Highly Unquestionable Visa Practices

Istvan Simon writes: The United Sates is using capricious and insane methods to issue visas  I talked on the phone yesterday to a friend of mine in California who is a fellow musician, and who has discovered on the web a young Russian prodigy, a truly extraordinary classical guitar player, just 16 years of age. I am absolutely certain that this kid will very soon become world famous; he is in the class of an Andres Segovia. Through the efforts of my friend, this kid got in contact with some top classical guitar masters in the United States, and received an invitation to participate in a 2 week Master's class in the United States. In spite of recommendation letters  from  said American masters his visa was denied. This is insane and shameful.   RH: They must have given him some reason for denying him the visa.

David Haupt writes:I feel a need to sharpen up the account on the incident described by Istvan Simon.. My wife, Muriel, is the musician Istvan referred to. I am the person who actually tried to get Nikita Boldyrev into the US so that he could attend a guitar master class conducted by the noted US guitarist, Christopher Parkening. I had contacted Parkening on Nikita’s behalf last spring because Nikita wanted to get better known outside Russia. I sent Mr. Parkening a CD which I made from Nikita’s playing using files that Nikita sent me by FTP from Russia. Parkening was highly impressed and sent Nikita an invitation to attend. He also sent a personal letter to the US Ambassador in Moscow vouching for the talent of this young man and requesting that he be granted a visa to attend. The Master Class was held in late July, 2004. Nikita and his parents employed a travel agency and followed their advice on obtaining a tourist visa. His parents also took steps to demonstrate that Nikita had a major vested interest in remaining in Russia, even transferring property to him from the family estate. Nikita was/is a student in a music conservatory in Moscow which he attends on a full scholarship and where he is quite happy. He has deep friendships and mentors within Russia. His interest in attending the Parkening class was purely to study briefly with an outstanding new teacher, meet new people and network a little.

At his visa hearing, he was told that since he was enrolled in a college in Moscow there was no need for him to study in the US, that his true purpose was obviously to immigrate illegally, “visa denied”, end of discussion. Nikita’s attempt to present his personal letter from Parkening was brushed aside with a comment to the effect of “Parkening, never heard of him”. Nikita tells me that this is not atypical treatment of young Russians who wish to visit the US for any reason. One young lady, age 15, was told that she only wished to come to the US to engage in prostitution. The girl was so crushed and stunned by this treatment that she required psychiatric counseling.

I fear that there is a great deal of truth to these horror stories. Perhaps the situation at the Russian Embassy is worse because of old fossils and attitudes left over from the Cold War. However, I hear a lot of this sort of thing occurring at other embassies as well. This is an incident in which I was indirectly involved and kept thoroughly up to date on. Nikita and I haven’t decided whether to pursue getting him to the US for this next summer’s master class. Applying is not free and who needs such gratuitous insults. Whoever these people are that run this visa process, they make me ashamed to call myself an American. They should be summarily fired.

RH: Many foreign students came to the United States with the intention of staying. The trouble caused by this is such that consular officials are frightened of making mistakes and thus possibly ruining their career.  Of course, the situation is incredible.

Randy Black writes: While the visa application process for Russians may seem capricious to Istvan Simon, in fact it is rather straight forward and logical. The rules are clear, published in many languages and available on the Internet for persons to review at their convenience. But believe me, the Russia process for Americans going to Russia is even more complex and frustrating.  The invitation from the Americans per Mr. Simon’s post is perhaps the least important factor among the various rules except as in the case of an unescorted teenager, perhaps.  Here is a site describing what to do in the face of an initial denial of a visa application along with my summary, based on about a dozen visas that I helped Russians obtain in the past few years:
Herein is a list of requirements:
1)  The applicant must have a valid passport that is valid for six months beyond the length of the proposed trip. In Russia, this would be an international passport in addition to their internal one
2) The applicant must show evidence of financial ability to cover costs of the trip, tuition and living expenses while in the USA. This may be where the letter of sponsorship is useful.
3) The applicant must show evidence of his intent to return to Russia. (This is the big deal of the entire process and what gets most of the applicants rejected.) The US immigration clerk, by law, assumes the applicant has the intent of immigrating, that is overstaying their visa terms. In fact, at least one out of three applicants from Russia overstays their visa term limits, or does not return to Russia at all. Thus there is valid reasons for the clerk to assume the applicant is lying as to their intentions.
Evidence of intent to return may include any or all of the following: a round trip ticket shown to the immigration person during the interview; the invitation that has SPECIFIC arrival and departure dates notated in the letter, a letter of testimony that the applicant is leaving family, a bank account, real estate and so forth in Russia. I realize this is silly to mention regarding a teenager, but one must show as much as possible in this venue to justify the visa. I have seen it cause many to be denied; and later, when they got their paperwork together, they reapplied successfully.
4) Proof as to why equivalent educational training is not available in Russia, if applicable.
Bottom line; it’s up to the applicant to provide the evidence. It’s not up to the United States to offer counseling and encouragement.
Regardless, ALL applicants who are denied a visa are given the reasons in writing in order that they have the opportunity to correct the deficiencies.
Source: http://www.unitedstatesvisas.gov/obtainingvisa/index.html

