US Consul Kim Atkinson: We Look Forward to Bulgaria's Joining US Visa-Waiver Program
Interview with Kim Atkinson, a consul at the Consular Section of the US Embassy in Sofia, for the Bulgaria-US Survey of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency)
Bulgaria's has been looking forward to becoming included in the US Visa Waiver Program – for visa-free travel. How far along would you say that Bulgaria is in that process?
This is an issue that obviously comes from time to time – and one the Ambassador has addressed and I know that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has addressed on some bilateral visits to the United States.
The answer is – we look forward to the day that Bulgaria joins the US Visa Waiver Program. The criteria for joining are actually set by the US Congress. It's quite technical and there are a number of aspects to it; it is very comprehensive.
I understand that Bulgaria is working on signing the security agreement and I know this has actually been in the works for a number of years. But as far as actual admission into the program – once all the criteria are met, Bulgaria will be eligible to join. When that's going to happen – it is hard to say.
How much of a concern is really illegal immigration from Bulgaria to the US?
To my knowledge, illegal immigration is not a major concern. Again, you have to go and look at all the criteria. There is one aspect of the many different criteria, which deals with overstay rates in the United States, and that might be a better description of what you mean by illegal immigration.
Bulgaria in general is quite good with this. I believe the criteria to be at 6% or less – overstay – for a minimum of 12 consecutive months. Bulgaria is below that threshold, and so they do need this one aspect of the many different criteria. I would not describe illegal immigration as the thing that's holding Bulgaria back. That's not it.
What are the challenges in your consular work here in Sofia? What is specific about Bulgaria with respect to granting access of its citizens to the US?
Visas are adjudicated on basis of the Immigration and Nationality Act, and this is world-wide. So when it comes to one country compared to another, there is no change. I can go to Brazil or Argentina, or any other country, and my work is going to be consistently the same because the law that visa adjudications are based on, is world-wide.
One specific thing that is interesting about Bulgaria is the US World and Travel Program. The Summer Work and Travel program is quite popular in Bulgaria, and I believe you are the fifth largest in the region, which includes all of Europe including Russia – for sending students to the USA.
Last year we sent about 6000 students to the USA. It is a very popular program. We just a survey of those students coming back, and overwhelmingly the students had a very positive experience. 95% came back and said they had a very positive experience. Which we are very glad to hear because it is very important to us when students go on this kinds of programs that work in jobs that are meaningful – where they can earn money, or where they can practice their English and they can have contact with the average Americans and they can travel.
That is the whole point of the program. We do these kinds of surveys to make sure the program is meeting its goals and that the students aren't in any kind of way going to the US and working 60 hours a week, and not being paid. We don't tolerate that at all. So I was very happy to see that the vast majority of the students achieved what they wanted to. It is a great program.
What are the trends that you see in issuing visas to business travelers here in Sofia?
There are some positive emerging trends that we are seeing right now – during the economic crisis our numbers dropped considerably because people simply did not have money to travel, businesses didn't have money to send their employees to the USA. This trend was 12 to 18 months.
Every single month we saw drops in our numbers. In the last 3-4 months it's been increasing, a very positive sign. So we are seeing the travel start opening up again. More people are traveling for business, which is excellent. That means that the trade relations between our two countries are strong and are growing, and the economies are moving again.
As far as business travelers go, what we offer is next day availability for appointments. If somebody is not able to get an appointment on time for their travel, they just send us an email, and ask for expedited appointment. We expedite them almost always. Business travel is very important to us. We facilitate that travel to the best of our ability, and we do it quite well, I have to say.
Typically, visas are issued for 10 years. I think the issuance rate for the 10-year visas is 92% of everyone who gets a visa. Which is very nice because then they don't have to come to the Embassy again and again. Then after their visa expires, they simply mail to us their passport and application, and they can renew it through the mail. It is a really nice service that we have, and that's for tourism, for business travel, even for students.
As far as tourism goes, a number of our applicants are traveling for the purposes of tourism but the vast majority are going to visit family.
