UNCONDITIONAL LOVE: Local pastor helping wife fight to become American citizen

Special to The Saline Courier
Caleb Hennington
Special to The Saline Courier

The Rev. Taylor Loy, assistant pastor of Benton First United Methodist Church, didn’t realize it yet, but he was about to meet his future wife.

At the time, Loy was a seminary student at Duke Divinity School. Part of the academic requirements for students is to enter into an internship program to get practical ministry experience outside the walls of the classroom.
Many Duke students choose a domestic option, shadowing a pastor at a local church in the U.S.

Loy wanted to do something different. He wanted to travel outside of his comfort zone and try his hand at ministry in a foreign country. El Salvador was his destination.

“Part of that program, aside from the cultural immersion, is that you learn as much Spanish as you can for the 10 weeks that you’re there,” Loy said. “It just so happened that I was in the academy where you learn a language, and I saw this woman walk in. I thought, ‘she cannot possibly be my teacher here.’”

The woman, Bessie, ended up being his tutor for the entire time that he was in El Salvador.

The two saw each other for four hours a day, five days a week for 10 weeks.

“I immediately thought Bessie was incredibly beautiful. But what turned my feelings into something more was a time when we were in class, and she was showing me pictures of her family,” Loy said. “And some of her cousins have various health issues. And she was telling me how much she loved them and how worried she was about them. I could see the love that she had for her family as she was telling me this story. I remember thinking to myself at that moment, ‘whoever gets to marry this woman is a very lucky man.’”
But it wasn’t until after Loy left El Salvador and returned home to Duke that they realized their feelings for each other amounted to more than just friends.

“In the beginning, when I was his teacher, I didn’t know that I was in love with him,” Bessie said. “It was after he left that I felt really sad and knew that I wasn’t going to see him again. My friends knew that I loved him because of how I treated him, but I didn’t notice that until later.”

Communication through video calls continued for months after Loy returned home, and he traveled back to El Salvador four more times after that first trip, spending a total of six months in the country to be with Bessie.
Eventually, after much discernment and prayer, Loy asked Bessie to marry him.

But the story of their love — and eventual marriage — didn’t end there. Since Bessie was a citizen of El Salvador, and Loy a citizen of the United States, their relationship became far more complicated once they decided to return to and live in the U.S.
Getting into the Country

To enter the United States from another country, it’s not merely a process of acquiring a passport; a visa is also necessary. Unless you’re from one of the 38 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program — which waives the need for a visa — you can spend months, even years waiting to find out if your visa application is approved.

In the fiscal year 2018, the U.S. government issued a total of 533,557 new immigrant visas, visas for people looking to permanently live in the United States, to citizens of foreign countries. The total number of visas issued to countries in the Western Hemisphere, which includes Central and South American countries, was 235,596; visas for citizens of El Salvador made up 15,965 of.
But according to recent data from the U.S. Department of State, a total of 460,840 immigrants were denied visas in 2018 due to ineligibility findings, an increase of 39 percent from the fiscal year 2017.

“The most difficult aspect of immigration seems to be just getting into the country,” Loy said. “A lot of people expected that I could just go to El Salvador, marry her, and then just bring her back to the U.S. And when we got back here, then we would just start the citizenship process. (The immigration process) consistently blew the minds of everyone that I talked to. It is incredibly difficult to get legal entry into the country.”

With close to 50 percent of visa applications denied by the U.S. government, Loy and Bessie knew that the process would be long, difficult and stressful.
Not only would Bessie have to go through a waiting period to see if her visa had been approved or denied, but the mountains of paperwork and documents required to simply apply for a visa weighed heavily on their minds as well.

So, Loy and Bessie had two options: either get married in El Salvador and then wait about a year for her visa to be approved so she could enter the country, or start the visa process now, pray that she is accepted, and then get married within the required number of days after entering the country. Loy and Bessie chose the latter.

“We chose the cheapest, the easiest, and the fastest visa, and yet it took a year for her to even get here, and it will be seven years or longer until Bessie can become a citizen.”
The visa that the Loys chose was a fiancée visa: simply put, it’s a visa for couples seeking to get married in the U.S.

The catch is that a citizen of a foreign country who chooses to come to the U.S. on a fiancée visa must legally marry his or her U.S. citizen fiancée within 90 days of arriving in the country.
“Bessie got here Oct. 5, 2018, and we got married Nov. 4, 2018. December is a crazy time for pastors and January felt like we were pushing it too close to the deadline. So we did it in less than a month.”

The Complicated Visa Process

Applying for a visa is more than just a one-page form with basic information about yourself; for any visa, a complex stack of forms and mountains of documents are required before you can come here to prove to the U.S. government that you won’t be a detriment to the country.

First, the Loys had to apply for a visa; in their case, a K-1 visa, also known as a fiancée visa.
Every part of the visa process starts in the U.S. Loy had to put together a packet of information that contained details on each of their lives, their family histories, employment records, how many times in the last year Loy had visited El Salvador, and so on.

