Consular Corner - December 2007
Top Ten Visa Wait Times at U.S. Consular Posts
Updated to December 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.
2 x 5 = Enhanced Security?
Depending on the consular post, temporary increases in visa wait times could be related to the new ten fingerscan procedure. But what is the purpose of the new procedure? According to one NIV (Non-immigrant Visa) Officer, the calculations behind the procedure might be a bit fuzzy:
So, now we're going from 2 prints required for a visa application, to 10 prints required for a visa application. I can imagine the conversation that led to this decision: "Hey, if two prints makes us secure, TEN prints will make us FIVE TIMES as secure!" "Yeah, yeah -- that's good! Constituents love security!"
So, does fingerprinting visa applicants make us more secure? Hard to say. 'Security' is one of those words that is used to mean so many things, it ends up meaning nothing. Same with 'terrorism'. You have to work to really pin down what the person is trying to signify. Just how would you go about quantifying security? When is one able to say, "Yes, I am, in fact, secure."? I can say that fingerprinting applicants is an excellent way to catch visa fraud. But I'm not so sure that 10 prints instead of 2 prints will make catching visa fraud 5 times as likely.
Retinal scans, however... that's where the REAL money is. Write your congressmen.
2 x 1 = Enhanced Communications?
The two fingerscan procedure has not been without its own frustrations. Take for example, this interchange between a Japanese visa applicant and a Japanese-speaking visa consul:
"Good Morning, first I'd like to take your fingerprints. Would that be alright?"
"If you'll just put your left index finger on the red light..."
"[. . .]"
"Ma'am, your LEFT index finger..."
"Uh, I... I English, no..."
"You don't speak English?"
[Emphatic head shaking]
"Oh, that's too bad. If only you spoke English, we could talk to each other."
"[. . .]"
"I speak Japanese; I'm speaking to you in Japanese."
"Now, can you put your left index finger on the light? And then your right? Okay, thank you. So, a student visa. What's your major?"
"[. . .]"
Visa Officers: The Infantry of the Foreign Service
Foreign service officers, like the ones interviewing your visa clients, are essentially civilians placed on the front lines (this is literally true in places like Iraq and Afghanistan). One visa consul describes the situation as follows:
I genuinely enjoy work, although the visa load every day is fairly crushing, both in terms of the time it takes to adjudicate 100+ visas and the amount of time it leaves for longer-term projects…. Among Foreign Service officers, I think we style ourselves the infantry of the Foreign Service, on the ground and on the front lines. 
Parenthetically, this "front lines" imagery is reinforced by the State Department itself:
Consular officers serving at over 200 embassies and consulates around the world that adjudicate visa applications serve on the front lines of the global war on terror. Since the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, we have undertaken a top-to-bottom review of visa procedures to ensure that we have in place as strong a shield as possible against those who would do us harm.
Consular Work: A Loss of Innocence
To truly understand the context in which your clients' visa applications are adjudicated, consider the brain-numbing/heart-wrenching nature of day-to-day visa work:
I'm on the consular line here in New Delhi. I'll be doing two years of consular work here, along with my colleagues. We each adjudicate around 100 visa applications each day, and it's simultaneously boring and heart-wrenching. Today, I had to decide whether or not to let a woman travel to the U.S. to see her dying mother, who has been diagnosed with liver cancer and is deteriorating rapidly. Unfortunately for the poor woman who was applying, this is a very common story and one that is more often than not fraudulent.
She actually came to my window yesterday for the first time. She barely spoke a word, and was softly crying as I read her application form. While she seemed genuinely heartbroken, her supporting documentation was thin at best. After some conversation (a combination of English and patchwork Hindi), I asked her to come back with more information from the hospital in the States. She protested that her mother was dying, the holidays were upon us, and she needed to get her visa quickly before the Embassy closed.
Without going into details, suffice it to say that there were many reasons to suspect fraud in her case. But lo and behold today she showed up again, still silent, still crying, and with much more detailed paperwork from the hospital. It was very sad to read about her mother's condition in the report, but it seemed clearly real. (NB: Next time, I'm going to cut to the chase and just call the hospital to verify facts...) After some more questioning I approved the visa. Because we were closing early today and won't open again until next Tuesday, I asked her to wait in the lobby while we did some emergency visa production work.
Here's the best/worst part. Her brother (or cousin?) accompanied her, and he is an American citizen. He came up to me afterward and told me he was an Amcit and that I had made the right decision, he knew I was concerned about fraud, etc. etc. I said thanks and shut the blinds on my window (it was the last case of the day, of course!). I went to a late lunch, and when I came back, someone came up to me and handed me a hand-written letter. The brother had come looking for me again, to give me a thank-you letter, telling me again that I had made the right decision, and that he was proud to be part of a country that judged people with feeling, etc. The letter was very nice, and it was great to get. But at the same time, it just made me more nervous that this woman had pulled the wool over my eyes.
