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Uzbekistan: U.S. consular services back to normal, issuing immigrant and non-immigrant visas

U.S. Consular Chief Robert Romanowski, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, March, 2022
U.S. Consular Chief Robert Romanowski, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, March, 2022

U.S. Consular Chief in Tashkent, Robert Romanowski, says his office is "back to normal" following a two-year COVID-restricted period. In an exclusive interview with the Voice of America's Navbahor Imamova, Romanowski confirned that the U.S. is issuing both non-immigrant and immigrant visas to Uzbek citizens. In an extensive conversation, Romanowski discussed the backlog of visa applications, factors behind denials, and the ongoing process of Diversity Lottery winner cases. The diplomat also offered a number of critical tips to aspiring applicants.

Full transcript:

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Thank you so much for finding time to talk to us. As I was coming, I saw a long line of Uzbek citizens waiting for their appointments and you know with excitement in their eyes you know, hoping to get US visas. Are you back full scale? Is this post-pandemic period now?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Yes, we are absolutely, certainly open. We provide full range of services, and that means we are open for most visa categories. Immigrant visas and non-immigrant visas as well as American citizen services. We started resuming and restarting our operations about in July and August of last year, and that followed about a 15-month period where we had either no or limited services due to the pandemic because we had implemented a number of COVID safety restrictions.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Many people thought that the consulate was completely closed during the pandemic. But you did operate, right?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: We operated for a certain period of time. We had some limited services, but there were periods where it was mostly closed. So, I would say that on average we had very few services during that that period, and which is why right now there's a significant backlog of services and a high demand.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: I was going to ask about the backlog because almost on a daily basis, we get a dozen questions at least about how to approach the U.S. consulate here and questions regarding visas and, of course, DV Lottery. I would like to discuss all these issues with you today… The backlog, what kind of a number we’re talking about here?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: The backlog primarily was for immigrant visas because those are for immigration, a category that people have submitted petitions for and that are scheduled to come to the embassy.

Way in advance, and it was very significant, a high number and this is a worldwide problem. Thousands of visas are backlogged because new petitions were being approved, and yet they weren't being processed. So, this creates the backlog. So, since August, we've cut that in more than half. Meanwhile we also have been opening up all of our services... It's been a balance of our time and resources to open up everything. But, of course, when you're trying to reduce the backlog, you have to do more than you normally do, because new cases are continually coming in and we still have to tackle the cases that we already have. So it's, I think, our number one challenge. But we've made, you know, significant progress and that's a credit really to the excellent consular team that we have.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: When we talked to the State Department about the state of counseling services around the world, they told us that they had to decrease the number of staff. How many people work at the consulate here?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: It's a medium sized consular section. There are certainly ones in bigger places like Mexico and China. They are very large, but this is a pretty significantly sized section because we perform all the services. Some consular sections only do immigrant visas. We do all the services. So, it's a mixture of local staff, local Uzbek citizens and American staff.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Yeah, considering the fact that there is just one consulate here, you obviously have a lot of demand. Does the level of demand change the way you offer services or the size of your service? Is that a factor?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: I'm sure that would be a factor. It just isn't a factor right now because global demand is so high. So I haven't actually experienced that yet. Right now, the demand for visas – tourist, student, business - are very high and it's been difficult to get an online visa appointment. We recognize that problem. We're taking steps to work through that. So, the demand continues to be high but in normal operations there would be periods where you're busier than others.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: I'm asking that question because you know, when we hear from the people, they usually complain that it's just too long to wait. It's too hard to get an appointment, they say. You know, I've spent hours and hours, weeks trying to get an appointment. Why don’t they increase them now? Why don't they improve the service? they ask. I tell them usually that well, you have to wait. That's how the consular services work around the world. And you just have to be patient. But people are always impatient. You deal with the highest level of impatience and the highest levels of eagerness and excitement. How do you strategize in general, as a consular service?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: I agree it's a valid concern for the people, who have to wait. And we know, it's not ideal and it's something that I think that is unique for right now because there's just such a big worldwide demand as a result of the pandemic. So, we are trying to tackle that in a number of ways. We do continue to open new appointments every week. But, I, of course will admit that those appointments get taken up pretty quickly. Secondly though we do have an interview waiver program. So, if someone is trying to renew their U.S. visa, if they're applying for a visa of the same visa category, so say they had a tourist visa and now are looking to apply for another tourist visa, they can apply for that renewal without an interview. So that is one way we can take the pressure. So that is an available service that we are providing every week.

Thirdly, I would just say that if someone does have urgent kind of emergency travel, they can send us an email and we will certainly consider this request. So, for example, you know, urgency, emergencies, differ from person to person…

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: For medical purposes, for example, or for study purposes?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Exactly. So, if there's a student that needs to get to the university, we will certainly expedite that. If there's someone going for medical treatment. If someone has a plane ticket onboard and there's need to urgently visit New York… We get that but it's not going to qualify for an expedited appointment. That person would still need to try to get an online appointment. And I would just say that as we work through the backlog in some visa categories, we'll be able to devote more time and resources to non-immigrant visas. So we do see a period where we will be able to expand even further are not even visa services. So, there won't be such a long wait time. And so, the situation, our operations will seem a little bit more normal.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: What kind of a timeline are we talking about in terms of overcoming the backlog?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: I think we've made significant progress against our immigrant visa backlog. And, I think sometime by the summer we should be close to eliminating entirely and back to normalcy. It would be a great relief because, like I said, the Consular Section is working very hard. It's very demanding,

Immigrant visas are a longer and more resource intensive than a tourist visa. So we are looking at a time line of sometime this summer. We have eliminated that… We've already limited certain categories of visas where there were backlog. There are now zero. And then once we're there, we're able to kind of shift more resources toward the non-immigrant visas. As you saw today with the line out there, those are all people coming forward for tourist and student applications and others like for Work and Travel...

