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Consular Corner: February 2008

by Liam Schwartz, Esq.

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

The significant reductions in visa wait times continued in February 2008. Visa wait times in Santo Domingo have now dropped 68 days this year. Port au Prince has reduced its wait times by 43 days during the past two months. The Brazilian posts continue their steady, impressive reductions. This welcome trend in wait times speaks tons about the skills of the managers of the individual consular posts.

# Country US Consular Post Visa Wait Time Increase/Decrease from January 2008 Last Month Top 10 Position
1 Cuba US Interests Section Havana 725 days 0 days 1
2 Haiti Port au Prince 157 days -11 days 2
3 Ecuador Quito 134 days -29 days 3
4 Dominican Republic Santo Domingo 122 days -28 days 5
5 Venezuela Caracas 119 days -32 days 4
6 Brazil Rio de Janeiro 92 days -27 days 6
7 Jamaica Kingston 91 days -2 days 8 (tie)
8 Brazil Recife 89 days -4 days 8 (tie)
9 Brazil Sao Paulo 87 days -6 days 8 (tie)
10 Brazil Brasilia 69 days -36 days 7
**Updated to February 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.

Visa Officers: Brains, Common Sense and Intestinal Fortitude

The following description of the job of the visa officer is given by Cornelius D. ("Dick") Scully III, once known as "Mr. Visa Office."

Officers in the field are commissioned…to act as sensible human officers, not as bureaucrats, but people with brains and common sense.

The visa function... is very challenging in several respects…You are dealing with people's lives, and you are making decisions that affect people's lives very, very directly. Life and death. Futures turn on individual decisions in this business.

One of the fundamental problems with visa work is that most things are gray, and that requires a great deal of intestinal fortitude to day after day after day make decisions that you can't quantifiably guarantee are right.
Visa Work: No Perfection

Dick Scully's description fits in well with that of another visa line veteran, Allen W. Otto:
Sometimes you're right, sometimes you're wrong. There is no perfection in this line of work.
Any Idiot Can Deny a Visa

The "real job" of the visa officer is described by one Foreign Service Officer as follows:
Like most of my colleagues, I began my Foreign Service career with a consular tour. In order to prepare me, I was trained at the Foreign Service Institute, in the consular course. It was two decades ago, but I still remember the teacher's admonition at the end of the course. "Any idiot can deny a visa," he said. "You were not hired for that. Your job is to issue visas to each and every person who is legitimately qualified to receive one. That requires judgment, skill and the ability to interpret evidence in the context of laws. That is why the Government hired you."

When I was a consular officer, I refused nearly fifty percent of the applicants I interviewed. I identified fraudulent documents, entered documented bad cases into the lookout, and even arranged for a couple of people who presented fake passports to be arrested when they left the Embassy.

I kept the bad guys out.

But I never forgot that my job, my real job, was to let the good guys in.
Amazing Visa Journey

The consular officer who interviewed Arnel Pineda, a native of the Philippines, obviously agreed that he was not hired to deny visas - but rather to let the good guys in. As a result, Arnel Pineda is now the newest member and lead singer of the rock band Journey. The amazing story of how he received his visa, by belting out "Wheels in the Sky" in the U.S. Visa Section in Manila, is described below by the adjudicating officer:
Months ago a band shows up at my window. It was Lemons and Oranges, or something fruity….I asked about their music; looked at their posters, CDs, etc. At the end of the interview, they were saying, "come out and see our show tonight." I says, "I can't take any free tickets yada yada yada but maybe I'll pop in."

It was a Friday. I went with two LES. We got a table, ordered some beer, fried chicken and so on. The opening band comes on. They were called "Zoo"-- this I'm sure of, since I'm from Kalamazoo, the name stuck. The Zoo starts rocking out to 70/80s tunes…But the coup de grace was indisputably when they busted out Journey. I mean, the singer was not just good--95% of all Filipinos are good singers--he was really dern good. I couldn't shut up about it. I was telling anyone who would listen, "Dude, not only does this guy have pipes, and range, he's got perfect pitch. He has only missed a few notes on some of the hardest power ballads in schlock n roll history." The LES grudgingly agreed, but they've been desensitized to the regular displays of amazing karaoke you get in Manila, so maybe they were just humoring me.

The next week I'm sitting at an NIV window next to an officer name Singer. Singer and I were doing FMJs and so we would trade off regular NIV applicants occassionally so that we got fair share of student visas. I hear Singer say, "Journey? The band Journey?" He flips through papers. He sounds unhappy.

