Houston – This is somewhere between a shaggy dog story, a tale of internet hell, or black hole politics. The subject is a visa. The country is India. I’ve hinted at this saga before, but now I’ve gone to Houston to grab the bull by the horns, as the locals used to say in Texas. I saddled up, so to speak, and set the truck west at 345 am to be at the Indian consulate office in Houston by the opening bell at 930 am. This had been going on too long. It was time to either get it fixed or give up any prospects of ever traveling to India in the future.
Let me set the scene. ACORN has been working in India to support various community and labor efforts since 2005. After having had a couple of short-term visitor’s visas in 2003 and 2005, I successfully applied for a 10-year visa in 2006, which was affixed to my passport. For a while I was traveling with both my new USA passport and my old one as well since it included long haul visas for India and Argentina. Somehow, I lost the old passport during a secondary interview as I entered Toronto around that time, so my last time in India was in 2015. As I got ready to visit in late 2016 for a trip in 2017, I knew my visa would have expired so I filled out an application and had my colleague, Orell Fitzsimmons, in Houston turn the whole package into the consulate office near the Galleria. They said they no longer handled visas, since Narenda Modi had become prime minister in 2014 and had subcontracted the process out. We turned it into their local office. It sat there for months, no response. We hassled them regularly until we finally got a rejection without explanation, but were told to apply again, start all over, and pay the fees. That began a saga for annually applying, emailing, and even calling the foreign ministry in Delhi, because they insisted on online applications but none worked without the number of my old visa (which in a bonehead move, I had never copied). Even when I did what they instructed and invented a number, but it was always the same reply. Meanwhile Modi had launched a campaign against nonprofits, tightened the rules for foreign donations, and denied visas galore. Was I caught in a web of my own ineptness, their incompetence, or political retribution? I’ll never know.
Starting in 2020, my strategy was twofold. Plan A, try for a business visa. That didn’t work. Plan B, go to the consulate office in Houston, plead my case, and find out once and for all, but the consulate office was closed for the pandemic in 2020, 2021, and 2022. I met the Indian organizers in Katmandu in 2019 in desperation. All of which had me driving to Houston now that their website said they were open again in order to have it out, once and for all.
The consular office was off of Memorial Drive, a multi-story, well-appointed building facing a small park. The official opened the door for me. He told me to make up a number and go to the visa office downtown, because this morning they were open to walk-ins before 10am. I was there and signed in with security at 9:36. There was no place to sign in at the visa office. The sheet was filled up. Others waiting told me it was an honors system, and I would be after the tall Chinese guy. There wasn’t a large crowd, but it was anarchy. Finally, I got to the window. I explained the problem. They said, “make up a number.” I said, “how many digits?” Three or four went back and forth on whether six or eight. I had seen others ahead of me with paper apps, so I said, “can’t I file a paper application, since online doesn’t work, please I drove from New Orleans?” Wham-bam, they handed me one from a stack, and said, “Fill it out now. Do you have a picture?” I said, “no.” “We’ll handle that, but we’ll charge you.” “No problem,” says I. Of course, the whole process was a mystery. There was more drama in finding a phone number in India for them. I went large for another 10-year visit, and paid what they asked without question, not wanting to ever do this again if I didn’t have to do so.
Did I solve the problem? I don’t know? My colleagues in India believe that they’ve had to open up the process because India is hosting the G-20 meeting. In fact, Modi’s picture is all over the visa application pages saying come to G-20, so maybe? Maybe I’ve got a shot? I know the application is filled out right and filed right this time. I have a tracking number and have been sent an email. The visa workers said I would get my passport back with the visa in a week. We’ll see. I’m crossing my fingers.
What a process! India, what a country!!!