7 Interviews = 1 Visa
How the US Embassy in Moscow Torments Russian Visa Applicants
The recent headline in one of Russia’s leading daily newspapers sounded so welcoming: “America Invites You to Visit.” In the extensive accompanying article and interview, the Chief of the Nonimmigrant Visa Unit at the US Embassy in Moscow, Bill Bistransky, praises the natural wonders of the United States and touts the ease of receiving a visa to the United States for “legitimate” visitors.
If only it were so.
We have previously chronicled how the Embassy in Moscow regularly punishes Russian babushki who stay “too long” in the US; impermissibly readjudicates already-approved USCIS employment petitions, stymying the plans of Russian entrepreneurs and professionals to work in the United States; and doubled its visa refusal rate. But what is remarkable is the continued disconnect between the Embassy’s public relations campaign and the real world experiences of everyday visa applicants. Take the case of Irina.
Irina is a top-flight 18-year old basketball player who lives in Moscow. She had a full scholarship to play for a small Midwestern college. She had a good TOEFL score and is a B student. She had traveled around Europe playing with her basketball team and lived with her mother, who has a good job and owns an expensive apartment in Moscow.
In the summer, Irina applied for a student visa at the Embassy in Moscow. According to Irina, the consular officer seemed annoyed and skeptical as soon as she stepped to the window. The officer asked the standard array of questions for student visa applicants, only in a very sharp tone: Where will you study? What is your major? Why do you want to study in the US? What kind of stipend will you receive? After the brief interview, he denied her under Section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Irina applied again. At her second interview she was greeted by a friendlier officer, who engaged in a similar line of questioning. According to Irina, he appeared to be ready to approve her visa. But before making a final decision, he approached the initial adjudicating officer, who was interviewing applicants at the next window. After a brief discussion, the officer returned to Irina and said that he is unable to reverse the decision of the first officer.
Irina missed the fall semester.
However, Irina – and her college – did not give up. The college President and basketball coach wrote letters of support. Irina applied a third time and was met by a different officer. She showed her letters of support and personal documents to the officer. This officer asked how she found the college, and before refusing her, said: “It is very difficult to receive a visa to the United States.”
During a trip with her team to Yekaterinburg, she decided to apply at the consulate there. The officer there asked a couple of questions, and according to Irina, did not even deign to listen to her responses. He refused her within 2 minutes.
Irina then contacted our firm. We requested the Embassy in Moscow to provide the factual basis of the refusal. The Embassy stonewalled. We then contacted the Department of State in Washington, seeking its assistance in eliciting information about Irina’s case. In the meanwhile, as the winter semester approached, we advised Irina to apply for a visa again. On December 14, she attended an interview and after a 5 minute conversation with the officer (in English), her application was approved. Irina – and the college – were ecstatic. It would be a Happy New Year after all!
But it was not to be. Several days later, Irina received an e-mail from the Embassy. She was being called in again – for another interview. A consular manager did not agree with the decision to issue the visa, and decided to require her to undergo another interview.
Because of the American and Russian holidays, the earliest interview available was January 10, with her semester scheduled to start the following week. On that day, Irina attended her interview. She was met by yet another officer. After a 5 minute discussion in English, according to Irina, the officer proclaimed that she used to teach English, and that Irina’s English was “inadequate”. Therefore, the officer was refusing Irina.
We immediately contacted the Embassy and the State Department, pointing out the prohibition on consular officers “testing” the English language capabilities of applicants who have satisfactorily passed a standardized English exam such as the TOEFL unless there is a suspicion of fraud.
Several days later, the Embassy called Irina, and invited her for another interview. Irina arrived at the Embassy, and after a 30 minute conversation in English with another officer, her visa was finally approved. The next day, her visa was issued.
After 7 interviews, $1000 in application fees, 6 months, two different consulates, countless correspondence, and an emotional rollercoaster for Irina and her mother, Irina had received her visa. The above speaks volumes to the virtue of persistence. But what does it say about the US Embassy in Moscow and its public declarations about how it welcomes Russians to travel to the United States?
 “Amerika priglashaet v gosti,” Moskovskiy Komsomolets, December 24, 2012, http://www.mk.ru/social/article/2012/12/24/791534-amerika-priglashaet-v-gosti.html
 Sections 214(b) and 101(a)(15)(F) of the Immigration and Nationality Act presume that applicants for student visas are intending immigrants unless they establish to the satisfaction of the consular officer that he or she has a residence in a foreign country and does not intend to abandon it; is entering the US temporarily; is a bona fide student qualified to pursue a full course of study; and will be pursuing such a course of study at an authorized institution.
 “If a school has admitted an applicant of the basis of the applicant’s TOEFL or other English language test scores, the officer should not reevaluate the school’s decision, even if the applicant seems to know less English than the TOEFL score indicates unless the officer suspects the applicant obtained the results through fraud. Many students do well on the TOEFL, but seem to forget their English when confronted with a face-to-face interview with a consular officer.” 9 FAM 41.61 N5.1(1)
Kenneth White is a member of the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania bars and was a long-time resident of Moscow, Russia, where he had his own immigration law practice. He is the co-author of the books "U.S. Nonimmigrant Visas," "U.S. Immigration and Citizenship," and "Handbook for Immigrants to Canada." Mr. White's law firm specializes in consular matters, EB-5 representation, and U.S. immigration issues.