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: I was actually surprised because I thought that you were issuing just the specific kind of visas nowadays, not necessarily for tourists, for business, and for study. I know some got student visas even during the pandemic but you had exceptions, right? You were not considering every application.

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: That's correct. And I would say beginning September, we opened up our visas to all categories. So, we were a little, I think, probably a little ahead of the curve than most embassies and consulates worldwide. By September, we were offering tourist visas.

U.S. Consular Chief Robert Romanowski talks with VOA's Navbahor Imamova, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, March 25, 2022
U.S. Consular Chief Robert Romanowski talks with VOA's Navbahor Imamova, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, March 25, 2022

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: What are some of the most typical challenges for you on a day-to-day basis with Uzbek citizens? What are things that they should keep in mind as they come… to make their lives easier or cases easier?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Well, there's the one thing on appointments and I think that's a valid concern… People need to obviously plan ahead. But right now it's hard for people to do that. We have very limited… it is very difficult to get an appointment. I completely get and that's something that we will fix. But for the average visa applicant that comes to us and it kind of depends on what visa category if they're an immigrant or not immigrant. But most are for tourist and business.

I would say that as far as like tips for the interview, I would encourage people to be, of course, first and foremost be honest on your application. And during the interview, if there are things that are not credible or things that are less than truthful, then it kind of undermines your application. So that's, you know, don't try to imagine what you think the consular officer wants to know. But be honest and tell your story about why you want to go to the U.S. So, don't hide things, thinking oh well, if I say this and I'll certainly get refused. For example, say you're studying at a university or selected a university, and one of the reasons you chose that university is because you have a family in that area. That makes sense to us.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Don’t lie about that.

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Exactly. There are hundreds and hundreds of universities and colleges in the United States. And if one place that particularly appeals to you, one of the reasons is because you have an uncle or your brother is attending this university, that is a good reason. We understand that. So, I wouldn't hide that because then that would probably undermine your application. There are many other tips I can provide, to be honest is definitely the most important requirement.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Actually that's what we usually encourage people to be when they ask us. Because being the Voice of America, they think we know everything about what you do, but we don't. And, of course, you know, we follow your work and we read everything diligently, whatever is out there. When I was just chatting with some of the people outside today, a young man came up and asked about Work and Travel and he's already been issued a visa. I think he got it on March 17, but he has a paper that says the program starts sometime in May. So his question was and I think he's going to talk about that, he wants some explanation. So, once you issue the visa, whatever the kind, can one travel to the United States any time from that date or are there exceptions or specific details that people need to pay attention?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: There are some exceptions per visa category for tourism and business travelers. Once you get the visa, you could be on the plane that that evening. For students, you can't show up more than 30 days before you travel. So for Work and Travel, I think, there are some restrictions on when your program begins… We have a lot of information on our website. And of course, you can write to us or check out the website.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: My suggestion to this young man was to read the paperwork.

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: That's a good suggestion.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Read the paperwork, pay attention to the to the details, right?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Yes, and we do have a lot of information on our website. It's in Uzbek, Russian, and English on the different visa categories. And we also have, you know, our public inboxes that people can reach out to specific questions. They are pretty full, and it might take us a couple of days to get an answer, but we do read them.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: One typical complaint that you hear from Uzbek citizens is that I'm denied. There are all kinds of research that people have done, believe it or not. All qualitative, but the general belief is that most of the applicants get denied and they speculate why. What are some of the top reasons that people get denied?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: So, that depends on what visa category. For immigrant visas, most of the cases are overwhelmingly issued because those cases, they're already pre-approved in the United States through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. And they come through us. So by and large those are generally approved.

We have different outcomes on visa category, whether it's a student or whether you're going for a work visa. So, there are some differences there. The common reason, like a non-immigrant visa, tourist or business gets refused is probably because they haven't demonstrated that they intend on returning to their home after a brief travel to the United States. And that's per the regulations of that visa class that every visa applicant has to show that they are not an intending immigrant. And so, they actually have to overcome a presumption that they are. So it's when they're at the interview, you have to convince the officer that your travel to the United States, whether it's for a business holiday, see family, temporary stay, that you have compelling reasons that would make you come back. So, if an applicant hasn't really shown that or it's not quite clear, that is the most likely reason someone would be refused a visa.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: And it doesn't depend on his or her economic status or financial status, right? Because, you know, believe it or not, I have talked to at least five Uzbek millionaires who were denied American visas. And some of them were shell shocked, saying I've shown them all everything that they wantedI've provided them a financial guarantee that I was going to come backI had this huge business deal I was working on, yet they denied.

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: So, we look at every case individually, and we look at the totality of circumstances. I can't speak, but generally I know that affluent people have certainly gotten visas. But, you know, a whole range of persons we see… This is the great thing about being in the consular field. We do see all the reasons that Uzbeks have in the United States, whether it's for sports competitions, exchange, visiting family, business… There's that's the great thing about, I think, are kind of window into that world.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: For study purposes, we see a lot of denials for those who intend to go to the United States for short term academic programs. For example, language studies or a conference. We see that if you have been accepted by a school for undergraduate, graduate or PhD programs, then you have higher chances of getting that visa.