RH: It would be interesting to get the immigration clerk's version of these stories.  On our campuses, foreign  student advisers are being driven crazy by students who fail to abide by the rules.  I came to the US on a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship. I did not have to prove anything. The aim was to give selected academics an opportunity to get to know American universities and research.  We were required to return to a British country for two tears. I was invited to the University of British Columbia. Precisely at the end of two years an invitation came from Stanford. This is different from the cases discussed in that there was a rigorous selection process. However, it is obvious that times have changed.
David Crow writes:Another arbitrary visa denial was the Bush Administration's refusal to let 61 Cuban scholars--including an economist who wrote his dissertation on the benefits of direct investment in Cuba--attend the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) Conference in Las Vegas, this coming October 7-9.  See this NYT article for details: 


The denial flies in the face of a long-standing tradition to exempt cultural and scholarly exchanges from the embargo.  As Texas A&M President and former CIA Director (1991-1993) Robert Gates editorialized a few months ago, facilitating international contact with our university system--seeing freedom of expression and association in action--is one of the best ways we can help spread liberal, democratic ideals abroad.  This decision is not only capricious, but contrary to our national interest.  I'm sure there will be some sort of official protest from LASA, so if WAISers are interested, I'll write a follow-up note.

RH: WAIS certainly is interested, but it is crazy for LASA to meet in Las Vegas.  What impression will that leave on the Cubans, who are taught that the US is a decadent society?

Randy Black writes about the discussion regarding visa procedures at the US Embassy in Moscow:My knowledge is based on personal experiences from 1993 to 2003. Many elements of the process have changed since 9/11. One rule of thumb: It is counterproductive to fax, phone or email the Embassy in Moscow, the US ambassador, or other officials on behalf of an applicant. They interview and process thousands every week and simply do not have time or staff  to match a fax or phone message to a visa application. Assurances from friends, family members or associates in the United States do not affect the applicant’s eligibility for visa issuance.
Here are thoughts and advice based on my experiences. There are many ‘stories’ floating around that accuse embassy clerks of verbal abuse and other mistreatment. I have personally seen more than one applicant for a visa subject to such abuse. There is no excuse for such rudeness.  Not all visa applicants must appear in person to gain a visa. For the vast majority who must, it is interesting to know that the immigration clerks interviewing prospective US visitors at our foreign embassies on behalf of the USA are in many cases NOT federal employees but are furnished by firms contracted to provide these services. Typically, they are recent college graduates who majored in areas such as international studies, languages, and so forth. They must be fluent in the language of the destination country since the interviews are conducted in that language. Some of these people are beginning what may become a career in the State Department. Others end up working as interpreters and translators for global corporations. Some are simply adventurous, multi-lingual individuals in search of excitement before settling back in the USA.
In the case of our embassy in Russia, many come from Stanford University, the University of Texas, Georgetown and other universities that have significant Slavic studies programs. They must pass all of the requirements that a regular embassy employee passes and be eligible for a security clearance. In Russia, they are salaried in the $25,000-$35,000 range (plus housing and one trip home per year at taxpayer expense) at the beginning and earn raises based on longevity, responsibilities and judgment. What does judgment have to do with this process and how is one judged? Good question.
All visas granted are automatically tracked. You’re the immigration clerk and you grant Nikita a visa that is good for six months from a certain date. Nikita is “clocked into” the USA when he clears immigration at the US port of entry. When he departs, whether in a week or in six months, he is “clocked out” of the USA. If he leaves on time, you, as the immigration clerk in the US Embassy in Russia, get credit for good judgment. That fact affects you at contract renewal time and impacts your raise. Too many of the applicants you granted visas did not return on time or at all, and you are not granted a new contract. From my personal dealings with the US Embassy Moscow and the consulate in Yekaterinburg, I learned that the burn out rate of these immigration contractors is about 18-24 months. By then, they’ve had enough of the rat race. Rat race? During each short interview, the clerk must quickly scan the paperwork, ask three or four pertinent questions and make a quick decision based on the evidence, all the while knowing that nearly one third of the people standing in front of them are not being truthful, in fact, are lying.
Has the process improved in the past decade? Certainly.  The days of simply showing up at the Embassy and going through the process are long gone. That’s good because I clearly recall getting in line n zero degree ice and snow at 4 a.m. in January 1995  with a Russian friend who wished to visit the USA ifor what turned out to be a 1 p.m. interview. Today, applications are made via express courier and interviews are set up in advance by appointment, also via express courier.  Here is the most current information from the US Embassy Moscow website:  http://moscow.usembassy.gov/consular/wwwhcm.html
 <<Applicants should submit their complete application through Pony Express, a courier service with offices throughout Russia. After submitting the application, many applicants will receive their passports in several days with the approved visa. Pony Express will deliver passports of all applicants who receive visas to the address indicated at the time the application was submitted. However, the majority of applicants will find it necessary to appear for an interview to discuss their visa application. Applicants requiring an interview receive the date and time of their appointment through Pony Express. As a result of our efforts to enhance border security, the majority of applicants will be required to appear at the Embassy for finger scanning. Appointments for finger scanning are scheduled by Pony Express when applications are submitted.

