Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.

A Russian child in Cape, a study of U.S. visa policy

My wife and I welcomed an 11-year-old girl from Russia into our family last summer. She is my wife's relative, and she had been placed in an orphanage by her struggling father a couple of years ago. It took us more than a year -- and several trips to the embassy in Moscow -- for her to receive the proper visas to visit and then study in the United States. She is here now, a ray of sunshine, studying hard, in an environment that offers love, stability and support.

I'm not going to go deeply into Anya's story. That's for her to tell one day, if and how she chooses. But let's just say that life in her small village in Russia is tough and, increasingly, dangerous, especially as she blossoms into a teenager.

There is much I can share about our experience with the vetting process for attaining a visa to the United States, whether for Anya or other family members. Some of it would underline how seriously the U.S. government reviews the applications, except when it doesn't. Some of it would reveal how arbitrary the process can be, except when it isn't. Some would shock and disturb you. For all involved, I have empathy. In the case of Russia, after filling out highly detailed forms with much personal information, hundreds of people line up every day outside the U.S. embassy to enter at their appointed time for interviews. Embassy staff who already have reviewed countless documents for a candidate and conducted investigations, if necessary, make life-altering decisions with little time to sugarcoat their rejections.

Anya, this little girl struggling with so much, felt each of her four rejections in her heart. She would burst into tears, her whole body sobbing. Part of her response was because she was just exhausted. To get to the interview involved someone taking time off work, traveling with her on a bus for several hours and then taking an 8-hour overnight train, public transportation, and then waiting in line sometimes in the rain and cold for her interview, which on more than one occasion lasted for only a couple of minutes. There wasn't much to confirm or question in the main part of her documents -- she was poor with a troubled family -- and thus, supporting materials weren't of interest.

Upon rejection, it was time to grab food at the market and then head back to the train station for the tedious and uncomfortable journey home, to arrive long after midnight. All of this, including the application fees, cost more money than most people in her village would see in half a year. We provided the money and the support, and traveled with her twice, and we worried whether the rejections would scar her and no visa would ever come.

Part of the other reason she sobbed is that she just wanted to be loved and embraced -- to succeed at something -- when so often in her life she was beaten down.

Thanks to prodding by Congressman Jason Smith with an assist from the Obama White House, U.S. embassy staff in Moscow eventually took more time with her file and looked at all her documents, instead of rejecting her out of hand. Anya received a tourist visa and then a student visa.

I understand the embassy's perspective: Under standard procedure, little recommended Anya for a visa, except for our pledge to follow the law. Unfortunately, millions of times, visitors to our country overextend their stays, too often with the intention of simply immigrating illegally. Those who break the law in such fashion endanger the process for all others, and it infuriates my wife, a Belarusian native, who knows what it's like to struggle to attain a U.S. visitor's visa for family members.

This story is told, because I can't imagine what it would have felt like -- other than fury and despair -- for Anya to have received her visa after more than a year of effort, to travel here and then be rejected at the airport because while she was in the air, a presidential order banned everyone from her country from entering the United States. The way the ban was implemented was cruel, haphazard and short-sighted. Innocent people were treated in deplorable ways.

This matter isn't about numbers on a statistics sheet; they are people, many of them the most honorable and courageous people you would ever meet (case in point: those who helped U.S. troops in war zones in spite of danger to themselves and their families). If the Trump administration planned the surprise implementation to gain maximum exposure, it succeeded. But the rollout was heartless, and for those who argue that it had to be sprung instead of announced and calmly implemented, they don't understand the in-depth process that those travelers had already faced (more than two years of scrutiny in some cases). Since the weekend, several aspects of the presidential order have been clarified or walked back, including not barring those with green cards. Those changes are good. But they should have been clear in the original implementation.

This isn't to say that the temporary bans, especially regarding Syrian refugees, are imprudent. President Trump's initial implementation was ham handed, but his attention to the issue is not wrong. There are serious reasons for reviewing the process for refugees from Syria and other nations, where the Obama administration, too, identified concerns.

Do you know, for example, the number of Syrian refugees that the Obama administration allowed into the United States, according to the Wall Street Journal?

In the year 2011: 29

2012: 31

2013: 36

2014: 105

2015: 1,682

Only in 2016 did Obama increase the target to 13,000, because of wanting to ingratiate himself with European leaders, some who are now backtracking on their open borders philosophy due to terrorism. Obama, also, can be blamed in part for the refugee crisis in the first place, thanks to the failure -- including false red lines -- of his policies in the Mideast.

None of these facts excuse the Trump administration for how it rolled out its plan. But it at least is correcting where it was wrong. Opponents who argue that the vetting process is fine as is ignore real and serious concerns. And the fact millions have entered and stayed -- illegally or crossed the border -- while an 11-year old girl is denied the opportunity to just visit her cousins, underline the complexity of this problem, which is much bigger than the current tempest. If the problem is going to be solved, however, it helps if good policy is the goal and not -- on both sides -- the scoring of political points. Real people and real lives are at stake.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian. He can be reached at jrust@semissourian.com.