Why can’t the government keep illegal immigrants out of the United States? That’s a common question these days, but not a new one. I know. I was fighting that battle in the 1960s as a consular officer in charge of visas at the American Consulate General in Geneva, Switzerland.
We did not issue immigrant visas in Geneva. That was handled in Zurich. But I did sign all kinds of nonimmigrant visas for tourists, businessmen, students, ship and airplane crews, travelers in transit, United Nations delegates and other diplomats and performing athletes, artists and entertainers.
Among hundreds of others, I issued a visa to Ingemar Johansson, a Swedish boxer and former heavyweight champion, to fight in the United States and to David Niven, the well-known British actor, to attend the funeral in Los Angeles of Dick Powell, an American actor and Niven’s business partner.
My job was to ensure that all visa applicants were bona fide nonimmigrants, i.e. they had no intention of remaining in the United States illegally. I had one Swiss secretary and about five minutes per applicant to deal with a waiting room overflowing with people of many nationalities anxious to visit the United States.
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So how did I decide who was a bona fide nonimmigrant? Mostly by circumstantial factors. A Swiss man who traveled to the United States several times per year and had a business and family in Switzerland would obtain a business visa without difficulty. On the other hand, a single, unemployed 18-year-old Italian woman living in Rome but applying for a visa in Geneva would not get one.
My first question would be: “Why didn’t you apply for a visa at the American Embassy in Rome?” The likely response was typically: “Oh, I’m here on vacation and thought I would stop by.”
Unsuccessful visa applicants can shop all over the globe for the necessary permit to enter the United States. It only takes one visa officer to sign off to gain entry.
In the 1960s, the waiting list among southern Europeans for immigrant visas to the United States was more than fifty years. Thus, many who wished to immigrate to the United States looked for other illegal means. Some fashioned phony American passports, some jumped ship, but most claimed to be bona fide nonimmigrants and then filed for immigrant status after their arrival in the United States.
If the latter occurred, I would receive a form from the Immigration and Naturalization Service saying such-and-such had applied for permanent immigrant status and inquired if reasons existed for their denial. If I knew of a warrant for the arrest of the applicant, for example, a deportation would follow.
But 99 percent of the time, the person who had lied to me was allowed to remain in the United States. Why? I suspect because the Immigration and Naturalization Service had neither the means nor the inclination to constantly deport people who would be replaced the next day by droves of others.
I recall giving a visa to a young Greek man who wanted one last chance to see his dying uncle in Boston. He showed me a letter from a physician saying his uncle (was he really?) had only a few weeks to live. Shortly thereafter, I received the dreaded Immigration and Naturalization Service form indicating the tearful young man had applied for permanent residence status the day he arrived in Boston.
I recall a sobbing young woman from Belgrade, single and pregnant by a former American Embassy Marine guard who had moved to a new assignment at Camp Pendleton, pleading to “go to America” and surprise her “husband.”
Yielding to compassion and knowing full well she was unlikely to return to Europe, I issued the visa. I do not know the outcome of her arrival in California, but have no doubt her “husband” was indeed surprised.
I recall an elderly Polish gentleman who had served in the American army in World War I with great distinction. He showed me his many medals and citations. He wanted to visit Arlington National Cemetery where many of his comrades in arms were buried. I could not issue him a visa because of his residency in a Soviet Bloc country. That time the tears were mine.
Carroll R. McKibbin worked as a consular officer for two years. He is a retired Cal Poly political science professor and a resident of San Luis Obispo.