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Visa regulations keep American woman and Jamaican husband apart

U.S. Embassy staff question a couple's motives after a Jamaican weds a Los Angeles woman who is 15 years older.

December 12, 2011|By Paloma Esquivel, Los Angeles Times
  • Jenny and Jason Messam smile for a wedding day photo in Jamaica in January 2010. He has been unable to get a visa to move to the U.S.
Jenny and Jason Messam smile for a wedding day photo in Jamaica in January…

Jenny and Jason Messam couldn't be more different: She is white and Jewish; he is black and Christian. At 38, she is 15 years older.

There is one other important difference: Jenny is American, and Jason is Jamaican. They married in January 2010, and Jason applied for a U.S. visa a few months later, hoping to join his wife in Los Angeles.

Immigration officials in the U.S. initially approved the petition. But workers at the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica were suspicious and, after interviewing the couple and sifting through phone records, pictures, emails and other documentation, they decided that the marriage was probably a fraud.

Every year, immigration officials receive about 300,000 applications for visas for the spouses of U.S. citizens. Using interviews and documents, they must decide whether the marriage is legitimate or was negotiated to get someone into the country.

Some marriages are determined to be fake. The U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services doesn't track specific reasons why visa applications are turned down, but officials say that between 20,000 and 40,000 applications are denied every year for various reasons.

But Jenny and Jason Messam insist that despite their differences, their marriage is real. The cost of the delayed decision on Jason's ability to immigrate, they said, has been greater than they imagined.

Nearly two years after he submitted his application, Jason Messam has not been allowed to enter the U.S. In June, his application was returned to the U.S. for further review. Immigration officials declined to discuss the case.

"I get there are sham marriages," said Jenny Messam. "But there also aren't. People do fall in love."

Vacation romance

They met in Jamaica in July 2009 while she was on vacation. Because of this, a good friend likes to call her Stella, as in "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," the Terry McMillan story that made falling in love in Jamaica and coming to the U.S. seem easy.

He got in her cab, not knowing she was in the back seat with a friend. He looked young, almost like a kid, she thought. But he was handsome and charming and seemed kind. He ended up going to the club with them. They talked all night.

"You know this is serious, right?" he recalls her asking him that night.

Jenny Messam's childhood friend recalled getting a call from Jamaica soon after Jenny met Jason.

"She was pretty smitten with him right away," Rebecca Hollis said. "It was just a reaction that I'd never seen before — as happy as she was."

Jenny returned to Jamaica in October and she and Jason traveled the country. In November, he proposed over the phone. Even before the couple met, Jason's mother, who lives in Studio City and recently became a citizen, had applied for a visa for her son. She asked Jason to postpone the wedding until his application was approved, but he refused, not wanting to wait.

When she arrived in Jamaica in late December, Jenny imagined eloping on the beach. But Jason's family had other plans. The couple were married in a small church in Montego Bay. Jason's grandmother prepared a luncheon and invited friends and family. Several days after the wedding, she had to return to her job in Los Angeles.

"It's not like I was trying to marry an American," Jason Messam said. "It could be anybody else — as long as someone came around just like Jenny."

Nearly a year after their wedding, Jason went to the embassy in Kingston for his immigration interview. The way he recalls it, a consular worker called him up to a window, spent about five minutes asking him questions about the relationship, then told him his wife would have to attend an in-person interview.

By the time of that interview, two months later, Jenny Messam was five months pregnant. Consular officials took them into separate rooms and asked intimate questions: "How can you marry someone you just met?" And "what could I possibly have in common with someone 15 years younger than me?" Jenny Messam recalled. The person interviewing Jason Messam asked how he knew for certain that he was the father of his wife's child.

When it was all over, Jenny again returned home to Los Angeles. When she hadn't heard anything after several weeks, she began writing regular emails to the U.S. Embassy reminding officials how many weeks along she was in her pregnancy. She got the same response every time: "This case is currently undergoing administrative processing. You will be contacted once this is done."

"Every little thing about this case just points to the loaded bureaucracy," said attorney Carl Shusterman, a former trial attorney for the Immigration and Naturalization Service who is now representing the couple. "You can't talk to a human and say, 'Come on.'"

Desperate for an answer, Messam contacted her congressman, Beverly Hills Democrat Henry A. Waxman, to see if his office might be able to help. In a letter, an immigration official told Waxman's office what they hadn't told Messam:

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