I butt in: "What's that all about?"

He turns off his mic and looks over at me. "I don't know. This guys says he's going to try out for Journey."

I'm puzzled. "Journey? The band Journey?"

Singer goes, "That's what I just said, [EXPLETIVE]!"

"Great, another nutjob. I'll take it." Singer takes my student, I take the nutjob.

I look over his stuff and say "purpose of travel?" and all that. I start to scrutinize more carefully and realize its the guy I saw from the night before.

"Hey, does your band play at Bagaberde?.. ."

He confirms and he goes on to tell me the story of how he uploaded some clips of his band that he recorded to YouTube and contacted Journey's manager, having heard they were looking for a new singer. He says they called him up and invited him to the U.S. to try out. Given the malarkey you get at a Manila NIV window, this story only got points for being original. He produced some flimsy emails and letters, etc.

So I go, in my best dubious voice, "Yeah? let's hear Wheels in the Sky!"

He belts it out for the whole waiting room and for the staff to hear (I made sure to take off my headset and let the speaker play it because what I was really doing was covering my butt).

I said, "Look sir, there isn't a person in this Embassy who would believe that story-- going to try out for Journey!-- not a soul would believe that. Except for me. I saw you sing last Friday and I couldn't shut up about how your vocals were perfect Steve Perry.

So I tell you what. I'm giving you that visa. You're going to try out. And you're going to make it...."

And the rest is rock n roll history, my friends
Parenthetically, an interesting description of the "Rock and Roll Fairytale" in which Journey discovered Arnel Pineda can be found here:

Can the Visa Function be Manipulated?

Above and beyond these visa line "war stories," consular officers may be subject to more sinister forces. Can a visa officer be pressured by her superiors as to the manner in which she exercises the discretionary visa powers demanded by her job? Let's hope and pray that in 2008, the answer is a resounding "no." But it's definitely happened before….

Allan W. Otto served in the consular section in Warsaw in the mid-1970's. As he describes it, in an interview with another State Department veteran, William D. Morgan, junior officers came under great pressure to balance the requirements of the law (and in particular 214[(b]) with political pressure being brought to bear by Washington:
AWO: When I went on direct transfer to Warsaw, the refusal rate at the time was pretty high, as I remember. I'm pretty sure it was over 50%. When I got back to Washington on home leave…the people in the Department in the Visa Office came down on me pretty heavy. They said, "When you go back, you've got to tell those folks that if they're going to refuse people under 214-B...they have to give us more than just generalities, because we're coming under exceedingly heavy pressure."

During that time seven Congressmen wrote to the Secretary of State and accused the Department -- well, accused the Embassy in Warsaw, and the Consular Section in particular, of being prejudiced against Poles, because of the numbers of people who were being refused non-immigrant visas and rights to visit their relatives in the United States. So before I left, I stopped by, and they hit upon me again, making sure that I knew that this was serious business, etc.

When I got back to Warsaw, I talked to the fellow who was the chief of the visa section and said, "You're probably already aware that this has happened and that several Congressmen from several districts that had large Polish- American constituents asked to meet with the Secretary. I think they probably wanted to meet with the Secretary but they probably wound up meeting with Deputy Under Secretary for Management Eagleburger at the time….The chief of the visa section talked with post management, and they decided to pursue a somewhat less restrictive, non-immigrant visa policy. The result was that the refusal rate dropped. I think that by the time that the refusal rate got down to somewhere between 20 and 30%, the pressure was off.

…it was quite clear, from the feedback that we were getting from the Immigration Service that the people who were going, were largely going to work….It was illegal. They were violating their status.

But we also found that if you kept the refusal rate in the 20 to 30% range, you might have complaints and problems, but you never were accused of being anti-Polish.

WDM: You're talking about a balancing act…The political pressure builds up from constituents, and the visa officers have to be aware of this political pressure…You also have what is not in the law but very much there, and that is, regarding immigration and non-immigrant matters, the pressure of Congress and other groups devolves upon, often a young officer, to balance off his or her decisions, compared to the political realities. Holding to the law as much as possible but also trying to figure out how to live under that without having the full weight of Congressional disapproval come down on his or her head.

