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U.S. Vice Consul warns in interview with The Star: Watch Out For Visa Fixers

3 August 2017 One Comment

The Vice Consul of the U.S. Consulate in the United States Embassy, Yaounde, Timothy Johnson has in an exclusive interview with The Star newspaper spoken of the urgent need to avoid Visa Fixers, their work load, processing of visa applications of different categories and the perennial difficulties they encounter in the execution of their rigorous duties from some applicants. He emphatically dwelled on the issues of visa applications, why some regular visitors to the United States are sometimes refused visas, increase in visa fee and the now cumbersome procedure of applying for US visas.
He sternly warned applicants to avoid Visa Fixers who always coerce their victims into paying huge sums of money for fraudulent transactions that end up in futilities particularly when it concerns visa applications of any kind. The Vice Consul also elaborated on why some successful applicants for DV Lottery are denied visas and painted a way forward. Read the Vice Consul’s very illuminating interview by Chief Foanyi Nkemayang Paul and Theodore Mih Ndze

U.S Vice Consul Timothy Johnson warns against Visa Fixers

Good Morning Vice Consul
Thank You.
The US Consulate in Yaoundé, Cameroon is one of the busiest in terms of visa applications. What would you say accounts for these regular travels and may be some kind of mass exodus?
I won’t call them mass exodus. We are certainly very busy. In the Consular Section, we receive 100, 200 Visa Applicants per day but Cameroonians are traveling for a variety of reasons to the United States and other countries around the world. There is a big Cameroonian community in the United States of America such as Maryland, Boston, Taxes, et al. So a lot of Cameroonians are traveling to visit or attend to important family events, there are a number of Cameroonians who are seeking to pursue higher education opportunities in the United States which we welcome for qualified student applicants. There are a number of Cameroonians as well who are traveling to conduct business opportunities, to seek new partnerships and to find products to purchase and bring back to Cameroon and things like that. People are also traveling on exchange programmes. There are some of the State Department exchange programmes for visas like the Young African Leaders Initiative, International Visitors Programme and a lot more. So people are traveling for a variety of reasons and that is why we are so busy, but it is a pretty routine situation.
Despite the astronomical increase in visa fees, the mad rush to travel to America has still not dampened. Has the visa fee increase anything to do with validity extension from six months to one year?
No, with the visa fee, there is what we call the MRV, that is, the fee that everybody has to pay, 160 dollars for the interview and application to come before the Consulate for visa consideration. Everyone pays and that is what costs us to internally account for all the labour and time that is spent going through the visa application process. Then there is the 240 dollars fee that tourists, business travellers or people traveling for pleasure have to pay to be issued a visa. This is a fee that varies depending on each country. In Cameroon, that is the fee that the Cameroonian government charges Americans to issue visas to come to Cameroon for tourism and business. So it is a fee that we call reciprocity fee we charge Cameroonians traveling to the United States for the same purpose. So it is an equation of equilibrium between the visa fees that both countries are charging each other. Obviously we would love to reduce the fees for issuing the visa and that is something that we are considering with the government currently.
What do you do with the money you collect as visa fee?
The money we collect goes back into our visa process. It goes back to supporting the visa operations to covering staff salaries for our local staff here, for helping to process visas for our Diplomats who are adjudicating the visas, for our staff and resources in Washington DC who are involved in the visa process. So the visa fee goes back to supporting the visa process and that is why we charge that standard 160 dollars MRV fee across the world and that is what it cost to adjudicate the visas.
We know that America assists a lot of Africans and second world countries because it is the world’s most powerful nation with financial capabilities. Now, instead of reducing the fee, you increase it. Do Cameroonians have anything to gain from this fee that you increased?
As I said, we are not increasing the fee. The MRV fee is really what it cost the US government to adjudicate on one visa. So it’s not that we are trying to raise fees for people who may have difficulties to pay the fee. This is the same in the UK, China, Cameroon, everywhere in world, they pay the standard fee. There is a reciprocity fee of 240 dollars to issue the visa that we would love to decrease. We recognise that it’s a burden to some Cameroonians, that is, what we are hoping to do. As I said, our intention is not at all to increase fees for Cameroonians.
You certainly have different classes of visas issued to travellers visiting America which include non-immigrants, immigrants, students, etc. Can you shed some light on the different categories of visas and various amounts paid for their acquisition?
As I said, the most common type of visa issued here in Cameroon is what we call B1 or B2 visa that is for people who are traveling for business or for pleasure to the United States, for vacation or to meet with business partners and things like that. As I said the reciprocity or issuance fee 240 dollars and it is the same as Cameroonians charge Americans for that same type of visa. Then we also have the student visa, which is a very popular category of visas here and is called F1 for all types of universities students or high school students, secondary school students going to study in the United States of America and they pay 60 dollars for a visa to be issued. There are ranges of other types of visas which we see in use but which are not common, there are others for special athletes or people with special skills going to work in the United States or exchange visit and the fees could be really below that. For immigrant visas, I will refer you to our Website: http:/yaounde.usembassy.gov which has the list of fees in the different categories. There are also General Travel Tips and Information for American Citizens on Website: http:/travel.state.gov and Non-immigrant (tourists, business, student) visa Website: http:/ceac.state.gov/genniv.These are websites that can keep visa applicants away from visa fixers (fraudsters).
The process of obtaining US visas has become cumbersome, given that applicants have to go to ECOBANK or any other designated bank to pay depending on the visa category. After that, they have to wait for three working days for the document to be processed before the booking is finally done. What necessitated this administrative procedure?
We recognise that it is a cumbersome procedure and we are doing everything that we can to make this less cumbersome, but the intent is to protect Cameroonians from possible abuses or manipulations of the visa process by Visa Fixers or Visa Agents and to ensure that the money that they are paying for their interview, for the MRV fee, 160 dollars I mentioned earlier, is coming from a verified trusted source and they don’t have to go out and pay a Visa Fixer on the street to make an appointment and register them for this process where there have been abuses of the system in the past. So we want to make sure that Cameroonians don’t lose their money or aren’t manipulated and abused by these unscrupulous actors who take advantage of people interested in the visa process but don’t know how to go about their appointments. If people have difficulties scheduling appointments or have questions about the process, we would really encourage them to come directly to us. We don’t want people going to these visa fixers. People should not trust them. They shouldn’t be asking them questions. They shouldn’t believe what they are saying.

