US Embassy in Moscow “Resets” Visa Policy to 1990s

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Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…”  The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”

We have dedicated the last six blog entries to the worsening visa policy of the United States Embassy in Moscow towards Russians.  This policy has taken various forms: doubling of the refusal rate, while the refusal rates in other countries, such as Brazil, have gone down significantly; making scurrilous allegations against Russians; not giving Russians the ability to respond to allegations; denying visas to babushkas for spending prolonged periods of time in the US; issuing one-year visas instead of the required two-year visas; charging new application fees for repeat “interviews” in which decisions have been preordained; short-circuiting the return of students to the United States; impermissibly readjudicating approved employment petitions.  The implementation of these changes can be pinpointed to the arrival of Richard Beer as Consul General in the fall of 2009 and the departure of Philip Skotte as the Chief of the Nonimmigrant Visa Unit in the spring of 2010.  And this worsening policy has been continued under the new NIV Unit Chief, Bill Bistransky.

What Mr. Beer and Mr. Bistransky have in common is that they both worked in the nonimmigrant visa unit section during the 1990s: Mr. Beer was the Nonimmigrant Visa Unit Chief and Mr. Bistransky was a consular officer in the nonimmigrant visa section.  The chaos of Russia in the 1990s – the Wild West atmosphere and default – certainly justified a skeptical consular approach to Russian visa applicants.  However, the consular section of the 1990s took this skepticism and the treatment of Russian visa applicants to new depths.

Having worked as an immigration lawyer in Moscow in the 1990s, I personally witnessed this visa nadir.  These depths led to the famous Izvestia article about a consular officer’s rude treatment of Russians; complaints from Duma deputies about the arrogant, condescending behavior of consular officers and an apology from the Ambassador; outrage from Americans with Russian spouses and friends; a New York Times article; and the naming of the then-Consul General as “Soldier in a Skirt” by the Russian press.  Tens of thousands of Russian visa applicants were groundlessly denied visas.  The Russian mafia “scourge”, as it was characterized in the West, led the Embassy and Washington to cast its “mafia net” far and wide, including to legitimate businessmen, who were permanently barred from the United States.  I am aware of tens of millions of dollars of planned Russian investment in the United States that was cancelled because the Embassy refused to give visas to legitimate, successful businessmen.

The new “reset policy” and recent kind words of Washington towards Russia should provide little succor to visa applicants.  With some exceptions, of course, it is consular management at the US Embassy in Moscow which establishes and carries out visa policy, not Washington.  The current visa situation is reminiscent of the Cold War Warriors: certain American and Russian policy makers in government and the defense industrial complexes after the collapse of the Soviet Union whose Cold War memories and experiences die hard, leading to continued cynicism and policies reflecting that distrust.

Similarly, the policies implemented by Mr. Beer and Mr. Bistransky reflect that old-time 1990s thinking.   That thinking fails to take into account the New Russia – a more stable, economically developed nation which has taken shape over the past ten years.  That thinking fails to recognize the tremendous progress Russia has made and the younger generation, with few if any memories of growing up in the Soviet Union.

Although the new “visa bosses” at the embassy are the same as the old, there is something that you can do: you can stand up to them.  Remember, the best disinfectant is sunlight – it is imperative to shine light on any erroneous decisions, baseless accusations, and abuses by the consular section. Send us your story – with your permission, we will be sure to publicize it (anonymously, if you wish).