Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
As The United Methodist Church is roiled about possible voting irregularities at General Conference 2019, people are paying more attention to the 31 General Conference delegates who were unable to attend, mostly due to visa issues. This post is an attempt to answer some questions about the visa process and why a General Conference delegate or someone attending another United Methodist meeting might be unable to attend due to visa issues. I have learned a lot about the visa application process recently, as I have been coordinated the "Answering the Call" Methodist mission bicentennial conference, and this guide arises in part from that experience.
What is a visa?
A visa is a temporary permit to enter another country that is required in addition to a valid passport. Many Americans may be unfamiliar with visas, since Americans are not required to have visas to enter many countries where Americans typically go. However, the United States government does require visas for people from many countries to come to the US. Canada is the only country whose citizens can enter the US visa free, though citizens of some, mostly European countries, can get a visa waiver. Citizens of all African countries must have a visa to enter the US, even for short periods.
How does someone get a visa?
To obtain a visa, travelers must apply to the US Consular Office in their country. The must pay a fee, fill out an application (usually online), provide documentation, and attend a visa interview. The individual must take the steps of the process themself; others cannot apply for a visa on one's behalf.
But can't the UMC help General Conference delegates get visas?
The UMC does provide visa assistance. GCFA has a very diligent, talented, and well-informed staff person who provides visa assistance. She provides supporting documentation for visa applications, creates a tutorial to help walk applicants through the steps they must follow, and answers questions applicants may have about the process. Nonetheless, the applicant is ultimately responsible for applying for the visa themself.
What challenges might prevent a delegate from successfully applying for a visa?
One possibility is that an applicant may just not complete the steps for the application because of misunderstanding or because they are overwhelmed with other responsibilities. GC delegates are usually leaders in their annual conferences with many demands placed on them. Moreover, even delaying application due to other duties can mean that delegates may run out of time to successfully apply. They may also have difficulty paying the application fee, which can be a couple hundred dollars, quite a lot for someone from a country with a weak economy. Delegates may also have difficulty completing online applications due to poor internet connection. Or they may have difficulty making it to a consular office for the in-person interview, especially if they are located at some distance from the office and roads are bad or non-existent and flights infrequent.
How does the US Consular Office decide to issue someone a visa?
The US Consular Office considers several factors in their decision that address three basic questions: Will the applicant be able to cover the costs of their travel, or are they likely to become a burden on US support systems? Does the applicant pose a threat to the US? Is the applicant likely to return home after their visit, or are they a risk to overstay their visa? (Despite the rhetoric about border migration, people who have overstayed their visas are actually a larger source of undocumented immigration to the US.)
On the first point, invitations to United Methodist meetings in the US typically indicate that the UMC will be covering the costs of applicant's travel and stay in the US; thus, applicants should not pose a risk of needing support. The other two questions can be more challenging. If applicants come from areas where conflict is prevalent, they may be seen as posing a threat to the US.
But the biggest challenge for applicants is convincing consular offices that they will return home after the event they will be attending. To do so, they must demonstrate significant ties through family, employment, etc. to their home countries. This is especially difficult for young adults, who are regarded as a higher risk of overstaying their visa.
What else might lead to someone being denied a visa?
Applying for a visa is a complicated process. If an applicant has accidentally made a mistake on their application, either in the category of visa for which they applied or in recording some element of their personal information, they may be denied for that reason.
What happens if someone is denied a visa? Do they have other options?
If an applicant is denied on their initial application, they may appeal and re-apply. However, they must pay the application fee again, and the appeal process takes additional time. If the appeal process takes too long, a delegate may run out of time to successfully apply.
If central conferences know that some of their delegates may be denied visas, why not just send more reserve delegates?
The biggest reason here is cost. General Conference pays for the expenses of regular delegates, but not reserve delegates. The cost of a reserve delegate to attend General Conference from a central conference could be thousands of dollars once flights, hotel, and food are taken into consideration. That can represent a significant expense for individuals from or annual conferences in countries with weak economies. Furthermore, it may be even harder for reserve delegates to obtain visas, since they do not have the guarantee of the UMC that their expenses while in the US will be covered.
This all sounds complicated.
It is. It's also an instance in which the inequalities between the US and the rest of the world affect the church, even independently from any inequalities within the church. The UMC does not control the US visa process. But that process reinforces the power differentials that already exist between people from the United States and those from other countries.