Overheard at a visa centre

It is the job of American visa officers to ask personal, incisive questions. The US government presumes all visa applicants intend to migrate. It is your task to prove otherwise. Guilty until
proven innocent.

Norwegians get online visas, so it is mostly foreigners who undergo the mandatory interviews in Oslo. My 10-year visa had expired. Getting a new one means internment inside the US embassy for two hours without electronic devices. I am armed with newspapers, but don’t read a page. I am within earshot of the ongoing grilling. And, I am hooked.

“Where are you from?” asks the goateed, middle-aged visa officer, his steely eyes belying his pleasant face. After office hours, he could easily be Uncle Ben flipping burgers on the grill.

Illustration: Bhaskaran

A: Muymym (unintelligible).

Q: Yum Yum?

A: Myanmar.

Q: What are you studying?

A: I am visiting PhD student.

Q: I asked what are you studying?

A: I am a visiting PhD student.

Q: What’s that?

A: I am doing research here in neuroscience.

Q: Where have you done your master’s?

A: I haven’t done master’s.

Q: How do you do PhD without master’s?

A: I have a medical degree.

A few more questions, he gets his visa.

Then there is a middle-aged couple.

Q: You have Norwegian passports?

A: Yes. We came to Norway 29 years ago.

Q: You both are born in Iran. Why don’t you have Iranian passports?

A: We are Christians. After the Ayatollah revolution, we didn’t feel safe.

They get their visas.

A young white man with poor English is next.

Q: Where are you from?

A: Ukraine. (I immediately suspect he is a hacker.)

Q: How long have you been in Norway?

A: Eight months.

Q: What do you do here?

A: Carpenter.

Q: You have been to Pakistan. (Statement, not question; my suspicion strengthens)

A: Yes, I doing jobs.

Q: What kind of jobs?

A: Building.

Q: Pakistan imports labour from Ukraine?

A: Short jobs.

Q: Did you do machine learning?

The man does not understand. After a few more questions, the visa officer informs him that he doesn’t qualify, handing over a letter with the reasons. The officer has all the relevant information with him, but asks questions just to study reactions. His questions are short, sharp, surgical. In public interest, he should train TV anchors who ask these long-winded, convoluted questions that drive viewers and interviewees crazy. When goatee retires, he can run journalism classes.

A young man is called next. I am stunned. He is Norwegian! They don’t need to be interviewed, plus they are the immigrants Donald Trump wants!

Q: What do you do?

A: Farmer. Do you want to see my police record? (Typical Norwegian, honest, to-the-point).

Q: Yes. You got arrested for possessing marijuana.

A: Yes.

Q: So how did you get arrested?

A: It was after a party. I was drunk. I don’t remember much.... I was on the street, two civilian officers came…

At this point I am called for my interview at another window. It is over in two minutes, no personal questions. I get my visa. But, I will never know if the weed-killing, weed-smoking Norwegian farmer got his.

Pratap is an author and journalist.