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: For student visas, we're looking at a couple of things. We're looking to make sure that you're prepared for the course, whatever the course of study that you'll be taking. We're looking at that you're a serious student, so that you intend on being a student, you intend on studying at the university or the short course and that you're able to pay for that period of study whether it's because you received a scholarship or maybe of personal funds or family funds. We're looking at those three things. I can't give specifics about statistics, but I think it is a little easier to show if you're applying for like a four-year university.

Your reasons for a short course, like a short English course in the United States… You know, frankly speaking, you can do it in many places… So, traveling far and, you know, these programs are rarely very inexpensive, maybe harder to show than if you're going to study an undergraduate or graduate program in the United States.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: How has the pandemic changed the way you do these things? Because in the world of teleworking, online studying, you can come up with a lot of reasons basically to tell the applicants that you don't have to be in the United States to do this, right? Specifically for short term. For example, for language learning or for some skill-building conference, right?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: I think we don't try by and large to kind of make that judgment. You know, if someone wants to go do shopping in New York for their business, say maybe, they want to procure some things in the United States, I don't think we really question well, why don't you just buy these things… We take them at face value that this is something that's important.

If you have a meeting, if there's some value in being at that meeting or that conference in person, I don't think we make that judgment of whether this can be done a different way. Of course, these applicants should, of course, be able to articulate and explain why this travel is important. And, of course, explain if it's a tourist or business, they intend to come back.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: In terms of return, you obviously want people to come back once their visas expire, before they expire, actually. What is Uzbekistan's record on that? How credible are the Uzbek citizens in terms of their visa requirements?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Well, the Department of State doesn't publish publicly. There are kind of refusal statistics or the studies that we do that show overstay rates. You can find on our department's website. Month-by-month by visa class on issuances, but I will say that we do look continually across different visa categories, not just for citizens but for anyone here who gets a visa about how well they traveled.

And we try to learn from that. If we find that, you know, maybe a certain visa category or certain is not being used so well, then we will look at what we need to do to make adjustments to our decision making. But I would say that, you know, we are offering, as you notice when you were out there today, we are offering interviews for the summer work and travel program. And that is by and large are primarily or completely young university students. And it's quite short term... They'll be working and learning about American culture and getting a new kind of American experience. And that is a program that's not offered everywhere because there have been concerns in some countries of a high overstay rate. And we are happy to begin that program again. I think it's been it was not offered here for about two years. And starting this year, we've already issued visas and probably students are packing their bags. They're excited and, you know, they can't wait.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: People approach interviews, specifically at the U.S. consulate, with a great level of fear and nervousness, and that definitely affects the way they perform during the interview and ultimately it affects the decision. How do you deal with that? I will come back to this question again later because you deal with the most sensitive parts of the Uzbek culture on a day-to-day basis. Of all the diplomats here, you have to be the one who is best trained, right? Because you see the Uzbek people every day. You deal with their vulnerabilities. You deal with their issues. People come in tears. People come in full pride. You deal with the Uzbek character, which is quite complex. How do you prepare yourself or for that challenge in general?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Well, I look at that as a good part of the job. We get to see the variety, the real picture and the variety of people and the reasons why they're traveling. So, we'll see a lot of the grandmothers going to see their kids in the United States. We see businessmen. We see young students. We see people who are more affluent as well that are coming for a visit. So, we see that that variety makes the consular work, the day-to-day process interesting. Otherwise, I guess you could see it as kind of a slog. But I think it's a great benefit to be able to talk to people even for the short period… kind of a glimpse of what they're doing, what reasons they're traveling to the U.S., because I'm happy that people want to travel to the U.S. You know, there are so many things to see, so many things to do, so many great reasons. So, I support that. Of course, at the same time, we want to make sure that people use your visa appropriately, that the tourism is not work there forever.

We want to be able to facilitate good travel. But I think, yes, the work can, you know, if you have a large number of people, you could be tired at the conclusion of your interview day. But it's also very rewarding. I think when you're giving Work and Travel visa to a person who's going to be working somewhere you know very well..

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Wendy's, McDonald's, Subway…

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Or, you know, in a tourist city on the ocean that you know very well, you're like, I'm happy they're going to have a great time. Be safe, have a good time. I think it's nice to see people traveling to visit some of our national parks. We have amazing sites to see. So, I think, we're excited for those. And sometimes, we'll hear interview officers maybe having even a longer conversation there. We have to get back to work but there are some places that are very familiar to them and they're happy that someone gets to experience that.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So how do you usually train for this? Because you're trained differently than other diplomats, right? To be the consular chief, of course, and then also a consular officer or your local staff. What is the process? How often do you train?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Well, there's some required training that you have to take. And there are a lot on visa matters particularly, but also on passport issues… There are a lot of rules. There are a lot of rules and regulations and there are different rules for different visa categories. So, there's a lot of dos and don'ts of an ethical as well as just kind of procedural. So, there is just formal training that we're required to take and then a refresher training that we're required to take.