The Star CEO Chief Foanyi Nkemayang interviewing U.S Vice Consul Timothy Johnson at the United States Embassy, Yaounde

Our Embassy Facebook page is available for questions. We have a dedicated e-mail address which people can write to us, call in with questions and even comment as well.
Many applicants have been caught with fake documents like marriage certificates, birth certificates, fake academic documents, forged letters of invitations, admission letters, manipulated photos. What do you do with an applicant who has committed such a heinous crime? It might not just be Cameroonians, other countries too
This is a common problem around the world we face in our embassies. Maybe I start with the documents in general. I think a lot of people have a misconception in general about the visa process in the US Embassy but our process is not a document based process. We don’t really look at documents in the process but we mainly focused on the interview. Some applicants come and spend three to five minutes in the interview with the Consular Officer. We wish we could spend more time with people but the reality as I said is that we have hundreds of people to interview and get through this process so we are really looking at the interview not the documents. We don’t just have time.
Occasionally we would ask for the documents, questions we want to verify something so it’s okay to bring documents but documents are really not the focus of the interview. A lot of people feel that they have to go out and procure forged certificates, forged education documents, forged invitation letters which frankly are only to the benefit of the visa fixers that they buy them from. Because as I said, we are not looking at documents, we are making a determination about how they qualify for a visa based on legal standards.
We look at the person in front of us and say is this person going to come back to Cameroon after their stay in the United States or are they going to immigrate to the United States? It is a very high standard to overcome. If we think that they are going to immigrate to the United States, we would not be able to approve the visa. During the interview, what we really look for is whether the visa applicant is going to return, do they really have sufficient ties to Cameroon, do they have family here, do they have other social ties here, do they have job ties, economic ties, do they have a stable job, are they employed, have they travelled before and things like that. These are some of the things that we look out for. The documents themselves are not that important. So it’s terrible to see these people go out and buy documents which only benefit the visa fixers.
If it is something extremely serious in terms of fraud or misrepresentation, or identity fraud, we can permanently ban somebody from ever travelling to the United States forever depending on the seriousness of the fraud. And that is something that we really don’t like to see. To give you a sample case, you have a student going for a student visa and he or she brings in a bunch of different forged education documents or fake bank documents which shows huge resources to finance his or her education. Well, if a visa is refused because of lack of qualification for the visa based on the above mentioned reasons, the applicant can always come back and reapply in the future.
Reapplication can be two months later, six months later, six years later, 10 years later and maybe he or she would get the visa based on our law. But if someone comes to the embassy and submit those types of documents and we uncover fraud, serious enough, that person can forever be banned. They may not qualify today but can qualify later based on truth. Fraudsters could permanently be banned from ever entering America. That is why I would really encourage your readers to be aware and cautious of approaching these types of visa fixers they need to go out and procure fake documents. If you get caught, that is the bottom line. If you just get a visa refused once, that is not bad. You can always come back in the future and try again. But to be banned permanently, we hardly do that but unfortunately we have to do that sometimes if the fraud is so serious.
There have been cases where Cameroonians visit America several times, but when they apply for visa renewal, you refuse them. Somebody goes to America, two, three, four times and he or she comes back maybe the fifth time and is refused a visa. What is the cause of this?
Well it really depends on the case. That is a case by case scenario. The visas that we issue for Cameroonians longer after that they had visited the US and come back to reapply to visit the United States again, must have good reasons for your travelling to the US. If they still have the specific ties to bring the applicant back to Cameroon afterwards. Sometimes their circumstances might have changed and it may affect that decision or they may have engaged in activity in the United States to suggest to us that they are not qualified for the visa anymore. They could also be people who committed crimes in the United States during their previous visits or people who have misused their visa by staying too long. It is common knowledge that when you arrive in the United States, they give you six months to stay at one given time, so if you stay beyond that six months, it’s great that you had the visa but you did not use it correctly. So if you come back and reapply, that is something that we are going to look at and determine whether you should get a visa again. Did this person abuse his visa in some way in the past? So it is not a guarantee that you get a visa today and you always have a visa tomorrow. It depends on the use of your visa correctly. And generally if people are using their visas correctly which a vast majority of people are, they will continue to get visas each time they apply.
On the issue of issuance of DV Lottery visas, how do you treat those cases? I ask because some people, who win DV Lotteries are refused visas and the never travel
There are few qualifications for the DV programs. Really it comes down to two qualifications, two basic qualifications. The applicant has an equivalent to a high school education in the United States, that is, their A/L results or the BACC results in Cameroon. If they don’t have either of those two, they can still qualify for the programme if they have sufficient level of professional experience. Applicants can find out this on our US Embassy

