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The immigration issue is big news in the US these days.

Illegal Mexican
immigrants, working at Wal-mart, provide staple fodder for Jay Leno on the Tonight
show. However, this article is not about immigration – illegal or otherwise. It is
about ordinary folks from other countries wanting to visit America for a short
visit. Should be fairly simple and straightforward, right? Well, maybe not.

Dr. Prakash Amte and his wife, Manda – also a PhD –are known as the Schweitzer
couple of India. For years, they have been engaged in providing free medical care
to over 40,000 extremely poor tribals in the hinterland of India. They also
provide free education for hundreds of their children. In addition to this, they
are engaged in the treatment and eradication of leprosy. They also run an
orphanage for destitute children; and have been successful in training a good
number of tribals, who are now gainfully employed as teachers, forest guards and
police personnel.

The Amtes are definitely no millionaire philanthropists. In fact, they have

virtually no wealth or regular income. They fund all their charitable activities
by cajoling donations from trusts, industrialists and, often reluctant, political

The Amte couple has been invited by an organization of Indian-American social

workers to attend their annual convention in Seattle. So they dutifully went along
to the US consulate in Mumbai – with all the required documentation – to apply for
a short-stay visitor’s visa. It was denied. Reason? Their income was too low for
them to qualify. In officialese, ‘people with weak financial and social status can
be denied a US visa’. The operative word to remember is ‘can’ and not ‘must’.

I would be the first to acknowledge that the job of a US visa officer in Mumbai is
not an easy one. From nine to five, five days a week, he or she has to deal with
an unending flood of visa applicants. However, they are presumably trained to
handle this. I would also admit that a fair proportion of the applicants turn up
with incomplete documentation – and some have intentions that are not entirely
honorable. So it is not surprising that the rejection rate is pretty high.

In the case of Dr. Amte and his wife, however, the above explanations do not
apply. Their credentials are entirely above board and a matter of public record –
and they certainly do not pose a security threat to the US. To reject their
application merely because they have a conventional source of income seems a bit
harsh. Yes, I know rules are rules, how about applying a little discretion in
exceptional cases?