But by and large a lot of people will, you know, learn on the job, shadow people who are more experienced and keep special watch on new consular officers to make sure they're adjudicating visas… So, it's a continual training environment, I would say.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: How big of a factor is the language?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: It's big. I think, you want to be able to understand the kind of cultural nuances. We have a mixture of Russian and Uzbek speakers. So, it’s important. If someone, though, speaks a language that the consular officer is not trained on, then we'll find someone to help be an interpreter. But certainly, if you know the language naturally and fluently, then that's a more advantage for the visa applicant.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: They've been several restrictions overall in terms of U.S. immigration and visiting the United States in the last five years, starting from the Trump administration. We saw that the Green Card got closed for a while - for six months first and then it was extended. That definitely affected your work here as well. Are you back full scale on the DV Lottery?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Yes, we are certainly back, and I would say that month by month, what we're processing for the Diversity Visa/Green Card Lottery, we are processing numbers that are double than what we did before the pandemic. So, the numbers are quite significant. And I would say that's for a number of reasons, we value the program. We know that it is of great interest here. And there's a really high participation rate. And the Green Card Lottery is very uniquely American program, and we want to support that. But also recognizing that for a period of years, there were very low number of processing of applications. So, we are trying to make up for that but we are looking at it this fiscal year and approaching it very aggressively and trying to get as many people as we possibly can, for the interview.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So those whose wins were expired, what happened to them? You are not considering them, right? 2020 and 2021?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: FY 2020 and 202. As you may be aware there is ongoing litigation. Yes, there are several court cases on those years. And I can just say that I know that the department is looking at that and we're just waiting for guidance and information. And to comply with those court orders, so we're kind of in a wait and see mode. You know, I think embassies and consulates worldwide wait and see what that plan for compliance is. But meanwhile, we're moving full ahead with this year's applicants, 2022.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: I guess the message for those who are waiting impatiently is wait? The ones from previous years?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Yes, I think so. If they just have to wait to see how those the litigation, how those cases proceed and what the guidance that the Department State puts out to implement those calls.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Very often we get questions about the communication with the consulate. They usually forward us the e-mails and they don't know what to do with it because they find it a bit vague in terms of what to do next. So, we usually say, hey you know, just keep on contacting them, you know, until you get an answer or wait until you hear from them again. Like, if they haven't updated anything then you shouldn't really do anything. Is that a good advice?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: I think so. I would say during the pandemic, one of the one of the problems was when the U.S. was closed for a long period of time, a lot of those emails that were coming through about cases, there were extended delays and you know, probably some that weren't answered. Because quite simply put, some of the employees were not here at the section because of the covid restrictions. So, that was one of the challenges when we started resuming operations, particularly on the immigrant visa side, is to look all those cases. There are hundreds of cases that were pending and there were cases that had not started… maybe they were lacking some documents. Maybe there's some question… that kind of put those cases in a pending status. So, we started looking at those and communicating with the petitioner, with a visa applicant on what are the next steps. And we've moved, you know, in excess of four hundred cases that in that kind of status to a resolution. And that's part of the backlog challenge that we had. It was not just new cases, but cases that were in the pending status.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Do you still communicate mainly by email? Should people know that?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Yes, because we often communicate with the petitioner in the United States and the time zones are different. But if when someone comes in for an interview or an immigrant visa, for example, and say they're missing something that their case is not able to be issued right now, we do provide them in writing what the thing what they need to do.

So, you know in many, many cases an email is not really necessary. We say here, you're missing this document, please. Because the immigrant visa is very document heavy unlike the visas, so we're like, we're missing this... And then in most cases, the petitioner can simply upload that document into our system and maybe send us an email saying, hey it's uploaded. We see it, and then we can move on to possibly issuance or whatever the next.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Just to make sure, you don't communicate via Telegram, right? Because, as you know, Uzbekistan lives on Telegram.

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: No, no. We get a lot of emails, where people will not provide their case number, just their names like oh this is so-and-so, as if we know. We get hundreds emails every day. So, we do really ask people that when they reach out to us about their case, they say, here's my case. Here is the visa applicant’s name, so we can look it up and see what the status is. Someone saying, hey I just updated my medical exam. OK, we can check that.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So, pay attention to the details… Security checks on lottery winners. They take longer than a few months, right?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: No, I would say the security checks for immigrant visas are the same for Diversity Visa or Green Card Lottery winners… We have already issued a number of green card winners this season, and I think, often if everything is smooth with someone's case, they come in for an interview. Everything goes well. In most cases, lotteries, the ones we've seen so far have been quite prepared. They can get their visa the next week.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: That quick? What does a security check consist of in general? What should people expect to be happening during that period?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Well, we have a number of law enforcement security tools that the visa application is like in most countries is reviewed against. So if there are any questions about it, we will let you know. But otherwise an applicant just needs to complete their application honestly and accurately. There's nothing else that's required.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: And when they get, when they get denied, you do provide explanations. But most of the time that's not enough… People want to know more and I'm sure you deal with that a lot. What happens if they have additional questions? When is your answer final - like no more explanation, this is it?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Well, like you said, we provide a denial in writing… a letter that says under the section of U.S. law, this denial is based on... Go to our website and we do have some things on visa refusals and also the Department of State has information on this, that explains it more. Frequently asked questions about what this exactly means. Does it mean can I reapply? Can I do these things? We have information about that. For immigrant visas, if there's a denial, usually there is something a little bit more serious or a little more complex because of the higher standards of immigrant visas have, but we also still provide in writing what the denial might be.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Do the winners know from the start that winning the lottery doesn't guarantee them the visa?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: It is on our website, it is on the department's website. It's a good point. Thank you for raising it because, I think, there is a misperception that winning the lottery is not a guarantee that you get an interview. It is not a guarantee that you get a visa.