AWO: I think that when the seven Congressmen wrote to the Secretary of State, claiming that the Consular Section was discriminating against Poles, the people involved decided that the refusal rate would have to come down. It sounds like a managed refusal rate, but once it got to 20 to 30%, the basic...There were still people who would write their Congressman, but for some reason it was not a political problem.
The Enemy from Above

Consular officers obviously need the kind of intestinal fortitude described by Dick Scully to withstand the pressures placed on their decision-making authorities. William D. Morgan described the pressure placed on visa officers from above as follows:
Out in the field you almost get the feeling that the Visa Office is the enemy. When you're trying to issue visas, the Visa Office is saying, "No, you're refusing too many, and why did you do this or that?"
Bright Line Tests and Slimy Applicants

Indeed, the visa process appears to become tainted whenever consular superiors attempt to persuade visa officers to balance their visa decisions against some other perceived greater good. Take the case of Robert O. Olsen, who came under great pressure to adhere to bright-line tests meant to increase production rates at the U.S. visa section in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Olsen refused - and in 1993 was dismissed from the Foreign Service.

Specifically, Olsen was fired for failing to adhere to visa manuals issued by his superiors in Sao Paulo, which encouraged consular officers to dismiss out of hand the applications of people who were of the "wrong" skin color or ethnic background.

According to the New York Times:
Mr. Olsen entered the Foreign Service in 1992. His first overseas post was Sao Paulo. He said that he was startled after arriving when he was handed a five-page manual for new visa officers that listed ''general guidelines on how to handle selected visa cases.''

The manual encouraged consular officers to use abbreviations in reviewing applicants: ''RK = Rich kid, LP = Looks poor, TP = Talks poor, LR = Looks rough, TC = Take care.''

It encouraged special care with applicants of Chinese or Korean descent because of past visa fraud. ''Major fraud; hard to check,'' the manual said of Chinese and Korean applicants. ''Visas are rarely issued to these groups unless they have had previous visas and are older.''
The Times gives the following example of one visa applicant in Sao Paulo:
Jose Bayeux, a 24-year-old technician in Brazil, said he wanted to travel to Miami and Disney World for a vacation in 1994. He applied for a tourist visa at the United States Consulate in Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city. ''Slimy looking,'' an American diplomat wrote on the visa form, denying Mr. Bayeux's application. ''Wears jacket on shoulders w/earring.''
According to the Times:
Mr. Olsen said he refused to follow the guidelines, believing the profiles to be racist. ''I thought this was wholesale discrimination against applicants based on skin color and where they came from,'' he said.

He quickly ran into trouble….one of his supervisors advised him to spend only about three minutes on each applicant interview, and to double his rate of visa denials, to 30 percent from 15 percent, by making use of the profiles.

Mr. Olsen continued to balk at using the profiles and on Dec. 6, 1993, he was told he was being dismissed.
The State Department gave the reason for Mr. Olsen's dismissal as:
Poor work performance - specifically, for failure to adjudicate visa applications with the requisite speed and good judgment required by the job"
The State Department was eventually ordered to reinstate Mr. Olsen, with back-pay.

Pressure and the 9/11 Hijackers

And let's not forget the political pressure to speedily provide nationals of Saudi Arabian nationals with visas, which led to introduction of the Visa Express program in May of 2001.

According to the State Department (at the time), under the Saudi Arabian Visa Express Program:
"Applicants will no longer have to take time off from work, no longer have to wait in long lines under the hot sun and in crowded waiting rooms, and no longer be limited by any time constraints."
The Visa Express program allowed Saudi Arabian citizens to obtain visas through a travel agency, without having to appear in person or submit to extensive background checks. As such, it essentially negated the prerogative of consular officers to carefully examine individual visa applications.

15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. According to one source:
"The consular official who issued 10 of the visas to the 9/11 terrorists has said that she would not have granted the visas if not for pressure from her supervisors within the State Department."
Copies of the DS-156 forms of six of the Saudi 9/11 hijackers can be found here:

Have a look at these extremely sloppy visa applications and consider: Can a consular officer's discretionary visa powers still - today - be influenced by pressure from above?

The Visa Process: What Price Integrity?

One former FSO neatly sums up why FSOs need to think twice before compromising their visa decisions in the face of pressure from above:
When we enter the Service, all we have is our honor and our integrity and we shouldn't have to compromise it just because we're in the Foreign Service."
John Treacy, former FSO at the U.S. Embassy in Dublin who in 1994 drew retribution for criticizing the decision to issue a visa to Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein.

