YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Commitments : There's No Rushin' Out of Russia : They fell in love and planned to be married. But trying to share their joy with family here has meant only red tape.


ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — When I was 1 year old, a beautiful, dark-haired girl was born thousands of miles away. Her parents named her Svetlana Svyataya, which in Russian means roughly "Light of the Saints."

When Svetlana was 4, she played on the muddy banks of a creek running past her grandparents' Ukrainian farm. I was 5, mucking about on the muddy banks of Pittsburgh's Allegheny River, which ran past my grandparents' cottage.

Svetlana eventually moved to St. Petersburg, where she grew up and began to work on a doctorate in astrophysics. I ended up in St. Petersburg as a journalist. We met, fell in love and decided to marry.

But today, more than a year after our marriage, Svetlana cannot enter the United States to stay. She has been there once--with me, after an epic struggle with the U.S. government, one that indeed has still not ended.

Like most foreigners, my wife needs a visa: permission from the U.S. government to enter the country. In the frank words of Duke Austin, a senior spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington: "Just because you're marrying someone doesn't mean they're eligible to come to the States."

Getting a visa isn't easy. It depends on your citizenship, why you want to visit the States, whether you are rich or poor, sick or healthy, married or single, male or female.

Svetlana and I learned all this about 17 months ago when we got engaged and I decided to introduce her to my parents. So we went to the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg for a visa.

The State Department handles all tourist visa applications. Diplomats judge applications at their whim: They are not required to explain denials and there is no appeal. In Russia--and in other countries where the economy is wheezing or the political situation unstable--the State Department is particularly miserly with tourist visas. Diplomats say about 20% of the Russians to whom they grant tourist or business visas don't come back, choosing instead to live and work illegally in America.

Young, single Russians--and especially young, pretty Russian women--are the least likely applicants to return from the States, diplomats say, and so their applications are often denied. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said it denied about 20% of all Russian non-immigrant visa applications last year, and 45% of all such applications from people 18 to 25.

None of which, we thought, concerned us. We were wrong. At the consulate, we were told not to even bother applying. The officer on duty said a single 23-year-old like Svetlana could not receive a tourist visa because "she might marry someone and not come back."

I explained that we were engaged and that I wanted Svetlana to meet my parents. I explained that I had a job and Svetlana her studies, that we had an apartment and a dog and a car in St. Petersburg and would have to come back. The officer was unmoved; the State Department just couldn't trust us. If Svetlana and I sneakily got married on a tourist visa, he said, "it would really screw up our paperwork."

The officer suggested a different route: the K-1 fiancee's visa. This "fast-track, hassle-free" visa would "be ready very quickly, perhaps in a month." But we would have to get married within 90 days of arriving in the States.

For Russian-American couples like us, there are no other options. The government forbids you to introduce your Russian girlfriend (or boyfriend) to your parents unless you're prepared to get married. We were prepared; but not every couple looking down the barrel of Uncle Sam's shotgun can say that.

So we agreed to apply for the K-1. The State Department, at least, was happy: They had passed the buck. The K-1 is an immigration visa, which meant we would be dealing with the INS. The diplomats would have to do much of the work on our case, but technically we weren't their problem anymore.

So, we asked, what does getting the K-1 visa involve? Diplomats that day--and every day for the next several months--gave us wildly different, often incorrect and infuriatingly vague answers. Several insisted that I would have to fly to Washington to collect an INS application in person . Not true; my father mailed one to me.


Despite our requests, no one would lay out the application process for us; most diplomats would instead tell us only enough to get us to the next step in the process.

Frustrated, we called the INS. A computer answered.

"Our automated system is less than perfect," admitted INS spokesman Austin dryly. "We got 7 million telephone inquiries the year before last. If we answered telephones manually, it would take every employee working every working hour."

Indeed, if the diplomats had been evasive, INS officers were too busy drowning in their own paperwork. Our bulky file was added to a pile of nearly 4 million immigration applications, reviewed by a mere 2,166 officers of the 18,000-member INS.

Los Angeles Times Articles