This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

MWC visa problems fewer than feared

People who need visas to attend the Mennonite World Conference assembly in Harrisburg, Pa., July 21-26 have encountered fewer problems than expected.

For more than a year, a Visa Task Force has been preparing for about 1,000 people to get visas to attend the assembly.

“While obstacles and struggles are present, they are less than anticipated,” said Bob Herr and Judy Zimmerman Herr, members of the Visa Task Force, in an April 21 report. “We are expecting a well-attended assembly.”

The Herrs said they knew from the beginning that attendees from 44 countries where U.S. visitor’s visas are required would have to work hard to come to assembly. They noted three arenas of struggle:

  • Would enough people want to take on the expense and anxiety to get a visa and make the needed travel arrangements?
  • Would MWC logistic and financial support be forthcoming to make this happen?
  • Would the public systems for national passports and U.S. visitor’s visas be supportive?

“On each of these fronts we have been frequently surprised and blessed,” the Herrs said.

People have come forward from many countries: more than 200 from Zimbabwe early on, about 300 from India, more than 100 from Congo, a growing number from Indonesia, Ethiopia, Central and South America, Ukraine and more.

Many people are planning to come from Europe, Japan, South Korea and other locations where visitor’s visas to the U.S. are not needed.

“It has truly been a humbling experience to see so many people making great efforts to come to Pennsylvania 2015,” the Herrs said.

“The extra support needed for all of this from U.S. and Canadian MWC church conferences has also been strong. People near to Harrisburg have opened their homes to welcome visitors. Many are donating time, food and money. . . . [They] want to be good hosts.”

Reasons seldom given

The Herrs said they were concerned about the level of support the assembly would receive from U.S. embassies, which grant visitor’s visas.

“From early on, we were encouraged by the responses we received from officials,” they said. “Many other governments needing to issue passports to travelers have also been supportive.”

Many needs remain. Not all who want to come will be able to. U.S. Consular Officers will have doubts and questions and will deny some applications.

But, in the end, the Herrs said, “there will be good representation of brothers and sisters from around the world.”

It is hard to understand all the reasons why some are denied visas, the Herrs said. Consular officers do not often explain their decisions.

The most difficult visa applicants are young adults, who may be perceived as wanting to remain in the U.S. for economic reasons, and older people who may have family to remain with after the assembly.

Easier visa applicant categories are people who have a record of traveling and people who are well rooted in a business or profession.

Stories along the way

The Herrs have heard various stories:

  • When an older African woman learned her visa was denied, she refused to pick up her passport at the Embassy. She said, “I only need that passport if it has a visa in it to attend Pennsylvania 2015, so I will not pick it up.” After further deliberation, a visa was approved, and she picked up her document. “We are not suggesting this is something others should try,” the Herrs said. “Maybe only those who can present a convincing grandmotherly demeanor and spirit.”
  • A pharmacist was asked in the visa interview, “Why do the Mennonites need pharmacists at the assembly?” His answer was convincing, and his visa application was approved.
  • A pastor couple was denied a visa because the Consular Officer said they had insufficient resources to make the trip. They are reapplying and submitting a letter from their congregation that says the congregation is funding their travel.

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