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Consular Corner - November 2007

by Liam Schwartz, Esq.

Top Ten Visa Wait Times at U.S. Consular Posts

Wait times in Brazil have become temporarily unmanageable: Four U.S. consular posts in Brazil place within the Top Ten visa wait times worldwide. Caracas's reported wait times have remained motionless for many months, and one wonders whether the post is actually updating the DOS system each week. Although not in the Top Ten, the post in Chengdu reports a surge in wait times, from 10 days in October to 56 in November. Toronto wait times also rose significantly, from 8 days in October to 44 in November.

# Country US Consular Post Visa Wait Time Increase/Decrease from October 2007 Last Month Top 10 Position
1 Cuba US Interests Section Havana 724 days +16 days 1
2 Ecuador Quito 232 days -16 days 2
3 Haiti Port au Prince 200 days +20 days 3
4 Dominican Republic Santo Domingo 145 days -15 days 4
5 Venezuela Caracas 126 days 0 days 5
6 Brazil Sao Paulo 105 days +26 days 8
7 Brazil Rio De Janeiro 101 days -2 days 6
8 Jamaica Kingston 93 days New Entry New Entry
9 Brazil Brasilia 65 days -24 days 7
10 Brazil Recife 59 days New Entry New Entry
**Updated to November 1, 2007 and based on published Department of State data. The "visa wait time" is the estimated time in which individuals need to wait to obtain a nonimmigrant visa interview appointment at a given consular post.

10 Fingerscans

The increase in visa wait times at some consular posts may be partially attributable to the process of going "on-line" with 10 fingerscan collection capability. All U.S. visa-issuing posts must have this capability by the end of 2007; many posts, including the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, have already deployed this new system. A pictorial description of the new fingerprinting process (in this case, at Embassy Islamabad) can be found here:

Update: Visa Applicants with Drunk Driving Hits

Earlier this year, 9 FAM 40.11 N8.3 was updated to reflect new guidance to consular officers on the need to refer to panel physicians those visa applicants who have a single drunk driving arrest or conviction within the last three calendar years or two or more drunk driving arrests or convictions in any time period.

The following is an example of how one family perceives this new guidance is being applied in their case:

We have lived in the US for 7.5 years on an E2 visa. 3 years ago my husband was stopped for a DUI (first and only one) actually received Reckless Driving not Proven - no accident, etc.

We have recently gone back to London for our renewal and (after 2 months of waiting) were denied as he is considered a danger to American citizens/himself.

It was stupid to D&D, however, this seems very harsh as it is his only offence - not even a speeding ticket before or after. Our lawyer assured us this arrest wouldn't be a problem - but now says that London are enforcing the rules more than any other Embassy.

He is not even allowed back to the US to sell the business (valued at about $750k), homes (not easy where we live at the moment). I have just returned to the US on the VWP to try and set up someone to run the business and to try and sell everything (am I stressed - god I wish we had never moved here - however much I love it!!)

Consular Officer on Visa Interviews: Humanity at its Best and its Worst

Virtually all of our visa applicant clients need to undertake a personal interview with a U.S. consular officer. Ever wonder about the consular officer's take on the visa interview? The answer: "visa work is down and dirty":

Visa work is down and dirty, roll up your sleeves stuff. Bag 'em and tag 'em. I did 10,000 visa interviews in just over a year, and that is nothing compared to my colleagues who work in the salt mines of our visa operations - the so-called "visa mills" in Manila, Seoul, Mexico City and the like.

The truth of the matter is that consular work gives an FSO (LS: "Foreign Service Officer") so many of the skills that they will need later in life. Most important among these skills is management. FSOs are expected to manage local staff from their first moments in a consular section, no matter how junior they are..

Furthermore, I believe that there is something to be said for paying your dues when entering any organization…. FSOs sit at a small window for long hours and have to make, at 2-5 minute intervals, decisions that could have a huge influence on the lives of the people to whom they are talking, sometimes including life or death. They do this knowing that often that person on the other side of the bulletproof glass knows, and will use, every trick in the book to get to the land of opportunity.

In very few other places will you see humanity at its best and its worst. I have seen drug dealers and terrorists, beggars and rock stars, athletes and artists. I met a woman who walked with her family out of the axis of evil and waited for thirteen years to get an immigrant visa to live in the US. Putting that visa in her hand was one of the top moments I've experienced as a human being, let alone in my Foreign Service career.

The second person I ever refused a visa was a kindly woman who closely resembled my grandmother; when I refused her visa, she broke down in tears and begged me to give her a chance. Refusing her was one of the worst moments I've experienced in my Foreign Service career, and possibly in my life. Similarly, I had a woman faint right in front of me when I told her that I would not give her a visa. She just lay there on the floor, in front of God and the whole waiting room, while I stood over her and looked at her through the glass. The whole waiting room, filled with nervous applicants, stared at me. We called an ambulance, and my boss told me to keep interviewing - such is the numbers crush in our visa issuing posts.

If there is one thing I learned from all of this it is the following: I (along with all of my fellow Americans) am unbelievably lucky to have been born where I was, to have had the opportunities I've had. And there is no way that I will ever take that for granted again. As a visa officer these things are thrown into such stark relief that you can't help but notice them - they simply strike you in the face again and again. That in and of itself is worth the time spent on "the line."

