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Consular Corner: July 2008

by Liam Schwartz

The men and women interviewing our visa clients at U.S. consular posts are among America's best and brightest young professionals. From time to time, this column will "introduce" the reader to these consular officers in the format of ten question interviews. The hope is that these introductions will promote our understanding of the visa application process, and enhance our appreciation for the work performed by these officers.

We begin these interviews with Matthew E. Keene, whose intelligence and passion reflect the qualities shared by many of the young professionals charged with carrying out the visa application process.

Note: the two regular features of this column (consular quiz and visa wait times) follow, below.

Ten Questions With: Matthew E. Keene Deputy Consul and chief of the Nonimmigrant Visa Unit U.S. Embassy, Sofia, Bulgaria

LS: What motivated you to join the Foreign Service?

MEK: I'd love to tell you patriotism and a sense of honor and duty, but truth is I stumbled onto the career by accident. As a liberal arts major with dubious job prospects, the Foreign Service seemed like a really unique way to utilize the sort of odd combination I possessed of intangible intellectual abilities and the storehouse of knowledge I'd collected that I thought might only ever be useful as a "Jeopardy!" contestant. It actually turned out to be a very good fit.

LS: What are the indicia of a healthy consular section?

MEK: Good management controls; accurate application of immigration law uniformly applied across interview windows; outstanding customer service in the visa unit; efficient, effective, compassionate service to American citizens; good morale and a feeling by every employee that what they're doing really matters.

LS: What is the most important "Do" for attorneys representing clients in the visa application process?

MEK: Be courteous when interacting with consular officers and keep the conversation on any visa case focused on the law. In my experience, correspondence sometimes gets unnecessarily complicated when attorneys are particularly confrontational and from time to time condescending with consular officers. Avoid that trap; good communication facilitates speedy resolutions. As consular officers, we welcome any additional information that will better inform an adjudication. What we don't enjoy is getting into long, repetitive arguments about the reasons for a refusal, particularly when those arguments turn personal.

LS: What is the most important "Don't" for attorneys representing clients in the visa application process?

MEK: As an attorney, much of the information you have comes from your client. Be cognizant that your client may not be telling you everything, and that you may be occasionally be blindsided by a very unpleasant secret that he/she "failed" to mention when retaining you, let's say, something that may result in a visa ineligibility! Keep in mind that we at DOS have much more expansive access to databases than we did pre-9/11, so there isn't much we don't know about previous travel history. DON'T get into an argument with a consular officer about the facts of a potential ineligibility until you've had the chance to sit down again with your client and get the facts as he/she has them. Finally, once you've got a final adjudication based on an accurate interpretation of law (whether or not you agree with the final decision), DON'T continue to pound away. As you know, in many cases, visa adjudications involve discretion on the part of the adjudicating officer. Respect that.

LS: What was the last book you read?

MEK: Well, with small kids, I haven't had time to finish one in awhile. On my short list for this summer's vacation reading: "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (already started this one); The Israel Lobby & U.S. Foreign Policy, The God Delusion.

LS: What has been the single best improvement to the visa application process in recent years?

MEK: From the applicant's perspective, much faster processing of security advisory opinions. From the officer's perspective, a more robust Consular Consolidated Database including IDENT, FR and IAFIS. It sure helps to have information up front instead of post-adjudication. Every post now has access to ADIS now, too, so step-by-step, we're reducing the amount of guesswork involved in an NIV adjudication.

LS: What advice do you have for new consular officers beginning their first rotation on the visa line?

MEK: First, every day you will issue people who will remain in the U.S. illegally and refuse people who would have honored the terms of a visa. Get over it right now. You're not omniscient. You're a human being. We pay you for your good judgment. Second, don't refuse an applicant just because he's been refused before. Take a fresh look at every case. That previous decision may have been a bad one, and your applicant deserves a fair hearing every time he applies.

LS: If you could make any change to U.S. immigration law, what would it be?

