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Consular Corner: September 2008

by Liam Schwartz

Ten Questions With:
Charles J. Jess
Consular Section Chief
U.S. Consulate General Shanghai, China

We're honored to present the third in a series of interviews introducing the reader to the people who run and manage the visa application process. This month's interview is with Charles J. Jess, Consular Officer and Renaissance Man.

Charles Jess is the consular section chief at the U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai. Prior to his August 2006 arrival in Shanghai, he served as the senior desk officer for Vietnam. Before that, he served for two years as the deputy director of the Population Office in the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. A career foreign service officer since 1989, Mr. Jess also served as U.S. consul to Western Australia and as U.S. consul to Laos, following consular and administrative positions at U.S. embassies in Bangkok and Tokyo.

Mr. Jess previously taught secondary mathematics, both domestically in the U.S. (Maryland, Georgia, and California) and overseas (Nepal, Indonesia, and Bolivia). He graduated from Duke University in 1972, received his master's degree from Emory University in 1976, and did further post-graduate study in mathematics education and human problem-solving at Stanford University in the late 1970s. His foreign languages include Mandarin Chinese, Thai, Lao, Spanish, and Nepalese.

A violinist and singer, Mr. Jess enjoys all types of music, especially the blues. During a January 2008 trip to Tanzania where he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with his son, Mr. Jess rediscovered his singing voice and later recorded a song called "Serengeti Sky" that "came to him in a flash of desperation." He hopes that more will follow.

Liam Schwartz: You trained professionally in mathematics education. What was the impetus for your decision to become a Foreign Service Officer?

Charles J. Jess: My background in human problem solving served me well at the time I decided to join the Foreign Service in the late 1980's. I had already lived overseas for several years by this time (teaching at international schools in Nepal, Indonesia, and Bolivia) and had grown accustomed to moving every few years, learning new languages and trying to assimilate into new cultures. In trying to solve the problem: "How can I best continue with this lifestyle in a different line of work?" I came up with the Foreign Service as a solution.

LS: How difficult is it for someone with advanced training in higher-order cognitive processes to adjust to visa work?

CJJ: It's not a difficult adjustment, but it does take a shift in perception. Just like many other first-tour officers who try to avoid making mistakes, I wanted to make sure that I got my adjudications right, and I often spent way too much time agonizing over visa decisions. It took a couple of months before I learned to trust my gut instincts and follow an inductive line of reasoning that would help me determine if my initial read of the case was correct. That's a very different skill than using formulas and deductive logic to arrive at a solution to a math problem, although there are similarities in the overall problem-solving process.

LS: What advice do you have for young visa officers in dealing with the e-mails/faxes/letters/phone calls from congressional offices, attorneys and other sources, wondering why some cousin/client/friend/lover/co-worker has been denied a visa?

CJJ: I would urge entry-level officers to treat others the same way they would like to be treated when seeking information. My advice would be to answer the correspondence in a timely and humane fashion and try to provide the inquirer with some rationale (beyond a FAM citation) for why the case was refused.

LS: What tips do you have for immigration attorneys, seeking to communicate with consular officers already hassled by inquiries from congressional offices, attorneys and others, to resolve a valid issue relating to an individual visa case?

CJJ: The golden rule rules. I would emphasize that consular officers are, contrary to popular opinion, human and therefore capable of making errors. If a valid issue needs to be raised, I would also remind the attorneys that quoting legal precedents is not a terribly effective way of getting an officer to change her/his decision.

LS: Someone once said that learning Chinese is "a five-year lesson in humility." How do you ensure that your visa officers are sufficiently proficient in Chinese in order to conduct meaningful visa interviews and carry out effective anti-fraud activities?