The interview: Each applicant should come to the interview prepared to explain his or her purpose in traveling to the United States. General answers like "negotiations" are not as helpful as "I am buying medical equipment for my firm. We have done business with the company in the U.S. for two years and here are copies of my previous orders." Applicants also should be prepared to explain how they will finance their visit to the U.S.  Applicants should bring the appointment ticket to the Embassy at the proper date and time to ensure speedy admission to the interview.

There are certain types of applicants who do not require an interview. These groups include:

  1. Children sixteen years of age or younger. Persons sixty years of age or older. Persons who had a valid U.S. visa that expired less than twelve months ago, if they are applying for the re-issuance of the same type of visa. In this case, please submit the passport that contains the previous visa.
  2. Diplomats and officials traveling on official business (A or G visas).

The entire visa rules process is also available in Russian. See also the Frequently Asked Questions:

Istvan Simon writes: I am afraid I cannot concur with Randy Black on the issue of visas issuance by the US Embassy in Moscow. I, like David Haupt, who by the way gave a lifetime of service to this country at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories,  am embarrassed and ashamed by this denial of a visa on such flimsy grounds and offended by the high-handed,  disgraceful and contemptuous treatment of this young prodigy. What an impression this must make on this exceptional  and extraordinary young artist!!! (I will include an MP3 file as an attachment in a future posting, just so that WAISers can judge for themselves what we are talking about here.  Far from defending our country from illegal immigration, which as has been explained by both David Haupt and me was not at all  applicable in this case, I think that this Consular Officer is causing great harm to the United States.

First,  he is denying the opportunity for Americans to hear this great artist, which is a form of censorship, and which must be said is simply enormously stupid.  Second, he is causing a permanent impression on this young man, who is friendly and admiring of our country, shocking him with the lack of basic respect and decency that  those who approach our consulates  are treated with. If this is the way that we treat our friends, how do we treat our enemies?

Nikita is not the first nor the last that has been treated so stupidly by the Unites States. Paul Erdos, the greatest mathematician of the 20-th century, was systematically denied a Visa in the sixties. Never the slightest explanation has been given for this, and those that knew Paul Erdos, like myself, can attest that no rational explanation could be possibly ever  given for it. Paul Erdos was a great asset to the whole world, and while he also was an outstanding human being, whose decency and integrity were legendary,  his only all consuming  interest in life was Mathematics in its purest form.

One brutish parallel that comes to mind, which in some ways is similar to Nikita's treatment by the United States, is  the treatment of Mstislav Rostropovitch by the Soviet Union.In spite of being the greatest cellist in the world at the time, Rostropovitch was denied the opportunity to travel, and also to perform in the Soviet Union itself for many years.The Soviets did this because he spoke out in defense of artistic freedom. Do we really want to be associated with such precedents?  That one in three Russians overstay their Visas is no justification to deny a visa for Nikita..

Your comments are invited. Read te home page of the World Association of International Studies (WAIS) by simply double-clicking on:   http://wais.stanford.edu/ E-mail to hilton@stanford.edu. Mail to Ronald Hilton, Hoover Institution, Stanford, CA 94305-6010. Please inform us of any change of e-mail address.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: October 8, 2004