Because visitors to the U.S. from the Southern Hemisphere often find it difficult to get visas, Mennonite World Conference is taking steps to try to keep the situation from limiting attendance at its global assembly next July.
“When we invited the global church to the U.S. for the assembly, we knew that difficulty in securing visas was one of the biggest obstacles we would face,” said Richard Thomas, chair of the assembly’s National Advisory Council.
“Our country’s deep fears about national security mean that many of our sisters and brothers must go through a demanding visa application process, yet they may still be denied through no fault of their own.
“This is especially true for citizens of countries which have strained diplomatic relations with the U.S. or from whom there is a perceived threat.”
He said young adults from some countries in the Southern Hemisphere are likely to find it especially difficult.
“Because they might not own property, hold professional jobs or have a spouse and children to return home to, the U.S. government considers them a flight risk,” Thomas said. “We are distressed by this, since MWC’s Global Youth Summit is such a vital part of next summer’s assembly plans — and of the future of the global church.”
Judy Zimmerman Herr and Bob Herr coordinate MWC’s Visa Task Force and have a three-pronged approach.
Bob Herr said extensive preparations are happening in many countries. In India, Kenya and Congo, for example, leaders of MWC member churches are going into their district conferences to offer help with registering, obtaining passports and assisting with visa applications.
Vikal P. Rao is one of the three people on the India Visa Task Force. He has already met with six of India’s nine national churches, and he will soon also visit churches in Nepal.
“Over the last several months we’ve been establishing a contact person in each national church, who can help people complete their DS 160 applications for their visas,” Rao said. “Then we will set up practice sessions so applicants can prepare for their individual interviews at the U.S. Consulate in India.”
The Kenya Mennonite Church is hoping to send a choir to the assembly. Allan Juma is working with the choir and the church through the visa process.
Many in the choir need to obtain a Kenyan passport, which is complicated by requiring a birth certificate. People must apply for the certificate in their home communities. For some, this requires several long trips, depending on where they were born and where they now live. Juma said the church is aiming to send a choir of about 20 but plans to select up to 35 in case some are rejected for visas.
Letters and interviews
In the U.S., the Herrs are preparing letters of invitation they will send to registrants who need visas. The letters — on official MWC letterhead — will demonstrate to consular officers that registrants have a legitimate reason to travel.
“We’re also assisting churches in preparing their members for the biggest barrier — their personal interviews at the U.S. Consulate in their country,” Judy Zimmerman Herr said.
“Consular officers are often young, and this is a first-level job in the Foreign Service. They are the ones who determine whether to issue a visa, and they do it on the basis of this one interview.”
She said these workers interview hundreds of people, and if they make a mistake and let someone through who then causes problems, that would likely finish or adversely impact their careers.
“We are also providing churches with background materials to share with their people before their interviews,” she said. “We want to make sure they can answer questions about what MWC is and why they want to attend the assembly.”
There’s not a lot one can do to appeal, so it’s basically a one-shot chance.
As a third step, the Herrs are preparing official letters from MWC, which they will send directly to each U.S. consulate that will receive visa applications.
“Registrants may be coming from 56 countries. A U.S. visitor’s visa is required from 44 of those countries,” Bob Herr said. “Our goal is to establish that MWC and this event are authentic, and to have that information in the hands of consular officers before they begin to review these visa applications.
“We also plan to meet with the offices of the two U.S. Senators from Pennsylvania to alert them to the assembly, especially if, in a rare case, we determine that we should appeal a visa rejection. And we will have a conversation with [former Mennonite pastor] David Myers in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, again to inform him of this event, which involves attendees coming from many parts of the world.”
There are many points along the way where the process can break down. The Herrs plan to create a calendar, showing the dates when visa applicants are scheduled for their interviews, and then share that with the Assembly’s Prayer Network.