later realized this was not an official government site. I don’t think it had bearing on what we encountered, but it is worth knowing. I don’t recall ever finding an official government site from which to obtain the forms and a process guide. If someone knows one, it would be good to provide a link to it via a comment.

I’d had an R-1 in 2007 so I had some vague idea what we did then to get it, mainly getting some official letters and presenting them at the US border as I crossed, where an R-1 card was stapled into my passport. This website showed a somewhat more involved process, as the requirements had been changed late in 2010. By mid-March I had the parts of the application (I-129) that related to me done (one of the specific details you need to track down is exactly how your parents’ names are printed on their passports! So it can take some time to gather it all), and by March 28 the government offices in California had received the more than a dozen page completed application (I -129) from the congregation along with it’s numerous supporting documents.

Along the way of completing this process, we ran into both vague information and information that appeared to be wrong, though we only realize that in hindsight. The vagueness came from there being very little information – or varying information – as to how long the steps of the process would take and exactly what steps were required. The wrong information was in things like the documents indicating I had to make an appointment with the nearest US Embassy once all applications were in, so that the process could be finalized in an interview. When I tried to set up the appointment with the nearest US Embassy in Canada, both online and through the automated calling system, I was told that the R-1 Visa did not call for an in-person interview. However, it did not tell me what was needed. Here is a screen capture of the page I was led to from the US Embassy site in Vancouver on March 29, 2011:

I found a way to phone the Embassy and speak to a person, and was told to take my documents and present them at the border. The man I spoke to reviewed with me the list of required documents. I had all those documents already. I do recall him mentioning a “government packet of information” I should be receiving related to the church’s application, but not that it was an important part of what I needed. Wanting to verify doubly, I called the folks at the border (US Customs and Border Protection) and the lady I spoke to verified that what I had in hand was enough to cross.

So, believing all was good to go, I packed a U-Haul and left my home April 9th. But when I got to the border south of Lethbridge Alberta around mid April I was denied entry to the US because the church’s application needs to be approved before I cross and I need to have the resulting document, called an I-797 proving that when I cross. One shock had already come when I was underway. In that time we got access to an “application tracking” website, and were astonished to see that they projected it would take 2 months for the application received March 28th to be processed!Below is a screen capture of the top part of the tracking page. I’ve created an empty block to cover our receipt number (we don’t need a whole continent of CRCers checking it). I do not have a capture of when it showed a 2 month wait on the bottom half.

The result was that I was now homeless and incomeless, with no idea exact idea how long it would take to finalize this process, but knowing it was now likely to be another month and a half of waiting at the veryleast.
As I write this, I’ve been in this holding pattern for a month and a half already. Meanwhile, I noticed a change in the tracking site information to
worse news sometime in mid-May when it began to look like this:

Our application is at the California Service Center, and where it had shown a time expectation of 2 months, it was now showing 5!

We don’t know exactly how to interpret this. It is debatable if it means our application is now expected to take 5 months to process from the March 28th receipt date or if it means applications that came in after March 31, 2011 can expect 5 months, but ours still is under the 2 it used to show. It is hard to assess how long we have yet to wait.

I have family near where I got turned back, so I became the homeless, unemployed boomerang Dad-with-dog on my son’s couch for a time, and also at my brother’s place.

Fortunately and providentially, right now, I have found a couple of pastorless churches to do some preaching at that should keep me busy serving the Kingdom and the CRC and being useful in some small capacity until sometime into June and possibly July if it takes that long.

After encountering several different anecdotal accounts of similar trials – it seems lots of people have heard of a pastor who this kind of thing has happened to – I feel a strong need to get the word out about my delay so that others can be better informed than I was and can avoid such problems. If even one person can avoid this problem because they read my story here on the Network, it will have been worthwhile to share it.

If anyone reading this has either a similar experience or has some better information or advice, your input via comments will be appreciated by anyone investigating such a move from Canada to the US.

Pastor Pete VanderBeek, June 6, 2011 — Currently biding God’s and the US government’s and his time in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.


 

Border crossing stories

In getting ‘legal’ for my work in Washington state, I and some people from the church did a lot of research about what category of work permit I would need.

For instance, after several phone calls to 1-900 government numbers (which took some ‘splainin’ when I phoned a deacon to ask why the church phone would not work for those numbers, which produced some learnin’ for me when the person carefully asked “Um, Pete, why are you trying to call 1-900 numbers?” leading to me finding out they are usually sex lines. OK, that explains it!). When we thought we had it figured out, we filled in and sent in an 18 page form as an application, and it turned out to be wrong and was sent back to us.

Eventually we learned that I needed a letter from the church describing the work I would be doing, and a letter from Classis saying I was qualified.

While this was going on I became pretty good at being honest but vague at the border booths.

Where are you going?

Quincy, Washington.

What are you going to do there?

Visit some people.

What kind of people?