What we saw in Bulgaria during the early part of the decade – 2000-2002 – was a large wave of immigration to the USA. The main vehicle for this immigration was the Diversity Visa Program, which was very popular in Bulgaria during that time.
We were issuing around 2500 visas a year based on that program. So what we are now seeing is that these immigrants who went, are inviting their family members to visit them, they are naturalizing as American citizens, and they are petition their other relatives to visit and live with them.
What we see now is a lot of Bulgarian family members are going to visit their relatives that emigrated to the USA about 10 years ago. I would say that's the typical client that we see.
As far as our immigrant visa trends, we've seen a dramatic drop in the use of the diversity visa. In fact, last year we issued 700. So compared to 3500 we were doing 10 years ago, 700 is relatively low.
What do you think are the reasons for this change?
Bulgarians now have many more options. The other interesting emerging trend is that a lot of the Bulgarians who emigrated and then naturalized are coming back to Bulgaria. So while we are seeing decreasing numbers of immigrant visas for Bulgarians, we are seeing increasing numbers in American citizens' services because they left as Bulgarians, they are coming back as Americans but they still need our services. It is really interesting to see how our work load is shifting.
What kinds of issues are a matter of your attention when servicing American citizens in Bulgaria?
American citizens' services – this is where we really get interesting work. Visa adjudications are quite routine but American citizens' services can become quite complex. A lot of Bulgarians are returning, and they come back and need services like collecting their social security checks because they've worked in the US system, they earned points, and now they are eligible for social security.
Our Embassy is the main contact for that. We receive and distribute the checks. If they have issues, they come and talk to us. That's booming business for us – the social security payments.
Another aspect is that these Bulgarian American citizens come back and they have children and they need to register those children as Americans because now they can transmit their citizenship. We get babies all the time. I think we get at least 5-10 babies a week. The parents naturalized in the US, came back to Bulgaria because they want to live by their family, the babies are born, and they want to live by their grandparents so they come here and register them as American citizens.
So we do booming business with social security payments, and then babies. So we are clearly seeing those emerging trends, and then, clearly passport renewals.
How many Bulgarian-Americans have seen move back to Bulgaria in general?
We don't have precise numbers because not everybody comes to us. People who come to register with us do it voluntarily. It's not mandatory. Most of my information is anecdotal, that is, these people come with a certain issue to ask us what to do. What I can tell you is that we have about 3000 Americans registered with us that reside in Bulgaria. It is safe to say that probably more than half are dual nationals that have come back.
Based on the number of student visas that you issue, have you seen a declined interest on part of Bulgarian students in studying in the USA?
I think that the interest is still there, but I also think that there are more options now. One thing I hear consistently is that it is less expensive to study in the EU than it is in the USA. Those students who manage to get scholarship do go to US institutions. But for many, many Bulgarian students, the EU offers a less expensive education. This is one aspect I know that the Department of State has been looking at – how do we provide more affordable education for foreign students who want to study in the USA.
How have you personally adapted to living in Bulgaria?
I like being in Bulgaria. I really do. I joined the Department of State in 2003 and Bulgaria was No. 1 on my bid list. I have always been interested in Bulgaria. Why? In Colorado, where I was going to graduate school, I met a Bulgarian family who won the DV, and they told me about Bulgaria, they gave me a little bottle of rose oil, and I just became fascinated with Bulgaria. So I always wanted to come here. The Department of State sent me to Argentina, and I was devastated, and then to Nicaragua. On the third try I made it to Bulgaria. I really enjoy being here. It is a fantastic country.
What do you see as being so great about Bulgaria?
I like outdoor activities. I love hiking on Vitosha on the weekends. It is very nice. My family skis, hikes, camps. We love going to the seaside. As a country, Bulgaria is quite beautiful, and there is a lot to enjoy here.
I find the people to be very nice. They are very curious, and they always want to talk to me, and they ask me, "What are you doing here?" But I find them very nice and they are always interested in what I am doing.
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