MEK: Without getting specific, tweaking the qualification requirements for some types of visas. 214(b) doesn't fit very well with several visa categories. In my humble opinion, other visa categories need to be re-examined because of their susceptibility to abuse and fraud. In many of these, particularly petition-based visas, a consular officer often has no choice but to issue even though he knows something is amiss, since the adjudicatory authority lies with DHS. It can be very frustrating.

LS: What was the most rewarding visa case you've been involved with?

MEK: There isn't a single case that jumps immediately to mind. As an interviewing officer, you're constantly aware of the dramatic impact your decisions can have on lives. Any case that gets a child medical treatment that will save his life is rewarding. It's always a good feeling, too, when you've issued a visa to someone who's been refused 4 times before, to discover that they went and came after 3 weeks - just like they said they would.

LS: If you weren't in the Foreign Service, what would you be doing today?

MEK: Ideally, I'd be playing second base for the Philadelphia Phillies. Realistically, I'd probably be teaching social studis in a high school somewhere.

Dancing in the Rain

While Mr. Keene represents the finest of our consular officers overseas, perhaps no one better exemplifies Americans back home than Karen. 45 years old, Karen is a single mother struggling to raise three kids in Rockland County, N.Y. Her house is being foreclosed, she can't afford to fill up the car tank, and she fears an imminent lay-off from her job.

She has weathered it through tough times, she says, because Boy George has been an inspiration, has given her strength of spirit. He has, according to Karen, taught her to "dance in the rain."

But Boy George has been refused a visa, and his summer 2008 concert tour of the U.S. has been cancelled. Boy George's tour was "the one thing I had to look forward to…it would have given me just a bit of joy, of happiness - and now the State Department has taken it away."

Karen's situation conjures up thoughts of Bruce Springsteen in "Nebraska":

"Stuck me kinda funny, funny, yeah, indeed, how at the end of every hard-earned day people find some reason to believe."

Current U.S. visa policy is not working for Karen. And when you get down to it, our visa policy can only really be successful if Karen and Americans like her perceive this policy as protecting - and not taking away - their reason to believe.

Karen's moving plea can be found here:

Living Diplomacy

It takes extraordinary courage and integrity for a foreign service officer to admit to a loss of her own "reason to believe":

"I've waited so long to write this post, I find I don't know where to begin. I turned in my resignation this week. Officially, I resigned last month, but the paperwork required to get out of a bureaucracy is as bad as it is to get in. I don't think Secretary Rice is going to be shedding any tears over my loss and in fact, it frees up a spot for someone who really truly wants to represent their country overseas.

This was the most difficult decision I've ever made. After ten years, this job has become who I am. It's not as if I've been bringing work home. It's that work is home. We live diplomacy. Our friends are diplomats. Everything we do is what country we're assigned to. When September 11 happened, I was in Africa. Africans provided solace and other American diplomats provided the tiny circle of grieving. That night I watched French television broadcast the same shot of planes and buildings over and over with a woman who I am friends with, was friends with, will always be friends with in part because she sat with me and shared my shock. She has since left the Service also, and I'm sure is happier for it. When I scrubbed Anthrax from the walls of our little mailroom in a bright green bio-hazard suit, identified a friend three days in the river in a hot African morgue, hid under my desk as molotov cocktails shattered on the walls and flames licked American flags, I took those feelings home, assuming I'd be better for it.

But here's the bottom line: I'm not better for it, I'm worse. I left for DC ten and a half years ago energetic, normal-sized, happy. All the Foreign Service has given me is weight, pain, bruises in my mind, heart and soul. I've spent half that time trying to get myself back; to find the woman I recognize in the mirror and convince her to stay. When I stopped getting glimpses of her, I knew it was time to go.

Sometime this summer, I'll have my last day. I don't know when it will be yet. I don't have a job, although I'm working very, very hard to get one. I'm sure that wherever that job is, I'll find a missing person: me."

Are You Smarter Than A Junior Consular Officer?

1. Name two consular posts in the European/Eurasian region which appear on the State Department's list of "historically difficult to staff posts."