Vice Consul Timothy says Visa applicants should consult their websites, facebook, e-mail and telephone for information

website http://yaounde.usembassy.gov. So they can determine whether they meet the qualification based on what they do, fields where you may not have high school education but have the professional experience. The number of the majority of people who are refused Diversity Visa is very low in general. They don’t meet any of those two requirements. They have neither high school nor the professional qualifications.
I encourage Cameroonians to always visit our website http://yaounde.usembassy.gov before applying for the DV program to know if they are eligible. For instance, in the case of seamstress, drivers, mechanics, etc, they do not meet the criteria for the program. So, before coming in to pay the fee, applicants need to check themselves to know if they have high school education or professional experience that would qualify them, because what we will never do is to allow people to come in, pay their fee and be refused a visa. All this information is available online in advance. So it’s not a secret. We hate to see those sorts of cases where people come and are refused traveling.
Let me give you another example of a Diversity Visa where people are refused visas. People often will outsource their applications to unremorseful visa fixers again. So we really encouraged people to apply themselves. It is very easy, simple process. They just need to go to the DV website, fill the application, list all the members of their family and submit. Most problems come up when people go to visa fixers who sign them up for the DV Lottery, mentioning the name of just one person without listing all the members of their family as required by the application rules. And when they win, they come for the interview with their spouse and children whose names were never mentioned in the application. In the application, they will even say they are not married and had no kids. So unfortunately, you are disqualified for the programme since you went against the rules which are very transparent and clear on the internet site. We really want people to take ownership of their own applications. And this is also a security issue for them because we have heard many instances of people who are being exploited by Cybercafé owners or visa fixers and extorted with huge sums of money. Even if they didn’t win, we hear of cases were fixers deceive innocent people, “Oh you won, but you have to pay this fee and after paying, they are told they didn’t win”. That is why we are really recommending people to avoid these visa fixers and take responsibility for their own application because it is really terrible to see a young person, a family being denied a visa because they didn’t apply properly or that they lost a lot of money in it when it could have been very simple and straight forward if they did it themselves. Again if people have questions about this process, don’t go to them, come to us. We are available. We have all these resources Telephone, Facebook, Internet, Website, E-mail, even coming here to talk to us. We want this process to be simple and not confusing to people. For Inquiries Contact: US Consular Section, e-mail: consularyaounde@state.gov, Tel. No. +(237) 222 201 603.

