(Not) Getting a Visa on Embassy Row

Trip Start Sep 08, 2009
Trip End Sep 08, 2010

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Flag of United States  , District of Columbia
Thursday, August 27, 2009

I had called before coming. I had looked online. I had tried to remain skeptical. But the Haitian Embassy website is infinitely better than I had expected for a country that has hosted UN Peacekeepers for several years. It's brand-spankin' new, and more than 50 percent of website visitors who have taken the "new website" poll declare that it is "Excellent!" (complete with exclamation point). Full of colorful and clickable maps, flashing pictures of scenic Caribbean waters and majestic buildings, and an up-to-date news feed informing visitors of "pockets of progress" in the country, the Haitian Embassy website was validating. It was like finding a gourmet restaurant/bar in D.C. with a surprisingly killer happy hour.

I called the Haitian Embassy and was able to talk to the consular officer right away. She told me I could find the visa information right there on the website. I asked if I should stop by and pick up an application, and she said, sure, I would just find everything online and bring it by to apply. I was in awe. I nearly dropped the phone. It sounded so easy! 

I found the visa information online and was a bit confused by some of what was required. Six photos seemed kind of excessive. And where (and how) on earth would I get a document that declared that I had not committed any crime in every place I've lived for the past ten years: Colorado, France, Texas, Massachusetts, Benin, D.C.? I decided to go directly to the Embassy to pick up an application and find out how to get all of this info. And maybe I wouldn't need all the info. After all, I just needed a letter saying that I had applied for a visa. I didn't actually have to have the visa. The letter would suffice for me to avoid being forced to buy a return ticket from the airline, and I could apply for the real resident visa upon arrival. Surely once I was in the country and they could see I wasn't a criminal (I'm doing development work for goodness sake!), I wouldn't have to provide criminal records for the past ten years for every place I'd ever inhabited. I planned to bike there on my way to work the very next morning. 

The Haitian Embassy is on Embassy Row. I had only visited a couple of Embassies in DC, but still, I wondered how Haiti had ended up with such a sweet location. Who paid the rent? The Embassy for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, another country devastated by conflict and upheaval, occupied a small, lonely suite in a downtown office building. One man sat behind the reception desk and appeared to perform the functions of receptionist, consular officer, and guard. (As I waited to pick up a colleague's passport, I began to wonder if he was the Ambassador as well.)

After locking my bike up to a skinny tree, I walked up the Haitian Embassy driveway,which was wet from a recent cleaning. Two Haitians, one holding a hose, greeted me as I headed toward the entrance, a 7-Eleven type door that looked out-of-place nestled in the stone alcove. Inside, red carpets and brass sconces led me to a small desk across the room, empty save a sign-in sheet and a shiny pen. A man called out, and I doubled back and went into another room, where a modern reception counter stretched across the expanse. Another man stood up to inquire, and I stated that I had come to pick up a visa application, please. 

I was told that the consular officer would be with me as soon as she arrived. I sat on the plush couch in the waiting area and was treated to a video on Haiti. Glistening bikini-clad women; lucious-looking fruits; clear, blue waters, and the obligatory historian made a heroic attempt to persuade me that Haiti was a extraordinary Caribbean paradise where I needn't worry about kidnappings (27 Americans in 2008), food riots (not since 2008), and coups d'etats. Instead, I could bake in the sun while sipping on frozen pina coladas made with Haitian rum.

Finally, the consular officer arrived, and I was shuttled into her office. Stacks of files spanned her desk, each one at least a foot high. I began to wonder if the Embassy had not yet made the switch to performing tasks electronically, but then I saw it. There, on a little side desk, rested a shiny new computer, a modern miracle hidden amidst the paper abyss. Soon after I began to talk, the officer recognized my voice from the telephone call the day before. "Oh, did you find everything online?" She asked. 

I said yes and explained that I had come to collect the application portion, the part I have to fill in. She said it was all online but then skimmed through the middle of one of the paper mountains and pulled out a copy of the same document I had seen online. After some unproductive discussion, I decided to forge on with questions about the list of required items. And that's when I discovered that maybe I shouldn't bother with the visa.

Me: Is it really necessary to have a statement stating that I haven't committed a crime in every place I've lived? Where does one acquire such a thing, especially if I've lived in a lot of different places, including outside the country?

Officer: Does it say you need that?

Me: Yes, it says so right here. (and how could you not know that? you're the consular officer!)

Officer: Well, I don't know where you get it. We usually just go to the Ministry of Justice.

Me: Well, where have people in the past gone to get this information?

Officer: Well, I don't know. I've been working here for the past three years, and no one has ever applied for a visa before. 

Three whole years and no visa applications?! I began to seriously wonder what all the stacks of paper were for and from which decade they originated. What does this woman do all day if not to complete visa applications? Isn't that the one of the primary functions of a consular officer? I looked at one stack more closely and saw there, nestled only one or two files from the top, three or four gossip magazines. Aha.

I asked a few more questions even though I was starting to realize that I might not be applying for a visa after all. The woman took the "application" from my hand and glanced at it and then explained that I should just, you know, put everything in a nice little letter, which she would then send down to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Haiti to process. Then, she could copy so that I would be able to show the airline that I had applied.

She graciously offered to make a copy of the "application" for me, and as she re-entered the room, she said, "Actually, we did have someone apply here once. A student. A year or two ago. I sent everything down there, and I never heard anything. So I assume it all worked out.I've got a copy right here." She went over to a stack on top of the little side desk and pulled out a copy of the application from a year or so ago.

I had to hand it to this lady. Most people need file cabinets and color-coded folders. Somehow she had managed to find two different documents (the information sheet and the lone visa application) amongst hundreds of unlabeled files and sheets of paper using nothing but her memory. 

She neatly folded my photocopy and placed it in an envelope for me, handing it to me with a smile. "Come back with a completed application, and I can give you a copy for your airline," she said. She seemed so excited about the prospect of having something to do in the future. I didn't have the heart to tell her that I probably wouldn't be adding to her stack of papers and her short list of visa applicants. 

I said goodbye to Embassy Row and, at the advice of another expat who had worked on the same project in Haiti, decided to by a roundtrip ticket with a changeable return instead. Melanie said that no one really went through the trouble of getting a resident visa. Instead they just left the country once in a while to maintain their tourist visa status. "You just go to the beach in the Dominican Republic for a day every three months. Think you can handle that?" She asked.

Um, yes. I think I can. So I'll get to bake in the sun and sip pina coladas after all....   
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