Why the US denies visas to Ugandans

The Consular Chief at the US Embassy in Uganda, Ms Sally Sternal, speaks to journalists at the US Embassy in Kampala on December 8, 2022. PHOTO/FRANK BAGUMA

What you need to know:

  • Applicants forging documents or failing to prove they will return home after visit dim prospects of getting visas from which the American embassy in Kampala makes Shs12b a year.

The United States (US) government makes about Shs12b a year from Ugandan visa applicants, with half denied the travel authorisation.

Ms Sally Sternal, the consular officer at the US embassy in Kampala, yesterday revealed that only half of 20,000 Ugandans who seek visa every year to travel across the Atlantic get it.

The minimum non-refundable fees for US non-immigrant (temporary) visa is $160 (Shs600,000), meaning the mission in Kampala collects $3.2m (Shs12b) from the 20,000 applicants.

At a press conference at the embassy yesterday, Ms Sternal attributed the high rejection of visa applications from Ugandans to failure to prove ties outside the US and visa fraud.

“Many do not qualify for a visa because they do not demonstrate strong enough ties outside of the US. That is the number one reason people do not qualify to get a visa,” she said.

Ms Sternal added that students intending to study at American institutions must demonstrate they have finances for tuition and living for the first year of school.

“It is hard for younger people who are just starting out in their career, or in school, to demonstrate that they have the ties for eligibility for the visas,” she said.

She said many Ugandan applicants present forged documents, leading to tighter and costly scrutiny of the applications, including genuine ones, undermining their chances.

“Every week, we are contacted by applicants to confirm the validity of a job offer they received in the US or examine a visa from a third party. To-date, none of those that we have evaluated have been valid. Do not pay anyone with a promise of a visa, they will take your money and run,” Ms Sternal added.

Cases of visa fraud including presenting counterfeit papers, cooked background stories, or hiring brokers who fleece unsuspecting victims of millions of shillings, are increasing, according to official records.

Last month, this publication reported that the US visa fraud scheme had attracted the attention of the State House Anti-Corruption Unit, after a man contracted by a 38-year-old woman to apply for an American visa on her behalf cheated her of Shs8m.

At yesterday’s press conference, Mr Brain Jolda, the assistant regional security officer (investigator), spoke of fake schemes were purported middlemen take money from desperate applicants ostensibly to secure a US visa, knowing the scheme is fraudulent.

Other applicants present fake bank statements, birth, death or marriage certificates, and false employment records, among other documentations, in the hope of increasing their chances at securing a visa.

“Every day, [there are] at least half-a-dozen occasions where the consular officer will come to my unit to verify documents and stories. So, you could have five percent of applicants on any given day come in with documents or stories that do not belong to them. That is thousands of people per day,” he said.

The rise in cases of visa fraud has been attributed to the difficult application process, higher denials and substantial documentation demands.

“Getting a US visa can be very difficult and there are people that try to take steps illegally to increase their chances of getting one,” Mr Jolda said.

All US visa applications are submitted online and each applicant must make a good case just to secure an interview, according to information gleaned on the embassy website, and appearing in person for the interview after paying at least $160 (Shs600,000) in official fees is no guarantee for securing the visa.

A key eligibility proof is ties --- such as permanent jobs, investments, and family --- outside the US that will cause an applicant to return home after visiting America.

During application and interviews, applicants are sometimes required to present work and salary attestations, property titles, marriage or family documents, among others, requirements that critics consider dehumanising or confidential personal information.

In addition, and in a situation worsened by Covid-19 disruptions, securing a slot to book a visa interview can take several months, sometimes a year, leading to frustration and applicants attempting to cut corners.

Ms Sternal, who says these are standard processes for many countries including those in Europe, explains that for one to qualify, “the trip needs to make sense. We look at things like does the traveller have money to pay for the trip, it is really expensive [staying in the US]”.

“We also look to see if they have travelled out of Uganda before, many times especially with younger people we take time and see they are still building ties. We look at employment history, school studies,” she said.

The embassy said forgeries and fraudulent acts, including government bureaucrats adding ineligible persons onto official trips, taint the image of individual perpetrators, raise suspicions on all visa applicants and erode the integrity of Uganda.

“If you present documents that are false, that is going to be noted in our system and that may prevent you from receiving a visa in the future,” Mr Jolda said, adding, “I have seen many applicants that have paid millions of shillings for documents that do not belong to them. Do not go out and work with someone who says they can get a visa, do not pay a false story about your background.”

Visa fraud, he said, makes it harder for everyone to qualify for a visa because “when we see so many fake documents, fraudulent travellers, it makes us really take a close look at everyone. It slows down the processes”.

Mr Anthony Kujawa, the US Kampala embassy spokesperson, said some government officials aid in these fraud scheme, corroborating the reporting by this newspaper last month where the victim was promised to travel as part of Ministry of Education delegation.

“Fraud is happening at many levels. There were cases of a Ugandan official submitting a diplomatic note adding names of officials and other people to that list, but those names were not supposed to be on that list. These issues of fraud impact not only the integrity of our processes, but integrity of government,” he said.

He added: “If a Ugandan travels to the United States and overstays their visa,  works illegally, fails to come back, submits counterfeit documents, that makes  it all the more difficult for the Ugandan who is presenting  his credential honestly to  be believed. Each case is considered individually on its merits, but when you have a high prevalence of fraudulent documents, people who overstay or misuse them, that makes it difficult.”