Immigration uncertainty: Topeka Gyroville owner waits in fear, hopefulness for visa approval

“What did we do wrong?”


The unanswerable question laid heavy on Topekan Nataliya Miller’s heart when it was asked by her 9-year-old granddaughter, Djannat Voskoboyeva.

The little girl, along with her three sisters, her mother, Anna Voskoboyeva, and her father, Rodion Khodnya, live in Istanbul, Turkey. They recently found out the United States had rejected their family’s visa application that would have allowed them to live and work in Topeka.

Anna is president and CEO of the new Gyroville restaurant that opened in late August on Wanamaker. Rodion is supposed to be the store manager.

Instead, the store opened without them.

Anna, Miller’s daughter, spent more than $7,000 in legal fees and invested $200,000 in the restaurant franchise to support her application for an E2, or investor’s, visa. If approved, she and her family could move to Topeka to run the business for its five-year term; barring unusual circumstances, it is renewable every five years.

But after a visa interview that, according to Anna, Rodion and their attorney, went well and appeared to be on the track toward approval, they received a form letter of rejection.

Neither Miller nor Anna can put into words what will happen if the Voskoboyevas’ reapplication, which they’re working on with California attorney Bobby Chung, who specializes in E2 visas, is rejected. Chung has told them that if the second one is denied, it is unlikely they will be able to move to the United States.

“I will go to visit them. I don’t know,” Miller said of the idea that their efforts will fail. “I try not to think about it. It makes me very sad. They won’t be able to come visit me. They can’t be here for Christmas. In Turkey, they don’t have Christmas; it’s a Muslim country. They don’t have Christmas trees there.”

Richard & Nataliya

The story of Anna and Rodion’s quest to bring their four daughters, aged 9, 5, 2 and 2 months, to the United States begins with Nataliya’s own story. She met her husband, Rick Miller, a Topeka investment adviser at T&M Financial Inc., online.

Nataliya, a Dutch citizen, traveled to the United States more than seven years ago to meet Rick. She came on the Visa Waiver Program, which means that her home country has an agreement with the United States that citizens can come into the U.S. for 90 days for tourism or business without first obtaining a visa.

As the end of that 90 days neared, Rick said, “We had to make a decision.”

“We decided we kind of liked each other,” he said, sharing a smile with Nataliya. “I had to send her back to Holland or get married. We were married Dec. 28, 2010. We had to also get an immigration attorney. We had to show that when she came here that she did not have intent to immigrate.”

They followed immigration rules, and, eventually, Nataliya received her green card and her U.S. citizenship.

Anna & Rodion

Like her mother, Anna is a Dutch citizen. Rodion is a Russian citizen. The two met when Nataliya and Anna lived in the Netherlands.

Rodion was visiting friends and family; his mother lives in Belgium. Anna and Rodion fell in love and eventually moved to Turkey. They also converted to Islam, surprising Nataliya, who is Christian and raised her daughter in that religion.

Anna and Rodion haven’t completely left their Christian backgrounds behind.

“They both come from Christian families. They have many Christian friends. They celebrate Christmas,” Rick said. “They absolutely do not subscribe to any kind of a radical Islamic group. They abhor violence. Here we have people that don’t drink, don’t smoke, that are very humble.”

But it was Anna’s seven trips to the United States that may have drawn attention at the U.S. immigration office, Rick said.

Five of the trips, which began in 2012, were to visit Nataliya at Christmas. In 2015, Anna came to the country to have her third child, now 2 years old, in the United States. The last trip in December 2016 combined holiday celebrations with training for Anna at Gyroville’s Florida headquarters for franchisee and restaurant training.

Troubles begin

Looking back, Rick and Nataliya believe the first sign of Anna’s visa troubles may have appeared in 2014.

At the time, when Anna traveled to the United States, she began being pulled aside for what Rick calls the 4S’s. It stands for the Secondary Security Screening Selection, which is when individuals traveling are subjected to a more thorough security screening.

Then more trouble. After a 2016 trip, Anna’s travels to the United States came to an abrupt halt. A March letter said she was no longer approved to participate in the Visa Waiver Program, even though her Dutch citizenship had qualified her for it previously.

Like many parts of the visa process, there was no explanation for why Anna was suddenly under closer scrutiny or why she would no longer be able to travel on the waiver program other than the idea her frequent trips may have raised red flags.

Anna filed a redress form, which is a way of asking why did this happen and could I have been mistakenly put on a list, Rick said.

“The form letter they send you back is ‘We can’t verify you’re on the list, but we’ve checked it out and if there’s something wrong, then we’ve corrected it, but we can’t tell you if we have or not,’” Rick said.

Rick shared that letter from July 20 and more than 275 pages of Anna’s visa filings with The Capital-Journal. The Department of Homeland Security letter said when a redress request is made, officially called the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, or TRIP, DHS thoroughly investigates to see what is causing the problem.

The letter said complaints most often arise because the traveler’s name and personal information is similar to another person’s information in the system.

“DHS has researched and completed our review of your case,” the letter said. “DHS TRIP can neither confirm nor deny any information about you which may be within federal watchlists or reveal any law enforcement sensitive information. However, we have made any corrections to records that our inquiries determined were necessary, including, as appropriate, notations that may assist in avoiding incidents of misidentification.”

It happens

A misidentification of names does sometimes occur, said Anna’s attorney Chung, who has been working as an immigration attorney with a specialization in E2 visas for 17 years.

