Last week in La Paz I spent some interesting time visiting with two staff members at the U.S. Embassy, pleasant and dedicated public servants both, and readers of this Blog. It turns out that The Democracy Center's Blog has a following among some Embassy staff. Our April Fools edition
this year, which included a lovely doctored photograph of Ambassador Goldberg in an Evo sweater, was evidently a special hit. So, to our readers at the Embassy, I say a special hello.
Among the topics we talked about during our La Paz visit is the way in which the U.S. Embassy deals with requests for visas by Bolivians seeking to visit the U.S. Readers may recall that I was critical of this process in a Blog that I wrote last January
and my lunch partners from the Embassy wanted to clarify a few things, which I am happy to do in this edition of the Blog.
In January I wrote:If you look in the American Heritage Dictionary (New College Edition, 2005) under the term royal pain in the ass, for definition number three you will find the words: Noun. The experience a Bolivian goes through to seek a tourist entry visa to the United States.
In fact, Embassy officials seem to be making an effort to make it less of a "pain in the ass" for would-be visitors. Here's a look at some of the issues involved:The Forms
There is good news here. Under the old rules applicants had to deal with forms that were all in English and therefore wickedly confusing to many people applying. I know this first hand. When I was in the Embassy interview room last year (working on getting my four-year-old a blue passport) my wife and I were approached for help by people baffled by forms in a language they didn’t speak. By comparison, Bolivia's forms for arriving visitors have been in both Spanish and English for the 15 years I have been filling them out.
Now Bolivian applicants cannot only find the forms they need in Spanish but they can fill them out over the Internet in a snazzy new on-line "fill-in" form
. One of the questions asked on the form is if the applicant has ever entered the U.S. with the intent of committing an act of terrorism, or if he or she is a member of a terrorist group, or had engaged in any act of genocide. A tip here from me for those applying – I am pretty sure U.S. officials are looking for a 'No' on that one.The Cost
Here the news is not so good. I reported in January that it cost $110 to apply for a U.S. visa, non-refundable if you get denied. Since then the price has been raised to $114, non-refundable. Of that, $14 goes to DHL for processing the request and $100 to Uncle Sam. That is still about twice the monthly minimum wage here and a source of frustration for many applicants. The folks from the Embassy explained that the charge is this same amount for applicants from every country, under rules requires that require U.S. consulates to pay for themselves through such fees (and those charged for services to U.S. citizens as well). At 100 visits a day right now, even if some are families applying under one application, that still likely produces some tens of thousands of dollars every week for the Embassy. In Bolivia, that has to cover a good deal more than salaries and overhead. It seems to me that the U.S. could afford to refund a chunk of that back to the people who get denied, a decision that would have to come from Washington.The Wait for a Visa Interview
Every Bolivian (14 or older) seeking a visa to visit the U.S. must travel to La Paz to be interviewed in person. And on the issue of how long it takes to get an interview my version was old news. In January I wrote that the wait for a visa interview was "usually months" after forms were filed. The Embassy says that the wait time is down to three weeks. That's not bad at all, considering that the Embassy is currently interviewing, as noted earlier, about 100 applicants each day, five days a week (a number that the Embassy staff noted was higher than usual due to seasonal tourism).The Stack of Supporting Documents
I also wrote in January that applicants were expected to bring other paperwork to be reviewed by U.S. officials, including, "all kinds of personal economic information, such as bank statements, employment letters, etc." This, the Embassy says, is one of the great myths they'd like to dispel. The only things that Bolivian applicants are legally required to submit are: the completed form; a valid Bolivian passport; visa-size headshots; and proof that they paid the $114 fee. All the other forms are suggested by the Embassy as "supporting documents" but are not required. In fact, I was told, sometimes it is these very documents that get people in trouble. In their desire to show economic stability at home, a good number of applicants cook up fake employment letters and bank statements. Falsified documents, it seems, are almost as sure a route to denial as, "Oh yes, I want to go and blow up Disneyland."The Statistics on Getting Accepted or Denied
On this topic, according to the official U.S. statistics, my January post was off by a lot. I wrote that applicants "stand a good 9 out of 10 chance of being denied". Not so, says the Embassy. According to a report they passed along for refusal rates for tourist and business travelers, more than two out of every three Bolivian applicants gets a U.S. visa. Now that will be news to the University of San Simon accountant who owns my house who applied to go see his cousins, and to Juan Patricio, the brother of a victim in the October 2003 massacres who was invited by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others to speak in Washington last year. They both got denied. Nevertheless, according to the official data, a lot more people walk out the door of the U.S. Embassy in La Paz smiling than crying. This does not account, however, for who gets in and who doesn't, a separate issue.