In talking to colleagues, there were many suggestions (Call the hospital! being the most sensible one) and many more stories of heart-breaking stories that were ultimately false. I think I will never know if this woman came right back to India or if she overstayed her visa. Heck, maybe her mother actually lives around the corner and is fine, or maybe she's in the hospital but is doing fine, or maybe she really is sick. It's a little like being in a David Mamet play, like House of Games or Spanish Prisoner (not like Glenn Garry Glen Ross, thank goodness).
My gut says she's going to the US and will return, but I'll be interested to see what it says in 6 months if I get a similar case. I guess the moral of the story is to see the best in people, but call the hospital!
I think the main thing for me, beyond the fraud / no fraud question, is that the cumulative effect of these cases is that they are changing my worldview. They really hit me in the gut after a while. After realizing that someone could be crying (quite convincingly) at my window AND be completely fraudulent, it starts to mess with my view of people, even outside of work. I don't think I'm naturally cut out to be a police inspector, who always doubts (at least initially) seemingly genuine emotions, but sometimes that's necessary here. Ah, the loss of innocence... 
The visa officer who wrote the above account may deny your client's visa application - but overall, aren't you proud to have people like this as part of the "shield against those who would do us harm?"
The "crushing, front-line" nature of visa work is also expressed in the following description from the consular post in Chennai, India:
Non-immigrant visas are pretty much the name of the game here. Chennai is far and away the #1 issuer in the world of non-immigrant visas for workers in specialty occupations (H1B visas) and intra-company transfer visas for specialized knowledge professionals (L1 visas), and the demand is only growing. Said another way, all those computer folks Thomas Friedman and everyone else talks about are coming from India, and most from Southern India. It is a crushing load, honestly, and the people in Chennai are on the front lines. Sometimes it feels like you're on the Starship Enterprise, a floating outpost thousands of miles from the mother ship. The Chennai section gets cases no one else gets, by the hundreds, and as a result they have a work culture that feels slightly insular and definitely battle-tested.
BTW, Captain Kirk undoubtedly provided the employees of the Starship Enterprise a healthier work environment than the one provided to employees in the Chennai visa section:
The only unpleasant part, really, of working in Chennai was that they have an astoundingly bad mold/mildew problem… I was bowled over by the air quality. You can see black streaks coming from the air vents and there are veins of mold on some of the walls and ceilings. Yikes! In many places, you can also see where they have "solved" the problem by painting over the mold. Hmm, perhaps not the best long-term solution, eh? I hate feeling fragile, but they have got to do something about the air quality there.
Visa Work: Psychologically Draining
The "crushing, front-line" nature of visa work is probably the primary reason why some in the immigration bar often find it impossible to get a response to a client matter from a visa officer:
It's strange: if I were doing this work in any other capacity, I would have quit a long time ago. To have a job that is so psychologically draining it makes me turn down sidestreets, leave letters unopened, delete unread emails, and switch off the ringer on my phone all to avoid interacting even with people I consider friends is ridiculous. To be sent to another country to do one more year of work for which I'm so wildly unsuited reaches sublime levels of absurdity. But it's stupid to consider other options. I don't want to leave the Foreign Service I just want to push back my chair from the proverbial visa table and declare 'I'm full'.
No wonder I wake up every morning wanting to punch the sun in the face. It's hard facing two more years of this -- two more years of always feeling crowded, edgy, and exhausted.
Visa Work: I Feel Evil for Feeling Resentful
It's not just the brain-numbing/heart-wrenching nature of visa work which weighs heavily on the mind of the visa officer who may be handling your client's application; it can also be a perceived lack of support from the folks back in Washington. Take the example of one consular officer who submitted a bid to the Department of State, which included the following top dozen proposed assignments:
Each of these is a 2-year tour…Key to section abbreviations: GSO = management, i.e. real estate, motorpool, repairs and maintenance, logistics; POL = political work, i.e. your stereotypical diplomat; ECON = almost like political work but focused more on economics - also kind of a stereotypical diplomat; CONS = consular work, i.e. visas, visas, visas (like I'm doing now), and dealing with U.S. citizens who get into various situations abroad. You'll note that I specifically avoided bidding on any 2-year consular tours at all, no matter how nice the location might be, because the job really does not suit me.