CJJ: Before a newly arrived visa officer does her/his first interview or goes on an initial fraud investigation in Shanghai, we have them participate in a 40-hour one-on-one consular language training module (with a native speaker) that attempts to integrate the structures of the Chinese language they have learned with the interviewing techniques and consular-specific vocabulary that they will use on the line. The officer and the language instructor sit behind an experienced adjudicator and observe the conduct of the interview, the questions asked, and the decisions made. Then they go back into our consular conference room and privately discuss the gist of the interview they have just observed, and enact a similar role play. In this way, we not only facilitate the officers' effectiveness on the visa line but also boost their self-confidence regarding their language usage.

LS: How can immigration attorneys best contribute to an effective visa application process?

CJJ: I feel that attorneys can best contribute to the process by ensuring that their clients' applications are complete and accurate, and that the applicants are well-prepared to give straightforward answers to basic who, what, when, where, why types of questions. You would be surprised at how many applicants appear at their interviews unprepared to respond to the kinds of questions that line officers need to make informed decisions.

LS: Transformational diplomacy, introduced in 2006, shifted the focus of our foreign policy to Asia and the Middle East. Have you seen an impact on the visa application process at Asian posts as a result of this shift in focus?

CJJ: I can't really speak for all Asian posts. But for me as a consular manager in Shanghai, the most noticeable impact of transformational diplomacy is the fact that in the past two years, the Department has responded to Shanghai's calls for additional consular staff by authorizing several new non-immigrant visa (NIV) adjudicating officer positions and locally engaged staff positions. Combining these additional resources with improvements we made to the application process and workflow has resulted in better service for our customers and significant reductions in appointment wait times.

LS: Shanghai indicated last year that it already had reached visa- adjudicating capacity because it cannot add any more interviewing windows in the current space, and construction on a new consulate will not begin until 2009. Still, visa demand continues to grow. What can you do on an individual post level to deal with this situation?

CJJ: As I mentioned, we were successful in making the case for additional resources, reconfigured the consular waiting room and adjusted our workflow to make more efficient use of our space and time. We will likely have to move our American Citizen Services Unit (currently co-located with the NIV Unit) to a new location by the end of CY-2009 so that we can use all of our current space to cope with the constant growth in our visa workload.

LS: As a singer and recorded songwriter, what music do you find most appropriately captures the essence of the visa application process?

CJJ: For successful visa applicants, it might be Schiller's "Ode to Joy" or the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. For those dealing with rejection, I would choose a traditional blues, maybe T-Bone Walker's classic song "Mean Old World" or Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row".

LS: You have studied advanced mathematics; mastered superhard foreign languages; climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro; and represented our country on global issues of major importance. Heck, you even play the violin. Aren't you a hard act to follow for the young officers toiling on the visa line today?

CJJ: Not at all! The officers coming into the Foreign Service today are terrific - they're whip smart, extremely talented and highly motivated, and it is my great honor to be leading the consular team in Shanghai. I'm proud not only of the results that together we have achieved in the efficient provision of services, but of the contributions I may have made to each officer's individual development as they pursue careers in the Foreign Service.

Are You Smarter Than A Junior Consular Officer?

This month's consular quiz:

1) Nationals of which countries are eligible for H-1B1 visas?

2) Which country had the highest B visa refusal rate in FY 2007?

a) Bangladesh
b) Cuba
c) Georgia
d) Nepal
e) Yemen

3) CIS has approved an H-1B petition for new employment commencing October 1st. How many days in advance of this date may consular posts issue H-1B visas to qualified applicants?

a) 30 days
b) 60 days
c) 90 days
d) 120 days
e) No limitation

4) How many days prior to the October 1st start-date may an individual, who has been issued an H-1B visa for new employment, use the visa to apply for entry to the U.S.?

a) 10 days
b) 30 days
c) No limitation

5) Which two U.S. consular posts now require all nonimmigrant visa applicants to first enroll at an off-site Applicant Service Center to be photographed, provide fingerprints and present documents, prior to their scheduled visa interview appointment?