The numbers on visa refusals around the world are themselves interesting. If you want a tourist or business visa to the U.S. the best countries to come from are Luxembourg, France, and the Vatican, all of whom registered refusal rates of less than 2%. Membership in the "coalition of the willing" apparently has nothing to do with it. The three countries you most don't want to be from are Cuba, the Gambia and Ghana, all of whom had refusal rates above 61%. The Federated States of Micronesia, with a population of 110,000 people, scored a remarkable 100% denial rate, however. But that might be based on one guy who wanted to get a glimpse of Mt. Rushmore and misread the terrorist question.What does it Really Take to Get In?
The most interesting part of my chat with the two people from the Embassy was when they shared their thoughts about what U.S. officials are looking for when they interview visa applicants from Bolivia. The top priority – not surprising from a nation in a political frenzy at the moment over immigration and border security – is finding and rejecting applicants who aim to be "tourists" for years.
The Embassy's questions, while they may take different forms in each case, are really these:Why do you want to go to the U.S.?
What do you want to do there?
Why do you want to return to Bolivia?
The most certain rule about answering these questions, I was told, is: Lying guarantees you won't get a visa. Here was the advice the Embassy has to offer applicants:1. Tell the truth, even if you are visiting family who got into the U.S. illegally.
It was enlightening to hear a U.S. official explain that the Embassy staff knows quite well that a lot of people who want to go north are visiting people who sidestepped the visit to the Embassy on their way there. Many of those seeking a visa are headed to Arlington, Virginia or some other enclave of Bolivians to meet their grandchildren for the first time. According to the fellow in charge of making the decision to accept or reject, visiting someone who got in illegally is actually a perfectly good reason to ask for a visa.2. Be clear about what you want to do in the U.S.
Again, according to those who do the interviewing, if a guy from Punata shows up and says he is wants to visit Disneyworld for three weeks, he's got a hard sell on his hands. So does a widow who says she wants to see "the beautiful places" but can't name them. From the sound of it, a nicely printed itinerary that makes sense (week one, visit Uncle Jorge in Providence…) might be of more value than a bank statement.3. Explain with clarity and enthusiasm why you are coming back.
My favorite answer to this question was the one offered by a friend of mine seeking a visa to participate in an academic conference. In his interview he declared, "I don't like the United States at all. Why would I want to stay there?" Embassy staff want to hear about the job you have to come back for, the grandkids you can't live away from, and about the ties that bind you to Bolivia.
In the end the visa process is really about U.S. officials forcing you to prove that you aren't trying to add "undocumented immigrant" to your biography. While many applicants think that money in the bank is a big selling point (and I am still willing to bet good money that wealthier people get visas more readily than poorer ones), the word from the Embassy is, "not necessarily." Apparently there was a small flood of tourist visa applications from affluent Santa Cruz families after Evo's election in 2005, many of who looked like they were more likely to be headed to see realtors than relatives. A good number of them got denied.A Suggestion
While the people running the Visa program at the Embassy seem like good people and clearly have a rough job – "every day I make someone cry" – the process still remains an expensive and daunting one to most Bolivians. It also remains a good deal more costly and daunting than the one in place for people from the U.S. visiting Bolivia.
That was clearly one of the reasons that Evo Morales announced in January that the Bolivian government was going to establishing a new tourist visa requirement U.S. visitors to Bolivia. Right now that involves, basically, showing up at the airport and getting a free 90-day stamp in your passport. In the La Paz airport it also comes with free oxygen. Morales declared his intent to make Bolivia's visa rules more akin to those faced by his Bolivian brethren seeking passage to Arlington. Six months later there is still no word of what that new visa process will look like or when it will begin (I checked again with the Bolivian Embassy in Washington on Friday).
As for the U.S. process, it seems that there is little that officials in La Paz can do other than follow the strict rules from Washington. But I do have one suggestion of how Embassy staff in the world's highest capital might warm things up a little. I think some of Bolivian's resentment is the whole experience of standing in a cold morning line outside a building that, to be honest, looks like a tall, squat concrete bunker built for warfare. What widow from Tarata wouldn't be intimidated?
So here is my suggestion for my friends at the U.S. Embassy – Api and Buñuelos!
Across Bolivia, that is what people drink and eat in the dawn hours to fend off the cold – a hot purple glass of a drink made from red corn and an equally hot, slightly greasy, pastry with a tad of white cheese in the middle. You take some of that $114 and you hire a few Paceña women to prepare and hand out free Api and Bunuelos to the people on line, courtesy of the U.S. government. Now that might give the U.S. Embassy here a different feel!
Or better yet, have them handed out by the Ambassador. An Uncle Sam suit would be optional.A Short Addition (Monday, July 25)
After I published the Embassy's proud boast last week that it had gotten the wait period for a visa interview down to 3 weeks, the news came in that it might not just be so, including a chargrined note from the Embassy itself. Due to the change of staffing among Consular officials, the current wait is now 6 weeks. We have no word yet as to whether the added wait time will be compensated for with the handout of free Api and Bunuelos.