It does put you in a pool that if you fill in your application and you get things, your process moves fairly quickly, that goes through a system that will get you scheduled for an interview.

But it's based on a number of factors. So, this is what we're trying to do right now. We are trying to every month, we have scheduled a diversity visa applicants. Because we're trying to get as many applicants as we can before the fiscal year deadline. At the same time, of course, we can't do DV applications every day because we have other services. People going for tourism, people reuniting with their spouse or child or parent. So, we're trying to balance that. But again, I will say that we are doing double the numbers for Green Card winners this year than we did pre-pandemic.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Is a person informed about the fact that he might be banned or she might be banned or blacklisted for some reason?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: If you had some kind of a permanent visa ineligibility, you would be provided that in writing. So, say you went to a visa interview, and for whatever reason, maybe you overstayed your visa… then you'll be provided. That's not a permanent visa ineligibility but it can be for an extended period. But the officer then would inform you in writing about the section of law and the consequences. And often we also provide whether you can apply for a waiver. It shouldn't be a surprise, but unfortunately, think some people don't handle their own application.

U.S. Consular Chief Robert Romanowsk talks with VOA's Navbahor Imamova, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, March 25, 2022
U.S. Consular Chief Robert Romanowsk talks with VOA's Navbahor Imamova, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, March 25, 2022

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So, when you find out that somebody is lying, and you deny. Right. So, the application is inaccurate whether it's for non-immigrant or immigrant visa, you give them that written explanation about why they're being denied. Does that denial letter say about that that person cannot apply or cannot play the lottery again or something to consider for the near future?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Most denials are just not permanent denials. It's just for non-immigrant visa, you're not qualified for the visa at this time. And I've been in places, where someone will come the next day or the next week, and we will in those cases, we'll have another consular officer interview that applicant. So, something like that is not a permanent refusal. But there are some ineligibilities, where someone has done something or there's some kind of violation of the law that can be more permanent. And they are provided in writing what that means.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: You have a special role in terms of representing the United States. People see America when they talk to you, when they come asking for a visa. And what does it feel like to be that officer, to be that gateway? They will remember you forever if they get denied. You know this is you determine a lot in terms of cultural connections and relations between countries. It's not the same thing like if you're a political officer, right? Because you just deal with a specific group of people whereas you're dealing with the entire society. How do you deal with that challenge? What kind of a role that sense of feeling play in your work?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Yes, I would certainly agree that sometimes the first time someone has spoken with an American might be at the visa window, might be the first time, the first impression. So, we want to make sure that our engagements, our interactions are professional courteous, friendly. Of course, it's a challenge to refuse someone in a very friendly way. But we do try to be professional about it. It's not passing any judgment. You know, we're following the U.S. law but we want people to leave the U.S. Consular Section, whether they've been issued or refused that they believe at least they've had a fair and professional process. I'm not under any illusions that, applying for a visa is a fun or a great way to spend your morning. I know it's a bureaucratic process. You go through many steps.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: People approach this very emotionally. I'm sure you see this every day - it's excitement, it's nervousness. It's everything. It's a mixture of so many different feelings. And sometimes even though they suspect that they may get denied, they go for it anyways. It's kind of an investment. They take that risk. Whenever I've talked to applicants, especially those who have been denied, they remember every detail. They remember who they talked to. They describe the physical appearance of that person and the interview process. What I'm trying to say is that this is a life-long experience sometimes for them. Do you get angry people?Because we have seen some really angry, denied Uzbeks, who can, now especially, go on social media. They can talk about that. They can complain. And I've seen Uzbeks, who’ve been denied visas go to the MFA of Uzbekistan and demand justice. How do you deal with those situations?

The Harry S. Truman Building, headquarters for the State Department, Washington, D.C.
The Harry S. Truman Building, headquarters for the State Department, Washington, D.C.

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Well, we try to deal with them professionally. We understand that there is a lot of emotion and I'm not going to say that we get every decision 100 percent correctly. We look at every case individually and we look at the totality of circumstances and we try to make our best judgment based on U.S. law. And so, we do get on occasion, people are very upset and we just usually in most cases allow that person to cool down and you know, we don't get into kind of a war of words on this is why I'm refusing.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: What is not tolerated during the interview? When do you say: No, please, leave. Have you had those kinds of situations?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: It's rare but usually, after we've made our decision and after you've given… If it's a refusal and no one's ever really clamoring when they got a visa. And it's always when it's about a visa refusal, we've given the decision given someone's passport back then the interview is concluded. And obviously, if someone lingers and stays longer, we're polite. But, of course, at some point if that person is being a hindrance to other customers who are also, you know their time is valuable. They're waiting for an interview as well. So, it's very rarely, we need to do more than that. You just stop engaging. We're not going to answer those questions. We have made the decision and it resolves itself. The person realizes they're not getting anything further.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: As far as we know, everybody is equal in front of you, like any Uzbek is an equal citizen. You don't discriminate based on their political status or economic status, right? Of course, official applicants are considered differently because these are delegations going to the United States. But we know that in the past, maybe even now, you can tell us, people do use their connections. They want to get to you through political connections, through economic connections, through their networks. How do you deal with those circumstances?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Yes, like you said, for persons traveling on official diplomatic visas, for the government Uzbekistan, it goes through a different channel and there's no requirement for an interview process. For exchange programs, the prison still needs to come in for an interview, but we arrange those directly for visitors as well.. We do provide different courtesies for a wide range of persons, for example, if we know that there is a sports team coming in. We recently had the women's national soccer team. Right. There are a lot of players and sporting staff. It makes sense that we would arrange a special time because if they tried to each book an online appointment, they'd be spread around many number of days and just would not be convenient. So, it's convenient for us and convenient for them.

