In May 2005, a young Bosnian woman who spoke no English had a minor auto accident with an American in Sarajevo. She called a friend who spoke English. “Can you come and help me?” she asked.
“Of course,” said the friend.
Which is how Indira met Ben.
Indira Skalonja, whose father owned a construction company, was the friend who came to the accident scene to interpret. Ben Freeman, who grew up in Herculaneum, was a Department of Defense analyst working with NATO forces in Sarajevo. He was not involved in the accident but was at the scene.
He asked Indira out.
In May 2006, they became engaged. They were married in July of that year. Shortly thereafter, Ben was transferred to Colorado, and they moved to this country.
Then he was transferred to England.
In October 2008, they flew to St. Louis and Indira became a U.S. citizen. They returned to England.
In October 2010, Ben got the assignment he had been hoping for. He was coming home. He was transferred to Scott Air Force Base.
Ben and Indira bought a home in Webster Groves. Indira began taking classes at Webster University. While living in England, she had taken classes through a University of Maryland program in London.
Indira did well at Webster University. She will graduate in May.
She invited her mother and her sister, Ena, to the graduation. Actually, Ena is her half sister. Indira’s mother and father are divorced and her mother remarried.
Getting a visa to travel to this country is not an automatic thing.
According to Section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, “Every alien shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the consular officer, at the time of application for a visa, that he is entitled to nonimmigrant status.”
To do so, an applicant must demonstrate that he intends to return to his home country.
That did not seem like it would be a problem for Indira’s mother and sister. Her mother has a good job in Sarajevo. She has a car. She owns property. Her parents own property. What’s more, she has traveled to Europe several times in the past few years. She has always returned, and why wouldn’t she? Sarajevo is her home.
Ena is in high school. Her father is a doctor. He wrote a letter authorizing his daughter to travel to the U.S. with her mother and to return alone.
That was necessary because the plans call for Ena to stay in this country until August. Indira’s mother has to return to work in June.
While Indira’s mother and sister got all of their paperwork together, Ben and Indira bought roundtrip airplane tickets for them.
In addition, Ben sent a copy of his Department of Defense identification card and gave his personal assurance that his in-laws intended only to visit.
Armed with this all this documentation, Indira’s mother and sister went to the U.S. consulate and applied for visas.
They were denied. Indira’s mother told her the man at the window didn’t look at their documentation. Nor did he give them a reason for the denial. The denial was in form language. “Your visa application is refused. You are not qualified under Section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.”
Indira was beside herself. Did somebody think her mother and sister were terrorists? Did somebody think they wanted to sneak into this country and stay here?
“If they wanted to come to this country to live, Ben and I could petition to have them come permanently,” Indira said. “They don’t want to.”
Ben is perplexed, too. He served in the Marine Corps. He works for the Department of Defense. Don’t those things mean anything?
Indira’s mother has appealed the denial and has another appointment at the consulate Monday morning.
Indira and Ben contacted the offices of U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan and Sen. Claire McCaskill. Both have written letters to the consulate in Sarajevo asking that full and fair consideration be given to the applications.
One of Indira’s senior projects this year was to help organize the university’s annual human rights conference. It’s going on right now. The theme is “Refugee and Migrant Rights.”
I hope the conference recognizes that government abuses are not always the result of bad policies or evil people, but are often the product of mindless bureaucracy and rules that are allowed to trump common sense.