What you have said is very correct but the problem is that some of the applicants are illiterates who cannot even access the internet. Because of these lapses, Cyber Café operators take advantage and extort money from them?
You are right and that is why we are doing what we are doing in terms of public outreach. We want to reach those people who may have difficulties in understanding the process and who may not have internet access so that we can explain this and tell them to talk to us directly or trust reliable sources like credible media, newspapers or other reliable outlets on the visa process.
There is this issue of expedited appointments. Who are the beneficiaries?
The beneficiaries are whoever needs an expedited appointment. So if somebody dies in the United States and you have to go and attend the funeral or there is some other emergency issue that comes up in your life, you can go online and apply for a few days to get the next appointment. This means you can go to our website and request an expedited appointment and explain your situation and we determine whether that merits an expedited appointment. So there is no special formula to getting an expedited appointment. There is no special qualification. When a person has an emergency with sufficient proofs and needs to travel, in this case, we would generally approve the visa request.
Now, you usually issue visas for six months as you earlier mentioned and now we see visas issued for a year. Can a Cameroonian visitor travelling to the United States be issued a visa for more than a year?
Unfortunately at this stage, the duration of the visa is one year and this goes back to what I was talking to you earlier in terms of reciprocity. The Cameroonian Government gives American citizens one year visas to come here and so in turn we give Cameroonian citizens one year to go to the United States, that is, a one year duration for a visa. We would love to expand that, in other countries we have been able to work with the Government to expand the visa validity to a few years, three years, maybe a little longer. In China, it is a 10-year visa, so if you get it once, it lasts for 10 years. But for every one visa around the world, you are only allowed to stay in the United States for six months of your time. You arrived at the airport, the passport is stamped and the departure date has to be six months from that date when the passport was stamped. It is still the same and is consistent around the world. It’s not that you have to leave the US by one year of the visa limit. The visa is just a travel document, it allows you to go the United States, arrive, they stamp your passport and you have six months to stay in the United States.
I have also discovered that getting a visa in Cameroon or any other country is no guarantee that you will enter the United States, because they have turned so many people back and even got some arrested
So the visa itself is a travel document which allows you to go the United States, go to the door, knock at the door, and asked to come into the United States. So the vast majority of people are able to get into the United States and the report that you have noted of people being turned back are people who are generally traveling for purposes that are not legitimate. They want to immigrate to the United States or are going to engage in other activities that we deem illicit. It is not a wide spread problem. People are not engaged in those sorts of illicit activities – crime, illegal activities like picking up a job with some one’s papers, immigration to the United States. It is not something that the average traveller has to worry about.
How would you size up the bilateral cooperation between Cameroon and the United States of America in terms of consular services you are rendering to the public?
I think the Ambassador has said the bilateral cooperation between the United States and Cameroon is at an all-time high on a variety of fronts and including consular issues. As I said we are working with the Government on a number of issues – visa reciprocity, the duration, the costs and things like that. We hope to move on in the future but at this point, the relationship is moving excellently well and we hope to continue to advance on a number of issues that we are addressing here across the range.
From what say, your Consular services have certainly improved relations with Cameroon. How many Cameroonians, do you think, go to the US annually?
I don’t have the number in mind but it is in thousands, thousands of Cameroonians who go to the United States to conduct business, as representatives of NGOs, to meet with partners in the United States or to go to United Nations conferences, people who go to visit their families in the United States, their friends, go on vacation, to Disney Land, to go and see New York, Washington DC; students as well, we have a lot of students who come to our universities and use the skills they gain and come back to Cameroon to help built the country.
We understand there are some classes of people who do not attend interviews when they have to travel to the United States. Who are these people and why so?
These people are primarily participants in our interview waver programme. These are people who have travelled to the US and who are renewing their visas. Essentially they have the same type of visa they had last time and they are applying within one year of their last visa to the United States. So we try to make this process go faster for them, to simplify this process. We have this waver programme and so they don’t need to come for the interview. So they just submit their documents.
We understand that the money you collect for visas, some go for your salaries and bulk go for the Ambassador’s humanitarian assistance. How true is this?
The MRV fee, the 160 dollars goes to funding the visa operations, the issuance fee go to support the visa operation still but any additional revenue goes back into the United States Treasury. So specifically it is deposited back into the Government Fund for various activities. Any additional revenue that does not go to support the visa operation goes to the Government.
Any last word?
Well, I just want to reiterate again to Cameroonians and applicants through your widely read newspaper to avoid Visa Fixers or Agents. People should not believe the advice they give and certainly do not pay the visa fixers for anything, or allow any service at all. If applicants have questions about the process, we are here for them. We are here to serve Cameroonian citizens so they can contact us on our Websites: http:/yaounde.usembassy.gov, http:/ceac.state.gov/genniv, E-mail: consularyaounde@state.gov, Phone No: +(237) 222 201 603, Facebook or just come in person and talk to us. We want to make this process simple and straight forward. We don’t want people feel like they have to go to these types of people to get answers because only Consular Officers can provide answers on the type of questions that people may have about the visa process. People outside the US Embassy frankly don’t know what they are talking about and they should not be trusted and certainly not paid for unauthorised services. That is something that I would just want to leave your readers with as caution.
Let me say this, we don’t bite. We are nice people. We want to provide good services to Cameroonians. We treat everybody with respect from the least to the most educated or richest. We treat everybody fairly and equitably. Everybody gets the same kind of treatment and is evaluated on same standards. Sometimes, the least educated person might qualify for a visa and the most educated may not qualify.
That is how we operate on bases of equality.
Thank you for granting The Star this interview
It is my pleasure and l wish The Star the best. We remain veritable partners in the area of information technology as far as our services to Cameroonians progress.

One Comment »

  • Jermain said:

    This is a good informative story to guide us all. Thank you The Star