So, we do provide those accommodations. But to your, I think really, to the core of your question about people of influence trying to get special treatment, we all have to follow the U.S. rules and regulations on coming to the visa law. And I think that's why we earlier are saying that some people that were upset that they didn't get the visa because, you know, it's not that we look at them each individually, and we don't see a certain religious class or political class. Often, we don't even know this information. It's not on our visa applications and it's not something that we inquire about. So, we try to approach this as fairly as possible.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: What if artists or performers are traveling together? Because, you know, Uzbeks are a growing community in the United States and they very often invite performers from here - musicians, groups, bands. How are those considered?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: So, if there's just a handful, then they could just make an online appointment. Again, I recognize that it's difficult to make it at this time, because there's so much demand. But under more normal circumstances, they could just make an appointment and come. But if there's like a very large band or a very large performing group, 20 30 dancers or performers or whatever, we're more than happy to make a special time or towards the end of the visa morning to accommodate them. It's easier for us, I think, and more efficient if we have people as a group rather than, we got the drummer here and then we have a bunch of other people and then we have the one musician. It's better to see everyone and be able to move them through efficiently.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: And their chances also depend on the reasons, very specific reasons, right? For example, very often we have a big community holding some kind of a cultural event and they invite them. They're not going through any official channels. It's just the Uzbek community. They're inviting them, the request comes from very private sources. When do performers get denied? What are some of the reasons that a performer would be denied?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: A multitude of different reasons. But if we don't think they're going to be doing what you're saying, it's probably the primarily reason. If, you know, someone as a performer has a long history of doing international events, tours, maybe in the United States before, then that's a story that makes pretty quick sense. But it's only if there's a whole group of experienced performers and there's someone that we are not quite sure what their value to the group is, we may look at them a little differently.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So, a member of a band can be denied individually based on his or her background. Well, you know, Uzbekistan, as you know, has a deep and wide record of corruption. You work in a country where bribery is still a way of life. And I've over the years heard all kinds of stories that you can bribe your way into getting an American visa and that these kind of things happened and the networks will help you do that. What is the situation like now? I know you've been here since August of last year. Have you dealt with any kind of corruption cases that involves basically your work?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Well, there's been no instance of any bribery for a control officer to make a decision. We know there are lots of these facilitators and there are some right outside our embassy, as you can see. Agents who provide different range of services. Some are pretty innocuous, pretty harmless where they're just helping someone fill out a visa application. Unfortunately we are aware that some of these visa facilitators will book the appointments and then they will sell them. The appointments are free. You know, our online appointments are free…

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Just like playing the DV Lottery.

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Yeah. They'll book the appointment and then they will sell them and charge significant amounts of money to someone to use them. That is not just a problem here in Uzbekistan but it's a problem in other parts of the world as well. So, we're looking at ways that we can mitigate. The clear solution is that we get some more normal operations where we just have more appointments available, so no one needs to go to a visa facility to have to feel compelled to buy an appointment when they can just do it themselves. Because, I think, most people wouldn't do that with a number of travel agencies.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: With growing number of travel agencies that are also visa facilitators sometimes, do you have a list of credible agencies that you work with? You don't have to provide the list right now but is it safe, is it trustworthy enough to work with them?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: We don't. And I think we'd be hesitant to do that because then management can change, people can change, and we don't want to be directing people to want to come to you to make the changes. Because so much of what we do, the application is a long process for the visa, but easily can be done by someone on their own. They don't need a visa facilitator. And I would just if I can, if I may, on the Green Card Lottery, the Diversity Visa particularly, my advice is really to avoid visa facilitators, because that entry application is free and it's not very hard, it's just your basic biographical information with some questions. It's something that anyone can do on their own. Maybe you if you have a family member or friend help you because it is in English, I understand that. But there are some requirements on that visa, on the diversity visa application, that you really need to pay attention to and record on the application accurately, or it could result in disqualification. And we have seen this and there are so many disclaimers on our website saying please, you know, if it asks you to list all of your biological children under 21, regardless of their living in your household or another, list all of them. If you don't do that and you win, you will be disqualified. I can't emphasize that enough because, it's a little heartbreaking. Someone will fill out their entry usually in October-November. If they find out they win which would be usually the following May, then sometime after that they'll get an interview. And we find out, for example, at the interview after they've paid the visa fees that they recorded their date of birth incorrectly, they'll be disqualified. And any money they've paid is not refundable. So, you know, it's terrible when one on a technicality but we have to enforce those because those are the worldwide standards. So I would just say that particularly for diversity visas, don't use facilitators. It's a free entry. There's no one going to have more interest in your application than yourself.

