Monday, August 31, 2009

Visiting the U.S. Consulate

Being the first road trip with the baby, preparation took longer than we expected. I woke up at 6:00 to feed the baby. Then packed – carseat, diapers, formula, water, bottles, wipes, change of clothes, extra swaddling cloth and changing mat (towel).

We had also called ahead to schedule the appointment (and rescheduled it multiple times). The consulate tries not to schedule more than one passport/CRBA application per day, and they said they're currently doing about three surrogate related applications per week. When we made our first call, they had openings within about a week. Although you schedule the appointment, you still pull a number when you arrive.

We had hired Asha to be a day nanny on this trip – she’s both a trained nurse and has helped other surrogate couples through the consulate and FRRO – and she was great. Nice to have someone that can efficiently take care of the baby, especially when he pees in the middle of a change in the consulate as you're trying trying to answer their questions about your paperwork. (Asha can be reached at ashamj70 at gmail dot com or +91 97657 45028). If you use another day nanny, make sure she brings her passport in order to get into the Consulate.

We got to the Consulate at 9:30 AM, pulled a number, and were pleasantly surprised to see that we were number 37 and they were already on 35. 9:30 put us at the tail end of the Monday morning rush since the consulate opens at 9:00. By about 10:00 we were about the only ones there. (I never did figure out if our appointment gives us the ability to cut in front of everyone - at some other embassy's and consulates it does, so it would be worth asking).

Passing through security to get into the consulate was a bit like airport security. You can’t bring any electronics in (phones, computers, cameras) – they even asked me to leave an extra SIM card I had in the outside lockers. You can bring baby products and paperwork in. Any kind of liquid is dicey – we got the thermos with water in (maybe they didn’t notice it buried in the baby bag), but didn’t get the disinfectant hand cleaner in. Past security there is a water cooler.

First task was to feed the baby, since by the time we got into the consulate it was feeding time again. Then waited a few minutes for our number to come up.

We had pre filled out the Consular Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA) and Passport applications (including 2 2x2 passport photos) and filled out an SSN application while we were there. We are both U.S. citizens and did gestational surrogacy with our own genetic material. Based on that we didn’t have to prove much presence (I think 1 day) in the U.S. For this situation, the supporting paperwork that the consulate asked for was:

* Passports
* Original Surrogacy contract and 2 copies (bringing the copies helped, they gave us the original back)
* Birth Certificate
* Letter from Hospital (Hirinandani for us)
* Letter from clinic (Rotunda for us)
* Marriage License (We brought an original which they gave back)
* Records from clinic (we didn’t have medical records themselves, but showed print outs of some of the test results and updates that had been forwarded to us during the process)

A note: do read the letter you get from the clinic. The first draft of the letter we received obviously came from a template because it had many errors including:

* the wrong retreival date,
* indicated we used an egg donor,
* said a female baby was delivered, and
* said the baby was born healthy and fine although he spent 15 days in the NICU for respiratory distress syndrome

Any of these errors could have raised eyebrows at the Consulate and could possibly put us on the path of requiring a DNA test. So we requested a new copy of the letter. Good thing it wasn't time critical and we weren't planning to visit the Consulate that day.

In our situation (married, both U.S. citizens, baby genetically both of ours), we did not have to do a separate affidavit of presence. We’ve traveled overseas quite a bit, so in the “traveled overseas box” of the CRBA, it was okay to just put “various”. This was because we each only had to show 1 day presence in the U.S.

Coordinating with the Mumbai consulate (it is Rachel right now) to know what paperwork was required in our situation certainly helped speed the process, and arriving with the paperwork filled out, having baby photos when we arrived, and having all of the above documents in a single pile to hand over, helped speed the process as well.

We then did a quick oath affirming that the statements and documentation we provided were accurate.

After paying $150 by credit card, we left the consulate by about 11:30. Because our baby had spent 16 days in the NICU, the consulate was kind enough to grant us an emergency Visa, which was available for pickup the next day/morning (on the way to the FRRO).

The consulate says they currently look at the “body of evidence” to determine whether or not a DNA test is required. In our situation, a DNA test was not required, which saved us time (a week for the test to turn around) and money (close to US$1,000). (Note that for U.S. citizens, Rotunda has DNA test kits from Universal Genetics which you can use if required. This saves the time and cost of having a test kit mailed to India, if you need one.)

Rachel, who works at the consulate and who I emailed and spoke on the phone with many times, was extremely helpful. Definitely gets an A+ for customer service. It is because of frequent emails and correspondence with her and her team that we were fully prepared going into the consulate and that the process went smoothly. In this case, it was a pleasure to deal with one of our government organizations.

When I had spoken to Rachel earlier, she did recommend scheduling the DNA test and the visit for passport/CRBA documents on separate days in situations where both are required. We decided to do the passport visit first, which then helped determine or confirm whether the DNA test was required.

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