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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 May 2007, 09:40 GMT 10:40 UK
Washington diary: Seeking a visa
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Bahamas

Shells on a beach in the Bahamas
The cheapest, easiest place to get a new visa... the Bahamas
For the Frei family, the visa policy of the United States has been a mixed blessing.

As a foreign journalist I need to get my I-Visa renewed every five years. In order to do this I have to leave the country.

Since I will continue to do the same job for the same employer in the same city at the same salary, a wholesale family departure from the sovereign territory of the United States seemed a touch excessive.

In fact the only member of our clan who didn't need to leave the US for visa purposes is my daughter Alice. She was born here and has an American passport. We could have told her when to put out the garbage bins, collect the newspapers and pay the utility bills. But she's only three. So she came along too.

Now for the good part. In order to get a US visa renewed you need a prearranged appointment at an American embassy.

Theoretically this can be done in London, Oslo or Beijing. But for us the cheapest, quickest location to get "visaed up" happened to be the Bahamas.

So the Freis packed bucket, spades and birth certificates and flew to Nassau, where the Hilton Hotel nestles conveniently between the visa section of the American embassy and a small, perfectly-formed private beach from which one can spot mammoth ocean liners called Majesty of the Seas or Serenity plough into the turquoise waters of a harbour once favoured by pirates.

Truncheons and tempers

The visa process is bureaucratic and cumbersome, involving at least two interviews and a separate appointment the following day to collect the visas. Allowing for flights from the US the whole process lasts at least three days. Shame!

Map showing the Bahamas

The tedious part is the three-hour waiting time in the embassy. This demands a suspension of all cell phone activity, monastic silence and a Byzantine queuing system enforced by large Bahamian women with truncheons and tempers.

The atmosphere is a combination of fear, reverence and anticipation. Prayer vigil meets lottery.

My children were so terrified, they have never behaved better. George did his maths homework in silence. Amelia read her book. Lottie drew flowers. Alice was a time bomb, growing increasingly fractious. But then, she is American.

The experience was annoying and stressful. But all the same, it was a good deal safer than the option taken by many illegal immigrants of walking across the border in New Mexico or Arizona, risking death in the process.

'Fortress America'

In the oppressive silence of the embassy waiting room my mind meandered onto the oddities of the America immigration system.

A US border patrol agent by the border fence in Nogales, Arizona
Building a fence will not guarantee 100% secure borders

As legal aliens, we are grilled, finger-printed and retina-scanned - but the vast majority of new arrivals still hike across the Arizona desert in search of jobs flipping burgers or making hotel beds. In the post 9/11 era, "fortress America" is both paranoid and porous.

Some lawmakers are calling for a fence 10 feet high to be built on the US-Mexico border. That means the illegal migrants and their coyotes - or human traffickers - will just buy 11-foot ladders.

There is no such thing as 100% security along any of America's borders.

The only solution is a political one that accommodates the millions of workers who want to come to the US and without whom Californian grapes would remain unpicked and Iowa hotel beds unmade.

If in doubt I urge you to see a film called A Day without A Mexican. It imagines California without nannies, gardeners and construction workers. What a different California it is!

This is the challenge that President George W Bush is trying to live up to and that could well define his legacy, Iraq permitting.

Internal rift

The immigration debate is feverish, complicated and poisoned by 9/11, a fear of globalisation - and geography.

Protesters march for immigrants' rights in Los Angeles
A political solution must be found to the immigration issue

America is being flooded by one predominant group of migrants who all speak Spanish, come from next door and represent the thin end of the wedge.

There are already more "Hispanics" in this country than African Americans. If the desperate people walking across the border came from Lithuania or China this debate would be less charged.

I read in the Los Angeles Times that the confusions and agonies of the immigration debate have even had an impact on America's famed national parks, preparing to receive millions of visitors this summer.

Reports from Bryce Canyon and Yosemite are that lodge managers are changing bed sheets and swimming pools remain closed because America's temporary visa programme for seasonal labour has been put on hold.

It is a mess that needs to be sorted but is, like so much else, entangled in the internal rift within the Republican movement - between the business lobby and the national security lobby - and the ensuing election campaign.

But then again: if America's visa policy were more logical, then the Freis might never have been able to sample the sands of Nassau.

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