U.S. Visa issued in India. (Photo by Muzi via Wikimedia Commons)

Example of a “B-1″ Visa for the United States. (Public domain image by Muzi via Wikimedia Commons)

When U.S. Foreign Service Officer Michael Sestak was charged with accepting over $3 million in bribes in exchange for filing fraudulent visas in Vietnam last November, the airwaves were oddly quiet. CNN gave the story a whopping 301 words and the Washington Post said even less. Others, like NBC and Fox News decided not to report on it at all.

But Sestak’s case is far from isolated incident. Although – and perhaps because – such circumstances go widely unreported, bribery has become common throughout U.S. consular offices, leaving would-be immigrants footing the bill.

“There are benefits of being an American in Sierra Leone,” said Kabbie Konteh, an immigration lawyer based in Seattle and the founder of Restoration of Cultural Sierra Leone, a nonprofit that provides resources to tribes in Sierra Leone to rebuild of schools destroyed in the country’s brutal civil war. “You get treated a lot differently so of course you can charge for things you aren’t actually supposed to be charging for, and nobody would know any different. And that happens a lot.”

Freetown is home to Sierra Leone’s U.S. Embassy. (Photo by stringer_bel via Flickr)

In 2013, Transparency International ranked Sierra Leone as the 119th (out of 177) most corrupt country on Earth. Sixty-two percent of respondents said they’d paid a bribe in the past 12 months in a 2010 survey. Paying to get a U.S. student visa seems ordinary in a country where paying bribes is such a central part of everyday life.

“It’s not legal, but it’s become commonplace,” Konteh said. “It’s not legal, but people will still expect that kickback, ‘you do this, I’ll do this for you’ sort of thing. But that’s basically how it seems that all of Sierra Leone runs.”

In order to obtain a student visa in Sierra Leone, the applicant must first pay a standard, non-refundable $160 application fee, and then petition for an interview at the U.S. embassy in Freetown. Petitions are frequently rejected, and in 2011 only 132 Sierra Leoneans acquired student visas. In contrast, 8,652 student visas were granted to immigrants from Norway, a country whose population is comparable to that of Sierra Leone.

“The State Department makes millions off of the poorest people in the world just by selling them the opportunity to fill out the application,” said Dan Lavin, a former Peace Corps volunteer and instrumental player in the founding of the Community Initiative Program, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Sierra Leoneans internally manage their own local economies. (Lavin is also the bookkeeper for The Seattle Globalist).

U.S. immigration policy requires student visa applicants display family ties “sufficient to show … your intent to return to your home country.” But section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act gives the consulate officer sole authority to determine whether those relationships are “sufficient” enough, allocating massive and virtually unregulated power over whether or not people obtain these highly sought after documents.

Dan Lavin is a former Peace Corps volunteer and was an integral part in the founding of the Communitiy Initiative Program, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Sierra Leoneans internally manage their own local economies. He is also the bookkeeper for the Seattle Globalist. (Photo courtesy of Dan Lavin)

Dan Lavin is a former Peace Corps volunteer and was an integral part in the founding of the Communitiy Initiative Program, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Sierra Leoneans internally manage their own local economies. He is also the bookkeeper for the Seattle Globalist. (Photo courtesy of Dan Lavin)

“They will deny a student if they don’t have foreign travel experience. But how does a poor kid from a rural village get foreign travel experience?” said Lavin.

With the odds of winning the Diversity Visa Lottery being slim – over the past ten years only several hundred Sierra Leoneans have won visas out of the thousands that applied – bribery has become one of the few ways to get a visa application through the system.

“There are people at the embassy who can get you a visa,” Lavin said. “If you’re a Sierra Leonean, you go to a man called a ‘broker’; you then pay that ‘broker’ $10,000 and he personally gives that money to someone at the embassy who in turn gets you a visa.”

When asked about the accusations, a spokesperson at the U.S. embassy in Freetown declined to comment.

But this is far from the first time allegations of bribery have been brought against U.S. immigration officials. Just one month after Michael Sestak was arrested in Vietnam, an embassy worker in Georgetown, Guyana was arrested for selling visas in exchange for sexual favors and bribes as low as $15,000. This was the second bribery arrest involving visas at that particular embassy since 2000.

Six months before that, a security officer at the U.S. embassy in Kingston, Jamaica was charged with accepting “unlawful gratitudes” from a popular Jamaican musician after helping him illegally obtain entry to the U.S. And only six months before that an employee at the U.S. embassy in Caracas, Venezuela was arrested for accepting over $10,000 in exchange for facilitating applications for student and other non-immigrant visas.

In a 2013 interview with Vice Magazine regarding the cases in Guyana, Gale Smith of the Diplomatic Security Service said that the department has since embedded agents in various consulate offices and that “many U.S. embassies now have a special program within the Regional Security Office to investigate both external and employee fraud.”

But years of lax enforcement has established a sense of apathy among embassy regulation officials. Former Foreign Service officer David Seminara even wrote in a report for the Center for Immigration Studies that although he was frequently asked why he had not granted visas to particular applicants, he was never asked why he had granted them to others.