2. The Consular Officer has denied your client's visa request after informing him that additional information or documentation is required; what are the statutory grounds for visa ineligibility?

(a) Section 214(b)
(b) Section 212(a)
(c) Section 221(g)

3. On average, what percentage of visa applicants are refused by U.S. consular posts world-wide?

4. Canadian citizens are required to apply for which of the following nonimmigrant visas?

(a) Treaty traders (E-1)
(b) Foreign government officials (A)
(c) Intracompany Transferees (L-1)
(d) All of the above
(e) None of the above

5. A consular officer bidding for a post in Africa might consider:

(a) Port Au Prince
(b) Port Louis
(c) Port Moresby
(d) Port of Spain

6. A visa applicant submitting a Note Verbale is most likely to be applying for what visa classification?

(a) A-1
(b) E-2
(c) K-3

7. In order to be eligible for E visas, applicants from which treaty country must actually and permanently reside in that country?

(a) Australia
(b) France
(c) Japan
(d) South Korea
(e) United Kingdom

8. In reviewing your client's nonimmigrant visa stamp, you notice that the code "FNU" is placed in one of the fields; what does this code indicate about your client?

9. The automated system used to determine the eligibility of visitors to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program is called:

(a) ESTA
(b) No-Fly List
(c) WHTI

10. One of the three visa types is "R" ("Regular"). What are the other two visa types?

11. What nonimmigrant visa category is designed to afford legal status for victims of domestic violence?

12. Who was the first U.S. Secretary of State? (Come on, you know this!)

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

Two posts in China join the Top Ten list for the first time. Wait times at Brasilia, Brazil plummeted from 106 days to only 35 in the past month. Havana remains static for the third consecutive month, and with wait times consistently exceeding two years, one wonders whether at this point they are even bothering to update the system.

# Country US Consular Post Visa Wait Time Increase/Decrease from June 2008 Last Month Top 10 Position
1 Cuba US Interests Section Havana 769 days 0 day 1
2 Venezuela Caracas 160 days +15 days 2
3 Haiti Port au Prince 100 days -25 days 3
4 (tie) Dominican Republic Santo Domingo 85 days +1day 8
4 (tie) Saudi Arabia Riyadh 85 days +1 day 8
5 Brazil Sao Paulo 77 days -15 7
6 Brazil Rio de Janeiro 65 days +27 days New listing
7 Brazil Recife 64 days -31 days 6
8 Germany Frankfurt 57 days +32 days New listing
9 China Shanghai 56 days -2 days New listing
10 China Beijing 54 days +4 days New listing

**Updated to July 7, 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.

Top Wait Times by Region:

The Americas (excluding Cuba) Venezuela/Caracas (160 days)

Middle East and North Africa Saudi Arabia/Riyadh(85 days)

Europe and Eurasia Germany/Frankfurt (57 days)

East Asia and Pacific China/Shanghai (56 days)

Africa Kenya/Nairobi (41 days)

Central and South Asia India/Kolkata (21 days)

Answers to "Are You Smarter Than A Junior Consular Officer?"

1. Baku , Banja Luka , Chisinau, Minsk, Podgorica, Pristina, Tbilisi, Tirana, Vladivostok , Yekaterinburg, Yerevan
2. (c)
3. 25%
4. (d)
5. (b)
6. (a)
7. (e)
8. First Name Unknown
9. (a)
10. "O" ("Official") and "D" ("Diplomatic")
11. The "U" visa category
12. Thomas Jefferson

Quote of the Corner

"I think precious few consular officers agree with our law or think that it's the finest law there is. I personally think our immigration laws are one of the most convoluted, nonsensical laws that I've ever seen. But if you're going to take on the responsibility for administering it, then you've got to administer it. You don't have the luxury of picking and choosing which parts of the law you will uphold or which parts you will close one eye to; you just have got to go with it." Ambassador Elizabeth Raspolic,+Elizabeth)

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.