And unfortunately, some of those visa facilitators, will also take your application for one year and then just recycle it. But maybe during that time period where you submitted it some years ago now you have a new child, but they submit the old application. And now your visa is no longer accurate because you didn't have your own interest, so it will be disqualified. But if only you just, did it yourself again, it's free, then you'd be OK. So, that's probably my number one advice, for your Green Card Lottery, aspiring winners, is that when you fill out an application entry, take a serious look at the instructions. Make sure it's accurate. Because if it's not, it could result in disqualification, and it'll be too late.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: You have to obviously cooperate with the law enforcement agencies here. You may not deal with them on a day-to-day basis, but in general. We have had several deportations from the United States, there are people who have been deported here. Do you deal with those cases? What are the parameters of your cooperation with the law enforcement, with the justice system here?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Persons who are removed from the United States is generally not our our area. That's usually a different area in the embassy. Often, we are aware because there is kind of a migration kind of aspect to it, but generally it's not. We're looking at people using legitimate travel to the United States and not so much at once if they violated some rules in the United States, while we're aware of it. It's not kind of our main focus.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: And you do provide services to American citizens here. So that's another very important work you do. How safe is Uzbekistan for Americans right now?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: I think it's very safe. I think Uzbekistan is safe. I have my family here and my children are old enough, one of them is old enough to take a taxi on his own and go out and about with his friends. And I have like zero concerns, of course, because I'm a parent, I'm always going to be concerned. But as far as, you know, crime and things of that nature, I think, very safe.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Because you know the State Department travel alerts don't really get into the details, they are more general, but they don't necessarily describe Uzbekistan to be very safe. Central Asia is not usually described to be, you know, the safest area in the world if you look at those official alerts. This is why I'm asking.

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: I think when you look at safety, there are a number of factors. There's crime and there's also, I think, most people that you find of injured or something Americans overseas, it's usually a traffic accident. So, traffic here is, as you know, another story. It's been an experience. I don't know if I'm getting to be a better driver or worse driver. I'm sure when I return to the U.S., I will be getting a speeding ticket or a traffic ticket… But yeah, now we provide some information. It's our country specific information on our website. It goes into a number of different categories, this is a portal, a website, for Americans… Some information on crime and safety. So, we do have those, like you said, it's not always super specific, but we do update it and will be close to getting a new update shortly.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: You know many people think that Ambassador Rosenblum decides on visas.

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: I know.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: You know, very often we get letters or phone calls, even texts, saying: Can you please tell Ambassador Rosenblum to give me a visa? Or I've been denied... People don't know the difference between who is an ambassador and who is a consular chief. How would you explain the differences and why you are the guy in charge of this?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: I would even go further like I am a consular section chief, but I can't tell the interviewing officer before anything starts you need to issue that person or you need to refuse that person. You know that that would be outside the bounds of my responsibility. Now, obviously if there was something that was done wrong, like by not someone's judgment but something that was refused for the wrong legal reason, then I would look at that and we would maybe correct that. But you're absolutely right, the consular section has very unique privileges and very unique responsibilities for these matters. We have to have a special consular commission to do consular services in a country. So, no one else, another section or the ambassador or anyone else can [interfere]. It would be a violation. And this is probably something, Ambassador Rosenblum might speak… but I imagine he'll be glad that, he doesn't have to go to the consular section…

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: We have already heard him say that. He and other ambassadors say hey, I have nothing to do with the process.

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Because, as you alluded to before, there's a lot of training and a lot of particular rules and regulations. And so, we receive that, and we have the responsibility to adjudicate visas, passports and consular services. So that's our purview. But again, I can't even say, some people think that you are in the consular section, this was refused, just overturn it. If a visa was adjudicated properly, we’ve looked at the circumstances. This was the judgment of the officer based on the information that was available. You know, the best I can say, would be reapply, maybe provide more information on this side if that was a concern.

U.S. Consular Chief Robert Romanowsk talks with VOA's Navbahor Imamova, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, March 25, 2022
U.S. Consular Chief Robert Romanowsk talks with VOA's Navbahor Imamova, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, March 25, 2022

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Can people complain? Can they file a complaint?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: They can complain. And we do get every once a while complaint in our inbox. And, I welcome feedback of many different kinds. And we've heard about people that had to buy these appointments from people, who've come forward and say, hey I just went to this facilitator, I had to pay $100 to just to get an appointment. Know, this is this is outrageous. And that's helpful to know. This is happening. So we can look at how we kind of alleviate that. But, you know, not all complaints are equal. We've got complaints that say, please have Ambassador issue or interview this person. But that's not realistic.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: But usually people want to complain after they get the denial letters.

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: It's not in proportion to the number of refusals, I think. We do and it could be for a variety of reasons. There's information on our website about what that means and maybe it was explained at the interview, but certainly you are able to send your complaint into our inbox. I wouldn't expect a response. It'll be read.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: If you don't hear back then that's the case.

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Yeah, if you're saying you know, I want to see my grandkids and I was refused and I'm upset about that. There's not really anything that we can say to that besides that people are allowed to reapply. There's no time limit in that. I wouldn't recommend reapplying right after visa refusal unless you have something that's materially different than what you presented. And it's also important to note that there is no quota of visa refusals or visa issuance.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: I was just going to ask about that: Are there limits though?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: No, there's not. There's not a number we have to hit. That's why when we look at each case on its own, it's accurate.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Is it the same thing with the lottery in terms of winners, because we keep on hearing about quotas?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Well, for the winners there, the Department of State sets aside 55,000 a year from all over the world. And so, a portion of that will be for the qualified countries. So, there will be a set number of winners from Uzbekistan. And as a policy, as a worldwide policy, and this is also on the website, no country can have more than seven percent of the total winners. But seven percent of 55,000 is more than 3500. So that would be significant.