Consular Officers and Flag-Waving Americans

While many of us attorneys occasionally have issues with consular officers, the following account shows that they are indeed a special kind of public servant:
I am the child of immigrants who came to the USA because, in the words of my father, "it is the only country in the world." That 's right, that's not a typo, "the only country in the world." To him, the rest of the world is just occupied space (NB: Britain and Australia get passing marks because of their roles in WWII, and, besides, they produced Churchill, Thatcher, Murdoc, and Howard; Israel is OK, too, because it is pro-US and whacks the Arab regimes.) Even as the shadows lengthen and his days draw visibly to an end, he shudders at the thought of living or dying anywhere else. He flies the flag from his balcony and gets angry at anybody who says anything negative about the USA. He particularly resents native-born Americans who knock the USA or who claim that some other "country" is better. When in his presence, PLEASE do not mention Germany, France, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Jimmy Carter, Jane Fonda, Michael Moore, or just about anybody else from Hollywood or the Democratic Party, the party to which he once belonged and fervently supported -- McGovern drove him away from the Dems and he never returned. He came to America very poor, and will die very wealthy. He is extremely grateful for all that America allowed him to do and become.

For many years in the Foreign Service -- my way to pay back America -- I worked on immigration issues. I worked as a visa officer in some VERY tough places where the visa pressure was immense: people would do almost anything to get a visa to the USA, failing that they would try to go anyhow. We had to deal with widespread corruption and crime (including vast smuggling rings and murder.) That experience, and my upbringing, turned me into a hawk on immigration and on the need to keep these folks out. I bought into the argument that our economy now was different than it was fifty some years ago, that we no longer needed immigrants, and, most importantly, that new breed of immigrant was somehow not the same as the old one; that new immigrants could not become Americans the way the old ones did. America needed to be protected from these new would-be residents.

In other words, I made the mistake that I see many of my conservative friends making: I underestimated the still enormous ability of America to turn immigrants into flag-waving Americans, willing to work hard and even fight and die for their new country. We have ignored one of the truly great things about America and why despite all the fashionable talk about our "low standing" in the world we still serve as a magnet for an amazing variety of people. Unlike in most European countries, for example, where immigrants face great difficulties assimilating, immigrants in the USA, and most certainly their children, have a better than excellent chance of becoming Americans, and not just in the blue passport sense, but full-fledged citizens who buy into the American ethos and get accepted by the wider society.

Where I now live, I work with large numbers of immigrants, many of them new immigrants. They love America as much as any of the old immigrants. They are not here for the welfare, they are here to work and ensure that their children will have good lives in America. I also work with the amazing US military; no other military in the world can come close to ours. One of the amazing things about that military is the large number of immigrants (and Puerto Ricans) we have in the ranks -- and they are not in there for the money. These guys and gals love the US military, and love and are willing to die for the USA. A large number have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and willingly would and will do so again. They have immense pride in wearing the uniform and serving the flag.

We are the least racist and xenophobic country around, and that is a source of great strength for us. Despite again fashionable talk of this being the "Chinese century," people do not emigrate to China. Chinese culture and socio-political values have no universal appeal. Who wants the Chinese way of life? People in Latin America or Africa do not die to become Chinese citizens, nor do they want to become Japanese or Indian or (fill in the blank.) If we remain true to our founding ideals, this century will remain an American century precisely because of the universal appeal of America.
Son Mentirosos?

It's obvious that some consular officers also occasionally have issues with us attorneys:
Day in and day out I work at a visa window interviewing Colombians to see if they're qualified to come to the US. I was interviewing a teenage girl, who was accompanied by her mom, who wanted to go to the US to study English. So I was speaking to her in English to test her ability. At one point I asked her in English what her parents did for a living. She responded, "They're liars." I was shocked and immediately thought she was ratting out her parents or maybe she had been kidnapped or something. So I responded, "They're liars?!" And she said, "Yes, they're liars." To which I said, "Son mentirosos?" (They're liars?) She started laughing and said, "No, son abogados." (No, they're lawyers.) I started laughing and said, "Well, there's really not much difference is there."
Quote of the Corner
People who think, "Okay, the boss is an idiot and I'll just do my thing," eventually wind up finding out that you can't get your thing done because everybody else thinks your boss is an idiot.

Dick Scully, speaking of his former boss, Assistant Secretary of State Joan Clark
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.