6) How many U.S. consular posts are in Mexico?

a) 4
b) 8
c) 10
d) 12
e) 15

7) What is the location of the Department of State's permanent Immigrant Visa processing facility?

a) The Kentucky Consular Center
b) The National Visa Center
c) The Office of Visa Services

8) What is the maximum period of stay for R nonimmigrants?

a) 3
b) 4
c) 5
d) 7
e) There is no limitation.

9) Which are there more of: consular officials or immigration attorneys?

10) Which one of the following activities is usually appropriate for members of the foreign media, admitted to the U.S. with a media (I) visa?

a) Taking a vacation in the U.S.
b) Reporting on sports events.
c) Writing stories involving reality television shows.
d) Producing documentaries involving staged recreations with actors.
e) Public speaking where an honorarium is paid.

11) According to the FAM, what is the "primary responsibility" of consular officers in visa adjudication?

12) In 1780, William Palfrey became the first American Consul General sent abroad; to which country was he posted?

a) Canada
b) Cuba
c) England
d) France
e) Mexico

U.S. Consulate Istanbul: Where Birds Don't Fly

From Thomas Friedman:

"If we ever run out of room to store our gold in Fort Knox, I know just the place to put it: the new U.S. Consulate in Istanbul. It looks just like Fort Knox - without the charm.

The U.S. Consulate used to be in the heart of the city, where it was easy for Turks to pop in for a visa or to use the library. For security reasons, though, it was recently moved 45 minutes away to the outskirts of Istanbul, on a bluff overlooking the Bosporus -- surrounded by a tall wall. The new consulate looks like a maximum-security prison. All that's missing is a moat with alligators and a sign that says: "Attention! You are now approaching a U.S. Consulate. Any sudden movement and you will be shot. All visitors welcome."

But here's the stone cold truth: A lot of U.S. diplomats are probably alive today because they moved into this fortress. One of the captured terrorists involved in the Nov. 20 attack on the British Consulate in Istanbul -- which was just a short walk from the old U.S. Consulate -- reportedly told Turkish police that his group was interested in blowing up the new U.S. Consulate, but when they cased the place they found it was so secure "they don't let birds fly" there.

This is where we've come to after two decades of anti-U.S. terrorism and 9/11: The cops are now in charge -- not the diplomats. As one U.S. diplomat in Europe put it to me, ''The upside is that we are more secure, the downside is you lose the human contact and it makes it way harder to have interactions with people who are not part of the elite. It makes my job less fun. [Some days] you might as well be in Cleveland, looking at the world through a bulletproof plate glass window.''

Some of our embassies have such a Crusader castle look, they're actually becoming tourist sites. Fuat Ozbekli, a Turkish industrialist, told me: ''I was just on a tour to Amman and we stopped our tourist van in front of the U.S. Embassy there. We asked the guide why they need all these tanks around it, and the guy told us that within this American Embassy they have everything they need so they can survive without going outside . . . I felt really sorry for the Americans there.''

It's not just the brick walls that our embassies are now putting up that are increasing American isolation. Beginning next year, in order to get a visa to the U.S., you will have to come to the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate and be fingerprinted first. Some European diplomats have already started warning their American counterparts not to expect them in the U.S. anytime soon -- if they have to submit to fingerprinting.

U.S. diplomats understand the security reasons for this. But, they note, it is really awkward to call up a Turkish writer or a Chinese dissident, extend an invitation to come to America on a State Department exchange program, and then say: ''But first you have to come into the embassy and get fingerprinted.''

Give us your tired, your poor and your properly fingerprinted.

Serhat Guvenc, a lecturer at Bilgi University in Istanbul, was actually flying to the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, and was diverted to Canada. He's been avoiding the U.S. since because of all the already intrusive visa requirements. ''All the new measures the U.S. introduced intimidated me,'' he said. ''In Turkey, unless you are a criminal or a potential criminal, you would never be asked to leave your fingerprints. It is kind of humiliating. It's uncomfortable.''