What they gave me:
Kingston, Jamaica, CONS, Sept 2008
No, it was not on my list. I hadn't even considered it as an option for my list…. I'm, um, not elated.
This is the second time in a row that something similar has happened to me in the assignments process, and I can't help but compare my experience unfavorably with that of most of my colleagues. I feel evil for feeling resentful, but every time the assignments people try to tell me about "equity" (this being based exclusively on the perceived hardship of where you are, not whether it was a job or place you wanted), I want to throw things. 
Visa Work: Happy People
If you're lucky, your client will be interviewed by a visa officer who is still elated with his position. In fact, you might want to consider Bangkok before it's too late…
I'd like to highlight the most amazing thing about my first day of work at the consular section in Bangkok: people here are happy! I mean, actually happy! Not glum, not dour, not resentful and worn-down-looking, not concentrating on their ailments, trials and tribulations. They smile. Spontaneously, not only in response to a compliment or some ironic statement. And this applies to the officers as well as the locally-hired staff. And it even applies to the visa applicants, even when they don't end up qualifying for a visa. It is so refreshing. And I think (at least I hope) it might be contagious. 
Visa Work Rocks
It's not just the new kids on the visa line- even veteran visa officers can still enjoy their jobs:
Not to fret -- there are some people who really enjoy visa work. I have one friend in particular who is having the time of his life in Tokyo, on his second consular tour. And if you're good at consular work, and can stay upbeat, you will be a veritable rockstar in the FS world. One of the most dynamic people in all of the State Department right now is the head of Consular Affairs. 
Maura Harty Resigns
Regrettably, this "most dynamic" person heading Consular Affairs won't be around for much longer:
To my Consular colleagues:
I want to tell you all that I intend to resign from my position as Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs effective at the end of February 2008. Based on my discussions with the Bureau of Human Resources and the Under Secretary for Management, I expect to retire from the Foreign Service shortly thereafter. I have so enjoyed working with the CA family, and family we are. It has been the privilege of a lifetime. I greatly appreciate your professionalism and dedication and friendship and I will never stop being proud of each and every one of you…CA's strength is derived from each and every one of you and I look forward to our continued efforts over the next several months.
The Bureau of Consular Affairs
New Visa Officers: You Spend a Lot of Time Feeling Stupid
The following may help inform your next approach to a consular officer who's dropped the ball on your client's visa application:
It's amusing seeing all of our reactions to a new consular officer on the line. Everyone has advice to confer, wisdom to impart, opinions to offer... One of the frustrations of this job is feeling you should be an expert when you're not; few things are more humiliating than having to turn and ask an FSN for clarification of some part of the FAM at the window, or being informed by a lawyer (or applicant!) that you've completely overlooked some section of the law. You spend a lot of your time feeling stupid. So when someone new arrives full of questions, how wonderful to suddenly be able to display a certain level of expertise, even if it seldom amounts to more than, "Ah, well to enter remarks in a case, try pushing this button..." (self-assured applause all around).
Visa Work: The Goal Here is Not to be Martyrs
The crush of visa work on consular officers places a crunch on our ability to obtain expedited consideration of client visa applications in times of need. In making your next request for an emergency visa appointment on behalf of a client, factor in the possibility that the attitude of the war-weary NIV Chief may be "No need for drama - it's just a visa":
There's a local coffee chain I go to every so often, just down the street from the consulate. They become really packed during the lunch hour. People get frazzled, particularly the counter staff. At 12:30 you could always spot the manager sweating behind the register, glasses slightly askew, rumpled hair and uniform conveying a low-level stress that bordered on mild panic. His tension radiated out over the entire store. As a customer, you felt the only proper response to the pressure was to slap money on the counter as you hurriedly uttered your order, then grab the coffee they thrust at you as you were veritably pushed out the door by the other people in line. A rather stressful environment.
But on my last visit, I realized they'd had a change in management. The store is still every bit as packed, but this new manager is unflappable. I watched as he smilingly but firmly told a disappointed customer that they were out of what she wanted, and smoothly suggested something else. Taking orders and making change, this new manager was efficient, yet unrushed. The line might be long, but he's not panicked or harried. And why? Because... it's just coffee. No need for all the drama. The staff is calmer; the customers are more relaxed.
This man is my hero.
So on Friday, when the Consular Chief came to me asking about the backlog, wanting to know when we'd up the numbers... I told him we'd do it when we were ready…. Because the goal here is not to be martyrs. And because we're working very hard with the resources we have, more than meeting the '100 interviews per officer per day' guidelines of the State Department…. I'd rather brag about how well we managed ourselves than how back-breakingly high our numbers were. And because you know what: it's just visas. No need for all the drama.
