An Update Regarding the U.S. Mission to Russia

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On Monday, September 25, 2017, Laurence E. Tobey, Minister-Counselor for Consular Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Russia, gave an informative presentation on the status of the U.S. Mission to Russia. The talk was sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia.

Mr. Tobey’s address focused on describing events of the preceding months, the Consular Section’s response to those events, and how visa applicants can best work with the Consular Section in light of new developments.

In response to further sanctions against Russia by the United States, in late July Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded that the U.S. Mission to Russia reduce its staff by 60%, shrinking the combined total of U.S. diplomatic personnel and local Russian staff to 455 persons. The State Department hit back on August 21 with an announcement that the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Russia would suspend nonimmigrant-visa issuance starting August 23. The State Department further announced that, effective September 1, nonimmigrant-visa interviews would take place only at the U.S .Embassy in Moscow and that all such interviews at U.S. Consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Vladivostok would be suspended indefinitely. Even before the announcement, a staff shortage at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow meant there were already long wait times for nonimmigrant-visa-interview appointments.

Mr. Tobey and his colleagues were confronted with the difficult task of laying off hundreds of dedicated employees. In many cases, he said, “we were dismissing [Russian] employees that had been with us for years, decades. Some had been here since we began hiring local Russian employees in 1993.” The vast majority of the Mission comprised Russian workers. (It is worth noting that the Russian foreign service does not hire Americans to staff its mission in the United States.) The U.S. Foreign Service in Russia hires local Russian nationals, according to Mr. Tobey, because “we have learned as a service that this is how we get business done best [in Russia].”

In order to comply with the Russian government’s demand, the U.S. Mission was put in the awkward position of having to cancel 17,000 already-scheduled visa appointments. Operating with only 40% of its former personnel, it simply could not handle the volume of cases. Visa applicants have been inconvenienced by having to reschedule interview appointments. Despite the cuts, however, Mr. Tobey was unequivocal that the U.S. government has made no policy decision to either change visa criteria or reduce the number of visas issued to Russian citizens. “I know you’ve been told that the rate of refusals for visas went up immediately,” Mr. Tobey said. “This is not true.”

Following events, the U.S. Mission to Russia has been forced to reinvent the way it does business. One major change has been the retraining of the remaining Russian staff. While Russian personnel previously filled mostly specialized roles, they are now being trained to handle a complete range of functions in both immigrant-visa and nonimmigrant-visa units. “What we have attempted to do,” Mr. Tobey explains, “is move responsibilities around so that we maximize the productivity of the people we have, just as you would in any industrial management setting, and provide the greatest level of service we can, given the personnel that we have. And we will continue to do that.”

The good news is that the Consular Section will move to a new building on the main Embassy compound. The facility has been under construction for three years and is approximately 95% complete. It was initially slated for completion at the beginning of October, but that target has been pushed back to December 18 because of the 60% staff reduction, which also affected the Office of Buildings and Operations. According to Mr. Tobey, the new building represents a revolutionary step forward that will enable heightened productivity. Even with a reduced staff, the Embassy hopes to realize efficiency gains, faster and better service, and a much safer and more pleasant environment.

The Embassy will also continue to rebalance its workload. Starting in October, it will change its work regime so that three days a week are devoted to nonimmigrant-visa processing and two days to immigrant-visa processing.

Final Tips

Mr. Tobey candidly remarked that the simplest and best solution for visa applicants requiring an interview is NOT to apply within Russia. Russian citizens are permitted to apply for U.S. visas outside Russia. There is no obligation to apply from inside the country, Mr. Tobey explained, and Russian citizens will not be disadvantaged if they apply from elsewhere. He went so far as to strongly encourage Russians to apply outside of Russia.

Mr. Tobey also was also very clear that anyone who for whatever reason cannot apply from outside Russia and plans travel to the U.S. in the next few months—or even farther in the future—need not wait to apply. “Get started now,” he urges. “There is no reason to hesitate.”

The Minister-Counselor for Consular Affairs concluded by assuring his audience that “we will do our best to continue to provide the best possible service we can, given the limitations.”

Reprinted with permission.


About The Author

Matthew MorleyMatthew Morley is an American attorney based in Moscow practicing in the area of US immigration and nationality law.


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