Home free: Paperwork error nearly exiled local family
When Dutch citizens turned Crozet residents Gerard and Paulien van Dijk were preparing their application for permanent residency in the United States seven years after moving here, they thought they had everything in order. They triple-checked the proper forms with their attorney and even pulled their children out of Albemarle schools to move to a foreign country in hopes of complying with American immigration regulations.
So it came as a shock when, on March 30, after waiting six months outside the United States, an American official informed Paulien van Dijk that she and her family might never return home to Virginia.
"I lost it," she says. "I cried and cried. I couldn't even look at my children at that moment."
The critical mistake? Omitting Mrs. van Dijk's grown daughter from a previous marriage in an online application filed with the State Department a year ago.
"We had been so careful," says Paulien. "We had made sure to include my grown daughter on every form where it said to list your children. I couldn't understand why this couldn't be resolved, and why no one ever told me."
The van Dijks have lived in Crozet since 2002, with Gerard van Dijk having relocated his family to the Charlottesville area nearly two decades after he first fell in love with Central Virginia while earning his master's degree from the University of Virginia.
The van Dijk family had always been in the country legally on a series of temporary visas. Then, last year, Gerard heard of a long-shot opportunity to gain permanent residency status.
"Every year," Gerard explains, "the State Deparment holds what they call a diversity lottery, and if you're chosen, you become eligible for a green card. Any legal resident from a list of under-represented countries can apply, and Holland was one of them."
To improve his family's odds, Gerard filled out online applications for himself, his wife, and his three children. He forgot to mention his wife's eldest child.
"They only choose 50,000 out of about 20 million applicants every year," says Gerard, "so I wanted to improve our chances and applied one form for each of us."
Paulien was among the chosen few; so, in order to prepare for her green card interview, she left the country in September, a month before her last temporary visa ran out. Along with Gerard, as well as 17-year-old son Alexander and 16-year-old daughter Julie, both students at Western Albemarle High School, and 12-year-old son Willem, a student at the Field School, they moved to the Dutch-owned island of Cura§ao, located in the Caribbean just off the coast of Venezuela.
For six months they waited for Paulien's day at the American embassy to have her green card interview. Finally, at the end of a long day at the American embassy in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, after she had answered her last question, she thought she would finally win her permanent residency status in the United States, she heard the last words she expected to hear.
"The immigration official told me, 'I'm sorry to have to be the one to tell you this,'" recalls Paulien, "'but you're not going to get your visa.'"
"I couldn't believe they were refusing us for this," says Gerard. "I just forgot to include Paulien's daughter when they asked if there was anyone who might follow her from Holland. The federal government knew for months about this discrepancy, and nobody had told us anything."
After the two of them pleaded for further review, the American official finally said he would send their application back to the State Department in a last-ditch effort.
"He said, 'I'll send it,'" recalls Paulien, "'but I give you about a one percent chance.'"
Immediately, the van Dijks e-mailed friends back in Charlottesville to alert them to the situation. Less than 24 hours later, several friends congregated at the office of freshman Congressman Tom Perriello's (D-Ivy).
A Perriello spokesperson confirms that the congressman's office inquired with the State Department, leading to a second interview in Caracas on Wednesday, April 15.
"We were in and out in 15 minutes," says an exultant Paulien. "We flew into Baltimore the next day, our kids are back in school, and we're all permanent residents now. I can hardly believe it."
A spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Services referred a reporter's questions to the State Department's consular affairs office, which declined to comment, citing a policy not to comment about specific cases.
Despite their harrowing experience, the van Dijks say there's much more to America than its bureaucracy.
"The way everyone pulled together for us is what the United States of America is all about," says Gerard. "If you get a group of people together, you can get a movement going, and really change things."
–updated April 28 at 9:15am