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Consular Corner: January 2008

by Liam Schwartz, Esq.

Top Ten Visa Wait Times at U.S. Consular Posts, January 2008**

The year 2008 opens with a significant reduction in wait times at some of the worst affected U.S. consular posts. Wait times in Quito dropped by 69 days; in Santo Domingo by 40 days; and in Port au Prince by 32 days. Havana aside, there are no longer any 200+ day visa wait times at any U.S. consulate. Hats off to the consular managers responsible for these dramatic improvements!

# Country US Consular Post Visa Wait Time Increase/Decrease from December 2007 Last Month Top 10 Position
1 Cuba US Interests Section Havana 725 days -1 days 1
2 Haiti Port au Prince 168 days -32 days 2
3 Ecuador Quito 163 days -69 days 3
4 Venezuela Caracas 151 days 0 days 4
5 Dominican Republic Santo Domingo 150 days -40 days 5
6 Brazil Rio de Janeiro 119 days +18 9
7 Brazil Brasilia 105 days -8 days 10
8 (tie) Brazil Recife 93 days -10 days 7
8 (tie) Brazil Sao Paulo 93 days -4 days 6
8 (tie) Jamaica Kingston 93 days 0 days 8
9 Chile Santiago 49 days -3 days New Entry
10 Canada Vancouver 48 days -2 days New Entry

**Updated to January 1, 2008 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.

2007 Visa Update Scorecard

As a result of changes since September 11, 2001, aimed at strengthening visa policies and procedures, the process for obtaining visas has become increasingly more complex. In recognition of such, the State Department has assured the American public that it is "striving to make the visa process as understandable as possible." This includes an effort "to make visa information readily available."

While its public statements are encouraging, a rather discouraging pattern has emerged.

The State Department updates the public on new visa polices and procedures by publishing the text of guidance transmitted to consular sections around the world.

  • In 2004, the State Department published 28 visa guidance updates;
  • In 2005, the State Department published 12 such updates;
  • In 2006, the State Department published 6 such updates.
  • In 2007, the State Department published a total of only 3 such updates.
Let's hope that the Department enjoys greater success in making the visa process more understandable in 2008.

Consular Crucible

According to the State Department, the talented young people applying various legal standards to our visa applicant clients are themselves being put to the test:
Visa work…. is the crucible that forges new and untested officers into strong officers. Visa adjudication helps new officers learn how to handle ambiguity, sharpens their decision-making skills, provides opportunities to cultivate emotional self-control, and teaches officers to become adept at reading people.

The U.S. Marines also have a "Crucible." There, the term refers to the final intense physical and mental tests pushing new recruits to the extent of their will, courage and confidence.

For the Marines, the Crucible lasts 54 hours. For Foreign Service Officers, the crucible is often a two year assignment to the visa line.

Sisyphus in Seoul

The physical and mental price for being one of "the Few and the Proud" of the Foreign Service cannot be underestimated:
Some of my friends have asked me why I don't talk about my job much. I tell them that they probably don't want to know, and that it's really not that interesting….People say that the best and most amusing/extraordinary stories in all of State Department work come from consular work, but in Seoul the bland, factory-like nature of the work is not even conducive to that.

Every day, a couple thousand people come to the non-immigrant visa windows here for an interview, trying to get a visa to the U.S., and the flow of applicants never slows down. The officers and the locally-hired staff work our tails off every day, often to the point of complete mental exhaustion. Each officer stands at a bank teller-like window and asks the same questions a hundred-plus times every day, getting the same half-answers ("I work for a company."), and there comes a point most days when it starts to become difficult to remember which questions you've asked of whom. In my own case, by the time it's time to go home, I have a hard time speaking any language at all, and my ability to comprehend or retain information is completely shot. I am rarely able to do anything that requires any real degree of activity or interaction with others by the time I get home.