The couple applying for a visa must also prove that their relationship is authentic, which is done through photos, written statements from people who know them as a couple and other forms of correspondence.
There are also requirements for the U.S. citizen in the relationship to meet specific income requirements. For the fiancée visa, the U.S. citizen must earn at least 100 percent of the federal poverty guidelines when applying. Currently, the federal guideline for a single person in the U.S. is $12,490 a year.

But because of Loy’s status as a recent graduate, his tax records showed that he fell below that federal guideline and he was required to find someone else to co-sponsor Bessie’s entry into the country.

And the application for the visa doesn’t come cheap: Loy and Bessie said that a fee of $1,200 was required to submit the form and move on to the next step in the process — getting an interview with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
There is a lot of uncertainty during the application process. The packet of material is sent through multiple government offices for approval, including the USCIS and National Visa Center which sends the paperwork to the U.S. embassy closest to where the foreign fiancée lives — for Bessie, this was the U.S. embassy in El Salvador.

The USCIS or the embassy could deny the application for any number of reasons and the application process could be terminated at that point: meaning the visa fees paid during the process would not be reimbursed to the couple.
If the application is approved, the foreign fiancée must then schedule an examination by a medical professional and then schedule a time for an interview with the U.S. embassy.

“The doctor examines everything, from my head to my toes. They were even checking the spaces between my fingers to make sure nothing was there,” Bessie said.
After the interview, if all goes according to plan and the USCIS and State Department approve of the foreign fiancée’s documents, they are issued a visa stamp on his or her passport and are allowed to enter the country within six months of the visa approval.

The couple then gets married within 90 days, files a green card application with an additional $1,000-plus fee, and begins another long and complicated process of receiving a green card.

Help from the Church

Despite the overwhelming and complex nature of applying for a visa, Loy and Bessie were never truly alone in the process.

Much of the help and encouragement they received came from Loy’s appointed church, First United Methodist Church of Benton.

“Even before I came here, they were asking about me and offering their help to us. When I came here, everyone already acted like they knew me and were saying ‘Hi, Bessie! How are you?’ and things like that.

“I also had ladies from the church take me out to lunch and talk to me to get to know me better. They even planned a wedding shower for us and helped us plan the wedding at the church,” Bessie said. “Any question I had, or any doubt I had about where to buy something, they helped us a lot.”
Loy said that not only were people volunteering to help once Bessie arrived in the U.S., they were also consistently asking about her every time they saw him.

“Every Sunday morning, I was asked, ‘Where are you in the process? How soon is she going to be here? Is she prepared for this winter? How’s Bessie doing?’ I had some people who said, ‘We already love her. We haven’t met her, we haven’t seen her, but we know that we already love her.’”
Bessie has felt the love from the church as well. Since coming to Arkansas, she has received overwhelming support from the staff and congregation of the church.

“They have become like my second family here. They are very protective, and they are always asking me how I feel,” Bessie said.

“We have had tremendous support from this church,” Loy added.

The couple also believes that because Loy and Bessie went through this process while he was a pastor at Benton FUMC, the congregation became more aware of the difficulties of immigration because they were also experiencing it firsthand.

“I had people asking me to explain to them, in the simplest terms that I could, the visa process,” Loy said. “And without fail, every time I would do that, they were shocked at how difficult and complicated this process was.

“I heard over and over again, ‘But you’re a citizen? You’re an upstanding guy; why can’t you just bring her over?’ They couldn’t understand why she had to be in El Salvador while we were doing all of this paperwork.”
Loy also said that immigrants have a much more difficult job of proving why they want to enter the country, and proving that they want to come for the right reasons, than many Americans realize.

“People are not just pouring into this country from all over the world with ease. There is a ton of scrutiny placed on immigrants. There’s a huge burden of proof placed on immigrants to prove that they have legal and reasonable right to enter the country,” Loy said.

For the Loys’ future, there is still a lot of work to be done before Bessie can become a full citizen, granted all the rights of every other American. The green card application process is where the Loys stand as of right now.

About seven more years of waiting and vetting will happen before the United States government can recognize Bessie as a legal citizen.

When the visa process was in its early stages, Loy prayed that he and Bessie could get through the process and that a better way could be found in America to welcome people into the country.

Loy’s prayer now has expanded and shifted to a hope that others would learn to connect with immigrants and hear about their journey to America.

“My prayer now would be that people would not try to be educated about the immigration process by watching MSNBC, CNN or Fox News; that they would turn those channels off and go and talk to an actual immigrant and ask them about their story.

“Because … when it comes to immigrants, scripture is pretty clear. Leviticus 19:34 reads ‘The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.’ And Matthew 25:35, ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’
“We are so grateful that this church has listened to the voice of Jesus and welcomed Bessie with open arms … and have been in constant prayer and support whenever she was trying to get here.”