“Usually when that happens, there would be evidence, there would be signs of that happening,” he said. “During her numerous trips to the United States, if it was really that type of problem that she’s being flagged as a terrorist or criminal or security threat, they would stop her at the airport. Every single time she has been allowed in and departed on time.”

But Anna’s entire case has been unusual, even “suspicious,” Chung said.

When Anna’s visa waiver privileges were revoked, she applied for a tourist visa and that too was denied.

“Before she applied for the investor visa (the E2), she applied for a tourist visa; they didn’t give it to her, but said go ahead and apply for the investor visa,” Chung said, adding that they were told if the investor visa “looks good, we should be fine.”

“If she was flagged a a security threat, for example, it wouldn’t make sense for the visa and the USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) office to say we can’t give you a tourist visa right now, but go ahead,” he said.

The powerlessness of the process is difficult. When the Visa Waiver Program was canceled, the family struggled to understand why.

“One of the things we’ve understood is the (President Donald) Trump administration does not like the Visa Waiver Program because people are coming here without any kind of visa interview,” he added.

The E2 visa

Anna, Rick and Chung all said the E2 visa interview held by officials with Anna and Rodion went smoothly, and left them hopeful.

Chung, who has worked many of these cases, said it typically is positive that at the end of the interview, the officer took Anna and Rodion’s passports. But the end result was not typical, he said emphatically.

“After the interview, the likelihood is that they’re going to approve the visa,” he said. “They’ll keep the passport because upon approval, they will stamp the visa into the passport. If the interview goes bad, they will go ahead and return the passport. The fact that they kept her passport and said, ‘We just need to do some background checks and we’ll notify you,’ was very, very encouraging. Under the great majority of circumstances, you’re likely going to get the approval. I was encouraged with the result.”

Anna and Rodion, who were interviewed via Skype, said they repeatedly checked online after their visa interview to see their status. Finally, they received an email to pick up their passports at a post office.

“So my husband went to the post office,” Anna began when Rodion interjected, “Four post offices.”

“They said ‘No, it’s not here, you have to go to another post office,’” Anna agreed. “Quickly, he went to another post office and then to another one. Finally he gets this envelope, he opens the first one to see — because he didn’t want to come home and open it at home, he was so (excited). He opened the envelope there and he sees this note, and he was in shock because this was the same refusal letter, the same what you get when you apply for a tourist visa.

“Then he opened another envelope and all four envelopes was the same note,” Anna said. “We had the ticket booked already.”

Rick said they booked the airplane tickets when they were notified the passports were ready for pickup; luckily, they had a 24-hour cancellation window.

The form letter said Anna doesn’t have strong enough ties to her home country. For Chung, though, it seems as if there must be another underlying reason because the E2 visa manual specifically says they don’t have to have strong home country ties.

The E2 visa is a nonimmigrant visa, meaning the individual applying can’t intend to immigrate permanently to the country. Anna invested twice that.

“All you normally have to do is sign an affidavit of nonimmigrant intent,” Ricks said. “The visa manual says for the visa officers that an E2 visa holder is expected to relocate to the United States and they don’t have to maintain strong ties to Turkey or strong ties to their home country.”

Wrecked hopes

The family can’t appeal the decision. They are working with Chung to reapply and expect to do so in the next few weeks.

They hope their new application, which shows, among other things, that Anna owns property in Europe and has no intent to permanently immigrate, will be successful.

They are fearful of antagonizing the visa officers, whose decisions aren’t reviewable by the courts.

“It’s Congress and the United States that have been given the authority to grant foreigners access, to issue visas,” Rick said. “This does not come under the jurisdiction of the court system.”

Chung is worried, Rick said.

“He’s dragging his feet on getting the second one submitted until he feels like we’ve addressed every possible reason they have,” Rick said.

As Anna, Rodion and their four daughters await a decision, Nataliya and Rick have found their lives completely derailed by the situation.

Nataliya is in an accelerated nursing program working four days a week in school clinicals. Three days a week, she’s at Gyroville putting in 14-hour days. Although she is a 50 percent owner of the restaurant with Anna, she never intended to have anything to do with day-to-day operations. Anna is president and CEO, and Rodion is store manager.

Rick has spent so much time with research and working with Chung to get things organized that he’s months behind in his financial investment business, he said.

“It has been a genuine hardship. Nataliya, I barely get to see her at all anymore,” he said.

“When I come home, he’s sleeping and he’s leaving, I’m sleeping,” Nataliya said.

Anna and Rodion wait.

Rodion, who has a background in restaurant management, is able to watch the Gyroville operations online from cameras installed in the Topeka business.

“Rodion has been very helpful because he is now our security monitoring person,” Rick joked.

“I just watch every night,” Rodion agreed, sheepish, and Anna chimes in, “He watches everybody.”

“He’s driving me crazy sending me messages,” Nataliya said. “This person doesn’t wear glove, working with food, no gloves.”

“I don’t know their names, but I know every person, how they work,” Rodion said and Anna pointed out that he has a list of rules for when he comes.

Underlying their seemingly normal, joking conversation is fear.

Anna and Rodion’s children call Nataliya boba, and they keep asking to see her, even flitting across the Skype computer screen singing, “Boba, boba, boba.”

They ask if she will keep their fish.

“I bought fish,” Nataliya explained. “I was preparing that they are coming. Now I have to feed these fish every day, twice a day.”

What will happen if the second visa is denied?

“I don’t know. You ask me this and I have … we already made so many plans,” Anna said. “I don’t know what happens next.”