Honestly, I'm doing about 140-160 a day as it is. If State wanted no backlog, they shouldn't have arranged for us to be two officers short and one guy in training during peak visa season.
People can wait a bit. So you get your visa next week instead of tomorrow. No big deal.
Being an NIV officer is rather akin to being an ER doctor: long stretches of routine, boredom-inducing tasks, punctuated by only occasional moments of actual four-alarm emergency. The temptation in situations like that is to turn everything into an emergency, since you're told to be constantly ready for one. I'm merely advocating that only those cases that really do require heightened adrenaline rush receive it. Or, to go back to my coffee store analogy, don't turn:
If this is a bureaucratic mindset, well, then so be it.
We have already asked for more resources. They are not forthcoming. And I'm not going to sacrifice the people here to the flaws in the system…
War Stories from the Front
If the consular officer with whom you're discussing a client case seems a bit unfocused, she may still be recuperating from some other lawyer's case. Consider the following real-life account:
My friend S. has been on the consular line for about 6 or 8 months now… an applicant kept telling her that he needed to go to the US to rescue his ex-girlfriend from her parents. He kept saying that he knew if he could just see her one more time, she would follow him back to India. He knew she was being trapped by her parents' mind control. S. was a little disturbed by his voice, the way he was so insistent. She told him that he couldn't issue him a visa unless he had something else to show her. At this, he said that yes, he did have something else. She asked 'what?', and he slid a piece of paper through the window opening. Then she saw it was a letter professing his absolute sincerity and his love for his girlfriend - written in his own blood. (Needless to say, she dropped it immediately, reached for the hand sanitizer, and denied his visa.)
If this isn't enough, try the following:
An applicant said he needed to go to the US for an operation. S. asked why, as India has many excellent hospitals, all much less expensive than those in the US. He said, well, it just isn't working. What isn't working, she asked? This isn't working, he said, and he popped his eyeball out of his socket. It bounced once and rolled right under the window. As she jumped back, she said, Sir - it's never going to work if you keep doing that. (Then she grabbed the hand sanitizer, and you know the rest...) 
PS: Next time a client mentions that there were antibacterial moist towelettes at the interview window, you'll know they weren't really placed there to assist the fingerscanning process…
At the Consulates
According to Jeffrey S. Tunis, Consular Chief, U.S. Consulate Toronto:
… an experienced consular officer will transfer out in mid December. We expect a newly arrived officer to be up to speed in 4 weeks. As before, we remain short of visa officers, with 3 officers devoted to all but investor (E) visas and 1 officer responsible mainly for E visas. Another new consular officer who was scheduled to arrive here in 2008 resigned from the government. Washington is working to find a replacement for spring 2008. 
Wendy P. Lyle, a Chinese American citizen of Taiwan origin, will be the first consul general at the new U.S. consulate general in Wuhan, China. The new post is set to open for business in February 2008. The consulate general will serve Hubei, Hunan, Henan and Jiangxi provinces.
Jerusalem is a consulate in crisis. While the problems associated with staffing gaps are understandable, the post's inability to adjudicate E visa requests filed last Spring - and its refusal to engage in any meaningful communications with attorneys and, it seems, the Visa Office as well - are discouraging. The following is one of the only communications which have made it out of the walls of the consulate:
We are replyig to your inquiy. Furthermore, we are looking into your inquiry and will repond to you as soon as possible. Thank you for your patience.
nonimmigrant visa Unit
Perhaps the processing delays wouldn't be nearly so annoying if the post's rare communications weren't so ungrammatical.
How To Communicate With Consular Officers (Not)
No, I did not send this letter to Jerusalem:
Yesterday, while plowing through a number of letters, I came across one that is easily in my personal top ten, 15 pages of cacophonous poetry, strange spellings, and haphazardly placed bolds. At one point, I wondered if I was the one who had forgotten basic English - crazy though the letter was, there was consistency there somewhere. Just as I was mentally composing an equally unintelligible response, I read the coup de grace. To wit: "If you have the NERVE and your answer is anything but 'Yes we agree, you get what you want' then Don't bother writing back I don't want that anyway it's clogging my mailbox the lies the bugs the bugs."
My answer was not yes, so I walked the letter back to the shredder. I was a little sad to see it go, honestly. Another piece of great found art, lost. 
Quote of the Corner:
From an NIV Officer:
Visa Line Rule One:
If the answer won't influence your decision, don't ask the question.
Visa Line Rule Two:
If an applicant's circumstances haven't changed since her last visa interview, the result of this interview won't change either. 
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