Another visa tip. You know, people that are coming in for the visa particularly shouldn't be kind of like a passive interviewee. You shouldn't, if a consular asks you, what do you do for business or what do you do for work, you shouldn't say entrepreneur or business. You need to provide the story exactly, what your role is, because business can be made of different things. You could be the person selling samsas or you could be running a Chevrolet plant. There's a wide range in there and we're interested in knowing what exactly that means.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Does the fact that somebody is unemployed affect the decision?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: It depends again on the visa category. If you're traveling as a tourist, you're unemployed and say, you're middle aged, then I think it would spur: How can you afford this? So that would raise some questions. Maybe you're unemployed and you're independently wealthy and you travel all over the world. So that would be a different scenario, but most people aren't like that.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Young people are often unemployed, they are students or self-employed, increasingly, in this country.

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: That's true.

U.S. Consular Chief Robert Romanowsk talks with VOA's Navbahor Imamova, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, March 25, 2022
U.S. Consular Chief Robert Romanowsk talks with VOA's Navbahor Imamova, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, March 25, 2022

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Some fear that because I don't officially work somewhere… I'm just establishing my business or I'm starting a project and I can't provide that official paperwork, verification. So even there, is it all individually based?

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: That's a good point about documents, maybe something worth just briefly mentioning that we don't need lots of documents. There are some visa categories that require… If you're a student, you need to have this form called the I-20. It shows what school you got into and some details about it. But, you know, these applicants do not need to gather letters or reference or bring their bank statements or find their land deeds or property information.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: They don't? You don't need them to be assured that they are returning.

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: We won't ask for them. Almost in all circumstances we are not going to be asking for bank statements or property documents or anything of that nature. So, it's not worth gathering unless they were asked for them. But I will be honest here, we're not going to be asking for that document in most cases if you're just going to be a tourist. I will say, like, if you're going for expensive medical treatment in the United States, then we would want to see something from like a hospital or a clinic that says, this person is going to undergo this treatment. It'll take this long. It's going to cost approximately that much. And then we'll asking how you afford this.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: So, bring what's asked and be honest.

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Yes, bring what it is asked and be honest. Can't go wrong there.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Honesty, honesty, honesty. Well, thank you so much for this extensive conversation.

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: It's been a pleasure.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Yes… I'm sure we'll be getting more questions. It's great that time to time, you do Facebook sessions.

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Yes, we will be doing one on Diversity Visa.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Good!

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: We have a good story to tell you this year.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA: Wonderful. Thank you!

Robert Romanowski, Consular Chief: Thank you!

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    Navbahor Imamova

    Navbahor Imamova - "Amerika Ovozi" teleradiosining yetakchi multimedia jurnalisti. "Amerika Manzaralari" turkumidagi teledasturlar muallifi. Ko'rsatuvlar taqdim etish bilan birga prodyuser, muxbir va muharrir. O'zbekistonda akkreditatsiyadan o'tgan yagona amerikalik jurnalist. "Amerika Ovozi"da 2002-yildan beri ishlaydi. Jurnalistik faoliyatini 1996-yilda O'zbekiston radiosining "Xalqaro hayot" redaksiyasida boshlagan. Jahon Tillar Universiteti Xalqaro jurnalistika fakultetida dars bergan. Ommaviy axborot vositalari bo'yicha bakalavrlikni Hindistonning Maysur Universitetidan (University of Mysore), magistrlikni esa AQShning Bol Davlat Universitetidan (Ball State University) olgan. Shuningdek, Garvard Universitetidan (Harvard University) davlat boshqaruvi va liderlik bo'yicha magistrlik diplomiga ega. Jurnalistik va ilmiy materiallari qator xalqaro manbalarda chop etilgan. Amerikaning nufuzli universitetlari va tahlil markazlarida so'zlab, ma'ruzalar o'qib keladi. "Amerika Ovozi" oltin medali sohibi. Tashkilotda gender va jurnalistika bo'yicha kengash raisi. Toshkent viloyati Bo'stonliq tumani Qo'shqo'rg'on qishlog'ida ziyoli oilasida ulg'aygan.

    Navbahor Imamova is a prominent Uzbek journalist at the Voice of America. As anchor, reporter, multimedia editor and producer, she has covered Central Asia and the U.S. for more than 20 years on TV, radio and online. Since 2018, she has also been reporting from inside Uzbekistan as the first-ever U.S.-based accredited correspondent in the country. During 2016-2017, she was a prestigious Edward S. Mason Fellow in public policy and management, while earning her Mid-Career Master in Public Administration at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Navbahor played a pivotal role in the launch of Uzbek television programming at VOA in 2003, and has since presented more than 1000 editions of the flagship weekly show, “Amerika Manzaralari” (Exploring America), which covers American foreign policy focusing on Washington’s relations with Central Asia, as well as life and politics in the U.S. She speaks frequently on regional issues in Central Asia, as well as Uzbek politics and society, for policy, academic, and popular audiences. Her analytical pieces have been published in leading academic and news outlets including Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and the Atlantic. Navbahor also is the founding President of the VOA Women’s Caucus. She began her career at Uzbekistan’s state broadcasting company in Tashkent. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and mass communication from the University of Mysore, India and a Master of Arts in journalism from Ball State University, Indiana.

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