A Turkish columnist friend, Cengiz Candar, told me: ''I was traveling to Iraq recently and my very old mother was very, very worried. I told her, 'Don't worry, Momma, I've been there before. It is very safe, as long as you know what to do.' She said to me, 'Stay away from the Americans.' ''

Is that what mothers will tell their kids from now on? I don't know. Many people would still line up for America if we charged $1,000 per visa and demanded their dental X-rays. But others, especially young Europeans, are thinking twice because they don't want the hassle. Better to go to France or Germany. Add to this the shrinking capacity of U.S. diplomats to reach out and, in 20 more years, we could wake up and find that we've gone from America the accessible to America the isolated. The only Americans foreigners will meet will be those wearing U.S. Army uniforms and body armor.

We need to figure out a better system. Because where birds don't fly, ideas don't fly, friendships don't fly and mutual understanding never takes off."

Messages Diplomatic and Visceral

The current "system" (as per Friedman, above) is marked by serious misconceptions about Americans by the rest of the world.

The following two examples are indicative of these perceptions:

"As a German, I am somewhat offended by the continual arrogant attitude of Americans toward the rest of the world."

"French officials say a policy of denying visas to rude Americans and others who apply at their consulate in New York remains in effect, even though a sign warning visa applicants to be nice was removed from the building's front door...."

Most Americans don't wake up in the morning feeling rude and arrogant, but we may need to admit that, as in the above accounts, many people out there perceive us in this way. The diplomatic message given in response to these perceptions is offered by the Secretary of State:

"… the best antidote to many of the misconceptions about the United States, much of the propaganda that there is about the United States, is to have people go to the United States and to see who we are, and to work with us and to study with us and to do business with us. And that is the best way for the world to see what Americans are really like."

The visceral message given in response to these perceptions is given by one of our fellow citizens:

"Just as well none of us give a FUCK what you Europeans think."

It's far from clear which of these messages - the diplomatic or the visceral - is being heard by the vast pool of visa applicants abroad; witness the following account from an applicant in Manila:

U.S. Consulate Manila: No Birds in Flight Here, Either

"Allow me to share with you my horrible and traumatic experience with a US consul officer last July 5th, the day I got interviewed for my US student visa.

My interview was slated at 7:20 am. I was there right on time, but it was raining so hard. I have to fall in line together with the other applicants hoping to get a US nonimmigrant visa. We were like wet ducklings soaked in the rain. I waited for 6 HOURS before I got face to face with the arrogant US consular officer. Take note: 6 LONG, HORRENDOUS, PAINSTAKING AND BACKBREAKING HOURS, WITHOUT FOOD NOR WATER. The US Embassy here in the Philippines does not allow food or drinks inside their office. And take note: there are LIMITED SEATS available. And everyone has to pay USD100 for the application, with no amenities provided. There are about 100 applicants in the office every hour, and there are only about 60 alloted seats. The poor 40 applicants have to wait for their turn, without food or water.

After the confusing pre-screening and waiting for my number to be called, I was finally interviewed by 1:30 PM, without even taking my lunch. To my dismay, the consular officer (ARROGANT) gave me condescending questions, which eventually led to the denial of my US student visa. I have strictly followed the documents that need to be presented, such as 1) passport, 2) I-20, 3) proof of financial support for one year, 4) SEVIS fee payment receipt. For the proof of financial support, I have presented the affidavit of support of my aunt and her bank statement. Despite the documents that I have presented, I was still denied of a US student visa. I feel extremely disappointed.

I really got depressed at the moment the RUDE consular officer denied my US visa that I left the embassy immediately. I did not even bother ask the officer about her reason for my denial, nor did I request her to put her reason for denial in writing. I was so insulted when the consular officer said her last line: "If you are to reapply again, you are most likely to be denied."

The Arrogance of the French Embassy

Interestingly, the perception that some consular officers are arrogant is obviously not limited to American conoffs, as per the following account from a Bahraini visa applicant applying for a Schengen visa:

"I was supposed to travel to Greece later this month to attend a Middle East Conference at the invitation of the Greek Foreign Ministry. Unfortunately for us poor souls from this area of the world who intend to go to Greece, we have to go through the hallowed and completely arrogant portals of the French Embassy first.