It’s a church group. … … …

And it would go from there, but sometimes that would be enough. I got more bold and direct when I had my letters in hand. I would hand the letters over with my passport and immediately say “I’m going to Quincy to work in a church.”  The first time it worked like a charm. The person perused the letters a moment and sent me on my way. The second time, the same thing happened, but a bit more. He asked “What does this church group call themselves? I replied “Quincy Christian Reformed Church.”  His face changed visibly when I said that, with a kind of tilting the head and squinching the eyes and pausing in an exaggeratedly puzzled fashion. I started freezing up in my gut. Then a twinkle came to his eyes as he pondered out loud while handing me my papers “You mean you are Christian Reformed and you are NOT heading for Lynden?!!!” He sent me on my way with both of us laughing. (My apologies to anyone reading this that is not a CRC insider, just smile and read on for the next story)

The third time I crossed with the letters the person at the booth said I should go inside and have the correctness of this all verified. So I did. I got in line in an intimidating huge space, with mainly burly men in uniform walking around–you know, the kind of guys whose arms are so muscular they would have trouble pressing their palms firmly to their sides if they wanted to and besides, their guns are in the way. Us lineup people were waiting, uncertain of our destiny and if we would be permitted to go on to our destinations or detained as detrimental. I was standing there, waiting my turn, rehearsing all the steps I had taken to try to be legal, so that I could give an understandable history of how hard I had tried to do it right.

Finally I was beckoned to the next open wicket. I walked past an Arabic looking person who was on my side of the wall, explaining his situation to an African American border guard who had a deep friendly voice but an intimidating physique, reminding me of the giant guy from Green Mile or Bubba from Forrest Gump (same actor I think). Perched on his head was a black toque. I came face to face with an older white guy, whose hair may have been red at one point, but the whiting of age had given it a chiffonish hue. He fussed for a few minutes finding a mobile chair that suited him. When he settled, I said “Hello,” and handed him my passport and the letters, aiming for answering questions once he had seen them, rather than my natural tendency to want to gush my story to him right off the bat. I waited. No more than five seconds had elapsed when he looked up from the documents and began to ask me a question. I was ready. I thought. He said, with a kind of expectant look on his face “Do you love a man that follows the Buddha?”

I was taken completely aback–for a second or two. I scanned his face for what was showing there. What could he mean by such a question? Was such a question appropriate? What wrath would come on him if he was asking the Arabic guy beside me that question? His face looked like he was expecting condemnation from me. Suddenly I realized that he was expecting a Christian Pastor to tell him he was going to hell if he followed the Buddha.  “Absolutely I love a man who follows the Buddha!” I responded, with an inner haste of mental gears grinding from one mode to another but keeping a mental foot near the clutch so I could easily switch back to legalities if needed.

His next statement was “Would you agree with me that if everyone followed Abraham and Jesus my job would not be necessary?”

How do you respond to that? I did not want to be telling a border guard his job was not necessary, for fear of riling him somehow. But after a moment I cautiously played along and stumblingly said something like, “Yes, if everyone followed Jesus there would be a less need for law enforcement and borders.” He was looking things up on his computer as the bizarre conversation continued, so it was not always easy to ‘read’ his face.  I felt I was  being ‘toyed’ with one moment, and then convinced he was serious the next.

Suddenly he stood up and reached across the front of me and next to me to touch and warmly greet the young woman who had come to the wicket next to me after the Arabic guy left. She was not necessarily meeting his warmth, in my opinion. So I began a whole other range of thought. Was the man about to ‘go postal’ in a ‘border’ way? Had he lost his mind and/or social graces from having dealt with too many evasive potential terrorists or smugglers?

He settled back onto his chair, only to get up again to go looking for a copy of the rulebook. During this search he told me he was just weeks from retirement and had lost his book and they had to pay for them now, whereas when he started at this job they were free, but he did not feel like buying a new one for just a few weeks of use.

When he got it and came back to work at the computer, he asked me “Would Jesus need a passport?” I didn’t know what to say, and told him so. I told him I found it interesting to get a theological exam to cross the border when I was prepared for more a more legal conversation.

Then he quickly stood up and in a gesture that first looked like clutching the chest with an imminent heart attack but which turned out to be reaching inside his shirts for something, he pulled out an ornament at the end of his gold necklace and held it a few inches from my nose, saying “What do you suppose this says?” It was a three quarter inch circle, the outside of which was made to look like rope and inside the circle there was some kind of Chinese looking letter. I said “I don’t know.” He said “It’s the most important word in any language” and so I immediately said “Love” which earned me a high five across the counter. Which was kinda fun, but then the big black guy said “You’re really weirding me out here” which made me a bit cautious again but reassured me that was I was experiencing was not normal procedure.

Well, after finishing his research, the man stapled a card in my Passport that validated my legally working status, even as the theological banter continued. I played along as best I could, holding hope this was some kind of a Grace sharing opportunity, yet also wondering if the man was merely funnin’ with me to make his day interesting, or if he belonged in a room bordered by padding and securely guarded.

When he was finished, the possibly most ironic moment of the most unusual crossing-the-border conversation happened. He said “There’s just one more thing” – I held my breath – “that’ll be a $6 fee for processing.” Relieved that was all – on several levels – I dug out my wallet and started pulling out some money upon which my new Buddhist friend jumped back from the counter, sending his mobile chair skittering (no wonder he has to go find it again with each new person) and, while pointing at the video cameras which had been unobtrusively and soundlessly documenting our entire exchange, said “Whoa! If those see me take money from you they’re gonna think it’s a bribe and I will lose my pension!” Suddenly he was all about the rules again.

I  went to the indicated teller’s wicket, and an extremely bored and boring person took my money and receipted me. On the way out I wished my buddy a happy retirement.

From that day on, crossing the border has held no anxiety for me, and getting through with his little card in my passport has been a breeze. Each time I tell the story, I pray for him–the Borderman next to Bubba who follows the Buddha.