Then, the next day, it starts all over again. You never make a dent in the flow of applicants - they just keep coming, and it's as if all the work done the previous day never happened. It's the hole dug on the beach that fills up with water just as quickly as you can empty it out, even if you expend every ounce of energy you've got in the effort. Or the rock that, just when you've finally managed to roll it to the top of the hill, always gets away from you and rolls back down again for you to start all over.
Raw and Exposed

Visa work can be exhausting:

This job -- with its constant stream of people and constant talking with no real conversational progression -- wears me down over the course of the day, so that at night I feel exposed and vulnerable and very very tired. It's as if my skin is being sloughed off with every visa I adjudicate; it leaves me raw and exposed and completely drained.
A Hardened Heart

And visa work can harden your heart:
….there are days when I get really, really frustrated and need to vent, albeit slightly. This frustration goes beyond quoting arcane reg numbers and straight to the great man's inhumanity to man category. Obviously, today was one of those days. On one of my very last interviews, I called up three women ranging from 50ish to 7ish - that is, a grandmother, her daughter, and her granddaughter (or so they claimed). After interviewing them, judging them ineligible based on the law, and giving them the denial speech about three or four times, the grandmother says to me (with the universally-standard "I implore you" look) "Forget about them, what about me, can't you just give me a Visa?" And proceeds to repeat that until Security had to push her away. Like that is going to arouse any sympathy in my already hardened heart.
He Who Smelt It…

The "crucible" of visa work for some Foreign Service Officers is in succeeding to do the job in decrepit (not to mention odorous) facilities:
The heaters (which we can't turn off) are emitting a smell not unlike a silent bout of flatulence in a small room full of close friends. Today, they kicked on while I was at the window interviewing two Brazilian applicants. As the offensive odor wafted through the little tray beneath the glass, I could see their nostrils begin to twitch. They glanced at each other, shot me a knowing look, and moved ever so slightly back from the window. "No, no; it's the heater..." I started, but as they didn't speak English…and as I don't know the Portuguese for "He who smelt it dealt it," I'm afraid they may have formed the impression that Americans eat a lot of cabbage. Luckily, just at that moment, an applicant two windows down reacted to her rejection by…kneeling on the floor, pressing her forehead to the ground, and crying out over and over "Please, I beg you!" Her awkward moment having effectively eclipsed my own, I quickly issued the couple in front of me while the guards came and dragged the unfortunate woman away. My hope is the Brazilians left talking about that and not about the smell.
Loneliness and the Long Distance FSO

The Foreign Service Officer's crucible can be one of loneliness:
I think the topic of the Foreign Service's pervasive loneliness only gets alluded to…. It happens to some of us, maybe 50% (though the number is increasing), the folks that enter the FS sans spouse/partner and, usually, young. They bring you in, assign you, and ship you off to the far corners of the world….. But if you're single, you're in for a shock - because when you get to post, you'll be in a foreign country, a foreign culture, an empty house and a life uprooted. While in Pakistan, I lived in a five bedroom house. Massive, larger than my parents home, larger than any home I had ever lived in, with servants and a driveway and oddly, no dishwasher, though it had a great kitchen otherwise. I loved it. And I hated it. It was a dream space where I could hear my voice echo, and a place that amplified the isolation of working in Pakistan, the difficulty in being alone. I'd never done it - from family to dorm, from dorm to group house, I'd always been in a space filled with the feeling of people if not their noises and the ephemera of their presence. Now, shoved in a house not meant for me, but meant for a family, the pain of being alone stabbed me, deeply. Still, the Foreign Service is a good life. The hard thing to get around is that it is not, at all, a job. It's a lifestyle, a choice one makes as much on how they want to live as where they want to live. Being this nomadic affects you, both in interacting with others at home and abroad and while sitting, at home, reading yourself to sleep after a long day of visa processing and before another, in a house that echoes…
Crucible Insanity

As with John Proctor in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," what is most important for some Foreign Service Officers at the end of a consular tour is make a stand against the insanity of the town:
I had my own police experience just before leaving Jerusalem. There was a left turn that I made almost every day when leaving the consulate to head home. Suddenly the Israelis decided there should not be a left turn there, which takes you onto a four lane road, but you should instead go straight into a one-way, one lane road. Because apparently traffic is not bad enough.

