Lou's Views

As a young woman of 26, Naina Rao (pronounced NIGH-na ROW, rhymes with “now”) is certainly making her presence felt and heard as an up-and-coming radio and podcast journalist. Just listen to her work for Feet in 2 Worlds, an initiative backed by the Ford Foundation. On an October episode of their podcast “A Better Life?” that she reported and hosted, Naina discussed the challenges international graduate students face when they can’t visit their families back home during COVID-19.

Little did Naina know that within weeks, she’d experience a similar dilemma. As she explained it, the pandemic extended the amount of time she hadn’t seen her Indonesian family to five years; when the chance finally came to do that in later 2021, she jumped at it. There was just one problem: When her official, U.S.-approved O-1 visa was scrutinized by the U.S. consulate in Jakarta, they determined it needed further “administrative processing.” After a single interview. Just one. Even criminals get three strikes, right?

Rao told Qwoted that the snafu may have owed to her writing down an incorrect digit in her consulate form. (If you’ve seen the 400 numbers and letters in your passport code, perhaps you can sympathize.) Still it’s hard to imagine why, in an age of artificial intelligence and pocket smartphones more powerful than the computers that landed astronauts on the moon, the consulate would not do a simple double check. And so the paperwork trifle turned into a wait that dragged on … and on … for two-plus months.

“I was definitely frightened,” she recalled. “I started thinking back on what I could’ve said differently, and whether I said something wrong that caused uncertainty for the consulate officer interviewing me. I was questioning and doubting everything that I was previously 100 percent confident about.”

But eventually she got an idea. A great idea, I’d say. It was also how I came across her story while checking my inbox.

An email opening

Rao’s errant interview with the consulate officer took place on Nov. 17. By late January–and with her visa still a festering heap of red tape ugliness–she had begun to lose hope. All her U.S. representative and senator could get out of the consulate was a reply that the visa still needed, you guessed it, “administrative processing.”

“I sought my immigration attorney’s help–and my employer’s help to send a letter requesting timely processing of my visa since they need me back in person,” Rao said. “Even my employers asked their connections on what to do in regards to my situation. Nothing worked.” And it wasn’t for lack of trying.

So she wasn’t sure what the multi-media journalists, podcasters, audio producers and engineers in the Google group known as PublicRadioNYC could accomplish that hadn’t been accomplished thus far. Still, she sent an email to the members on Jan. 25 asking for help in the form of appeals to U.S. officials in Jakarta. She wrote: “The embassy has informed me that if I have not received any status update from them regarding my case within 60 days, I should contact them via email. I did just that on Jan. 18th, 2022, and to date, am still waiting for a reply, with no updates.”

After some messaging back and forth with group members, Rao supplied a form letter that required little more than copy, paste, sign and send. She provided key email addresses and names. The PublicRadioNYC posse took that and ran with it.

Boy, did they run.

A visa and a vista

Two days later, Naina wrote to the PublicRadioNYC group:

“Hey folks, thanks to your help, my visa is now in my hands. Despite the consulate officer blaming, guilt-tripping and lecturing me for my ‘unacceptable behavior,’ this wouldn’t have happened without you. Your 200 emails (and counting) sped up my visa process into just 48 hours since you sent the first email to having my passport and visa in my hands.”

Once Naina secured her happy ending wrapped in a document, I wondered how all of this could’ve happened in the first place: that is, what the story behind the story might actually be. I asked Naina for her thoughts. With two and a half months stranded in Jakarta to think about it, she landed on what sounds like a very plausible theory to me. In her words:

“Because Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country in the world, and it’s post 9/11, U.S. Consulates and Embassies continue to tighten and heavily scrutinize profiles of working immigrants to ensure that we aren’t ‘stealing jobs’ from U.S. citizens or engaging in any illegal, terrorist-related activity.”  

The joke whispered in airports when a TSA officer pulls aside a senior citizen or pie-faced tourist is, “Does that person really look dangerous?” But if it’s a necessary precaution, clearing it up takes a matter of minutes. In Naina’s case, all the consulate needed to do was check out her journalism work to see how focused and positive she is–that she’s legit. Not enough reporters cover the issues pertaining to immigration and race, or give voice to overlooked women, the way she does.

Good work in the name of good work

That she turned to media and media-related folk speaks volumes. Through the power of persistent message, they moved a mountain that federal politicians and her attorney couldn’t budge. How uplifting that ultimately, people in her profession cared as much about Naina’s plight as she has about the plights of others. Naina put it best:

“This whole event has shown me that we do have power as media colleagues. They literally pushed and pressured a bureaucratic body to work for us, the people. It made me think that power is already in the people.”

And so it is. The Vice Consul in Jakarta is still getting barraged with emails as I write this. Good. I have no sympathy for him. I’d reach out for his comment, but as you can imagine, surfing Amazon for Cheez-Its and watching TikTok videos as opposed to doing your job is hard work.

Meanwhile Naina Rao is slated to return to her cozy studio apartment in Detroit, and some well-deserved homebody time, on Sun. Feb. 13. Her approval notice from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Department of Homeland Security, is good until Aug. 13, 2024.

Naina could use, I am guessing, a warm welcome home: npbrao01@gmail.com.

Lou Carlozo is Qwoted’s Editor in Chief. All opinions expressed are not subject to technocratic bungling and indifference. Email: lou@qwoted.com or connect on LinkedIn.