Kabbie Konteh seems resigned to the corruption in Sierra Leone’s relationship with the U.S.

“Most people aren’t going to Sierra Leone to do good, but to get the benefits of being an American in Sierra Leone,” Konteh said.

Gary Locke returns to Seattle after serving as the U.S. ambassador to China from 2011 to 2014. (Photo by Linda Cotton)

Gary Locke returns to Seattle after serving as the U.S. Ambassador to China from 2011 to 2014. (Photo by Linda Cotton)

Since it blew up on national headlines recently, China News Service’s embittered farewell to former U.S.-China Ambassador Gary Locke sparked worldwide controversy.

But despite the government press agency’s racially derogative claim that Locke was a traitor to the Chinese government — a “banana man,” with “yellow skin” and a “white heart” — his work and life have transcended the very binaries of “white” and “yellow” that trap the public into believing one cohesive, authentic identity is impossible.

Mountains near Sochi. (Photo by CosmoDreamer via Flickr)

Mountains near Sochi. (Photo by CosmoDreamer via Flickr)

Don’t let the glorious white snow fool you—Sochi is Russia’s largest resort town.

Located on the Black Sea, near the border between Georgia and Russia, Sochi has a subtropical climate. A summer getaway for many Russians, the city is a favorite of President Putin himself.

“This is the warmest place ever where the Olympic Winter games have taken place,” said Valentina Zaitseva, a Sochi native and Slavic languages and literatures lecturer at the University of Washington.

Sochi poster image thanks to Keijo Knutas via Flickr. 

Sochi poster image thanks to Keijo Knutas via Flickr.

“We have banana trees, we have palm trees—the climate is very much almost like Hawaii,” she said. “And when people think of Russia, people never imagine anything like Hawaii.”

During the Soviet period, it was a resort town for the elite of the Communist party. Both Nikita Khrushchev and Joseph Stalin spent time in Sochi.

Sochi was a symbol of Stalin’s achievements, according to Glennys Young, a history professor at the University of Washington. “And, for his detractors,” she continued, Sochi was associated “with all that was the dark side of the Stalin era: the purges from 1936-1939, the Gulag, the persecution of some ethnic minorities, and violation of human rights.”

The Soviet era is not Sochi’s only dark mark. The Russian conquest of north Caucasia in 1864 has stirred controversy for centuries, prompting protests leading up to and during the Olympics.

Circassians, a largely Muslim people native to the Caucasus, used to call Sochi home, but now very few of these indigenous inhabitants remain. The site of the last battle of the war, Sochi is holy ground for Circassians.

A Circassian activist living in exile in Tbilisi, Georgia. (Photo by Alex Stonehill, August 2012)

A Circassian activist living in exile in Tbilisi, Georgia. (Photo by Alex Stonehill, August 2012)

Young says Putin was very aware of these facts in choosing Sochi to host the Winter games.

In an email, she described Sochi as “a place connected in Russians’ (and Ukrainians’) minds with the display and performance of power over the twentieth century, as well as the fragility of power.”

Not unlike Putin’s current push for control in Crimea.

Still, Zaitseyza is proud of what the Olympics did for her hometown.

“When you see that someone has put so much time and effort to achieve and show that achievement and then you see that incredible happy face, it is uplifting not only for the person who won it but also for all of us,” she said. “So, no matter what else happens, this is what will still be with us.”

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Activists chain themselves together to block deportation vans in Tacoma on Monday. (Photo by Jill Mangaliman)

Activists chain themselves together to block deportation vans in Tacoma on Monday. (Photo by Jill Mangaliman)

About 50 protesters stood in solidarity in front of the Northwest Detention Center yesterday morning, with more than a dozen of them chaining themselves together to block the traffic leaving the center’s parking lot.

It was Monday — the day of the week when the federal authorities usually send detainees from the Tacoma facility to the airport to fly them back to their countries of origin. Protesters blocked a bus and two vans holding deportees that were attempting to leave the facility.

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TJ Oshie is playing for the US Olympic hockey team this year. (Photo by sarah_connors via Flickr)

TJ Oshie is playing for the US Olympic hockey team this year. (Photo by sarah_connors via Flickr)

The United States sent 230 athletes to Sochi this year to compete in the winter Olympics. Nine of those athletes – or eight if a certain hockey star cannot be claimed – hail from the state of Washington.

That number ranks Washington as one of the top ten states to send Olympians to this year’s winter games.

Washington sent four cross-country skiers (Erik Bjornsen, Sadie Bjornsen, Brian Gregg and Torin Koos), two freestyle skiers (Patrick Deneen and Angeli VanLaanen), a luger (Christian Niccum), a speed skater (J.R. Celski) and a hockey player (T.J. Oshie).

But while sending athletes is good, everyone knows that the athletes have one thing on their minds: winning a medal. That task, so far, has proven difficult for the Washingtonians in Sochi.