They had changed the light but not the painted arrow in the street, so I went into the turn like normal only to discover there was oncoming traffic (all legal left turns there have a turn arrow). So I stopped and the police comes running over. "You can't turn left here." "Since when?" "Since next week." "I think you mean last week, but I always turn left here." "Well, you have to go straight." I am already into the turn at this point, so going straight would mean backing up in a busy intersection, which to me seemed more dangerous than finishing my turn. So I said, "I can't, what do you want me to do." And he responded, "You have to go straight." We repeat these two sentences back and forth for about three or four verses, and in the meantime, my partner, who is also and FSO, develops terets, muttering over and over and over "F*ck you, mother f**ker" (clearly we'd been in Jerusalem too long). Finally, on my last, "I can't, what do you want me to do," the cop says, "You have to come with me." I too have dip plates and a dip card, so I responded, "No, what else would you like me to do?" And he let me make my turn!

In my and my partner's defense, insanity at the end of a Jerusalem tour is pretty common.
FSO Senioritis

The two year test of visa work can also exacerbate feelings of uncertainty:
The heat of the day is like a weight, so I take my adventures in the evening; 9:30 at night, and it still feels like biking through pineapple juice, the air forming a second skin on my body that lifts up and off whenever I coast down a hill. I find myself pedaling up slopes just to turn and rush back down them, molting the summer weather. Sated cicadas rattle the porch in their death throes, droning out an elegy for the season. Convenience store fireworks flare on every corner. My jeans stick to my knees as I pedal and pedal and pedal...

I had been warned about 'short timers disease' setting in -- this is something like the FS version of 'senioritis'. It creeps up on you slowly. It dawns on you that the time you've been here far outweighs the time you have left. Someone mentions a future event, and you realize you'll be gone before it happens. You go to see a place, and wonder if you'll ever get a chance to come back. You start to feel unsettled. You get on your bike and you pedal and pedal and pedal, but you're not really sure where you're going.
Bionic Refusal Stamp

And visa work can turn your hand to Rubber:

Your hand has been replaced by a rubber stamp. What does it say? Wait...this is the truth! It says, "Infelizmente, según a lei americana, você não califica para um visto agora mesma."

Of Visas and Cattle

Visa work can indeed be enriching:
As I was refusing an applicant today he cut me off to say that if he didn't come back to Laos after his short visit to the United States, I could take his 80 cows/buffalo, tractor, and 3 hectares of land.

I could get myself some property if I played my cards right. Alas, his promise of land and cattle wasn't enough to qualify him for a visa.
Visa Work and Motherhood

But sometimes visa work can almost turn you against motherhood itself:
I may have to rescind my membership in the leche league. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for breastfeeding. But I was reminded again today that there is a time and a place, or at least a way, to breastfeed.

For example, if you are in the middle of a visa interview, and your child starts to fuss, I think you should think twice before hiking up your shirt, fiddling around with your boob, then latching the kid on.

It's probably the 8th or 9th time I've been flashed now, not counting the pantsless kid who ran in front of my window and peed on the ground.
Visa Consuls: A Moveable Feast?

No wonder some Visa Officers seem to go out of their way to approve an application:
…One of the embassy guards reported...that a recent Hmong applicant, unsuccessful in her application for a visa, was overheard saying "when I return back to my house I will pray for my god to eat Mr. Adamson." Mr. Adamson being my boss, and the unlucky recipient of such a curse.
The More Things Change...

In 2001, the leading magazine for the federal managers and executives carried an article entitled "Rejected: The State Department's visa bureau may not be big enough or tough enough to keep terrorists out of America." Among the findings of the article were the following:
Visa processing tends to be viewed as a job for inexperienced junior officers, because it gives them a chance to practice their language skills and meet foreign citizens. Nonetheless, junior officers view visa processing as menial work. Consular affairs officers "have felt like they are forced to be working in a factory output-type situation," (former FSO John) Martin says. Recent reports by State's inspector general and outside reviews show that consular facilities in many locations are decrepit, lines for visas are long and visa officers are exhausted.
Six years later, the on-the-ground reality for officers performing visa work appears largely unchanged and greatly unappreciated.

Quote of the Corner:

God would have hated visa work.

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.