Former Ambassador on Visa Interviews: "Dog's Work"

According to Former Ambassador J. Anthony Holmes:

Probably 80 percent of (Foreign Service Officers) go for their first assignment to a visa mill, where they interview 50 to 75 to 100 visa applicants every day. And that isn't transformational. I mean, that is -- you're in the trenches doing dog's work.

Diplomacy vs. War: A Quiz

Simply put, diplomats (including the folks who interview our visa clients) are sent abroad to implement U.S. policy through peaceful means. On the other hand, members of the military are sent abroad to implement U.S. policy through the barrel of a gun. The following quiz reveals a bit about our priorities:

True or false:

  1. The military has more uniformed personnel in Mississippi than the State Department has diplomats worldwide.
  2. The military has more Colonels/Navy captains than the State Department has diplomats.
  3. The military has more band members than the State Department has diplomats.
  4. The Defense Department has as many lawyers as the State Department has diplomats.
(Answers at the end of this Consular Corner)

DOS Zombies and the Security Clearance Process

The State Department's process for handling security clearances has come under severe criticism. Critics describe the security clearance system as "broken," with cases dragging on endlessly. The Department is urged to complete security clearances within a reasonable time, so as to not leave jobs and entire families in limbo.

Sound familiar? No, this time the criticism is not levied against the consular security check delays which may have kept your client away from her job, and her kids away from their school, for many months. Rather, the "beneficiaries" of this broken system are themselves Foreign Service Officers.

Take the case of Steve:

I am a career Foreign Service Officer who dedicated more than two decades to the service of this country. I was a well-respected expert in my field, promoted to the highest ranks of the service and received some of the highest awards offered by the State Department. My loyalty was impugned and my career destroyed by a newly-hired, low-ranking special agent of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, who has managed to keep my security clearance suspended for years while he conducts a so-called investigation that any ten-year-old child with a computer and access to Google could complete in minutes. I am not alone. In the past five years, dozens of FSOs have similarly fallen victim to overzealous and, in some cases, illegal acts, by newly-hired, badly-trained and poorly supervised agents of the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service.

None of us has ever been accused of any documented professional malfeasance or a criminal act. All of us continue to work in make-work jobs at the State Department while our cases continue in limbo. Prohibited from bidding on any normal job in the State Department, often prohibited from working in the field of our specialization and expertise, unable to leave until our cases are resolved, we are the zombies of the State Department, the dead men (and women) working.

Consular Officer on 214(b): A "Bad Vibes" Refusal Tool

INA 214(b) serves as the basis for most nonimmigrant visa denials. A visa is denied under this section when, for example, the consular officer believes that the applicant falls on the wrong side of the immigrant intent requirements of a specific non-immigrant visa classification.

To at least one consular officer, 214(b) should also be utilized when the visa applicant simply gives off "bad vibes":

Consular officers use 214(b) as an important anti-terrorism tool, as it is the only generic refusal that lets them say no to someone who gives off bad vibes….

Those of us who have served on the visa line would love to have stronger tools to refuse suspect cases. 214(b) is a great tool for most non-immigrant visas, but the concept (a catch-all, non-appealable refusal) needs to be extended to other categories to allow us to refuse those who give us "bad vibes," even if they haven't yet broken any laws. Remember, the "20th hijacker" was refused entry by an immigration inspector who couldn't identify anything wrong with him, but just had a funny feeling. Like it or not, that's our best defense at catching someone who intends us harm but hasn't yet committed any crimes, and our consular officers need to have more flexibility to turn those people down.

Consular Officer Salaries

The consular officers who interview our clients obviously get into this work for non-financial reasons (stuff like patriotism and a desire to serve one's country):

The average base salary of a Foreign Service Officer with 15 years experience is 88k. The FSO pension comes to about 40k a year for someone who retires with 25 years in service.

Consular Officer Assignments: Anything But Cushy

The consular officers who interview our clients have been assigned to the particular consulate by the State Department. Most of these assignments are anything but cushy:

Most assignments are two or three years in duration. Over 60 percent of them are at posts rated as being hardship assignments due to difficult living conditions (for example, violent crime, harsh climate, social isolation, unhealthy air, and/or terrorist threats). Half of those are rated as extreme hardship. There are about 700 jobs that are single-year assignments, due to the dangerous nature or very extreme hardship involved at two dozen danger pay posts including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

Thus, unlike the old stereotype seeing most Foreign Service members serving in comfortable Western European capitals, only one third of overseas posts are non-hardship -- and the majority of people at such posts are decompressing after serving at a hardship post. and

Answers to Diplomacy vs. War Quiz:
  1. True
  2. True
  3. True
  4. False (but it's close!)
Quote of the Corner:

Everyone wants to come to the U.S., not just to travel, but for business, study, family visits, and of course immigration. …. At the same time, visa issuance must become more careful than ever -- or State will share the blame for the next successful terrorist bombing. Preventing such acts is now a real national security concern.
David T. Jones, a retired senior Foreign Service officer, March 2001.

All rights reserved to the author.

About The Author

Liam Schwartz is a principal in Liam Schwartz & Associates, a corporate relocation law firm. He can be reached at:

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.