I sat in a sterile room - which contained notices in English which seem to have been translated from Arabic or French by an 8 year old with an attitude - for more than 10 minutes without knowing when I would be called even though my appointment was supposed to be 10AM, a time which I respected but seems to mean nothing to the French Embassy. Nor does time appear to be of much importance to the French Consul, M. Philippe Touieain whatever who scoffed rather abrasively and arrogantly at my complaint of having to wait for that "just ten minutes, pfah!" and demanded rather loudly to give him a valid excuse of why I withdrew my papers and expressed a wish to no longer wanting to go to Europe!

"It is the arrogant attitude of the lady behind the glass. She could have been a bit more customer friendly at least in explaining the missing pieces of information"

"Ah, it is the attituuuuude then! pfah!"

This is when yet another defender of the European Nation jumped up from behind another plate of glass vouching for her colleague in that I had the attitude problem and that I had that right form the moment I stepped into the Visa section because I had the temerity as to enquire why when my appointment was at 10AM was I not called at the prescribed time and why I had enquired - rather politely I might add - as to what the procedure was?

I suppose I should have felt rather privileged to be in their hallowed offices and that I should just sit, shut up and dream up rather beautiful French thoughts and images while whiling away the time taken from running my business or pleasure, for theirs.

What shock and horror that the peasant Bahrainis complain of ill treatment and the arrogance of particularly M. Philippe Touieain who I am sure looks at himself as the gallant Asterix who, together with his chosen cabal, protect Europe from the invading Bahraini hordes!

What is it that the lovely lady behind the second plate of glass said in parting? Oh yes: "if we had to deal with just three customers like you in a day we would be shut down."

Well, don't let me stop you. Shut down. I don't think a self-respecting person is going to miss you.

You can keep your precious Europe - at least the part that you have put your hands on for some reason - to yourselves. And thanks to the French Embassy, I shall miss participating in the forthcoming conference in Athens."

New CG in Chennai

One brilliant step taken by the Department of State to minimize misperceptions about Americans in the Subcontinent is the recent series of appointments of Consular Superstars as Consuls General in India. Andrew T. Simkin, who assumed his duties as U.S. Consul General in Chennai late last month, is the latest of these appointments.

Mr. Simkin arrives in Chennai with 21 years of State Department service, including six prior foreign assignments with significant visa processing and other consular experience. He served for two years as Director of Consular Training at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute, and most recently headed the Office of Consular Fraud Prevention Programs. Mr. Simkin has received the State Department's Meritorious Honor Award five times and the Superior Honor Award four times.

A lawyer by training, Mr. Simkin liaised with immigration attorneys as part of his earlier duties as Special Assistant in the Visa Office; we recall, with much appreciation, his success in fostering a warm and positive relationship between the legal community and the consular world.

Mr. Simkin can be seen on video, speaking about keeping the bad guys out, here:

You're in Wonderland, So Just Deal With It

If you had clients applying for visas at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest over the past couple of years, there's a reasonable chance their applications were adjudicated by a consular officer named Heather. Heather has now transferred from Bucharest to Baghdad, and finds herself in "Wonderland":

"It's surprising how quickly one can adjust to a surreal environment. Perhaps it's the surrealness (I just created that word) that actually makes it easier to adjust. If the environment is so far beyond "normal," then your mind won't even try to recognize it as normal. Your brain tells you, "You're in Wonderland, so just deal with it."

The embassy in Baghdad is unlike any other mission in the world. As one person described it - it's the largest, most complicated inter-agency beast ever devised by mankind. It's difficult to describe the experience in a way that can be grasped by someone who isn't here. Let's start with the Palace. Yes, the embassy currently resides in one of Saddam's former palaces. It takes me anywhere from 5-10 minutes to walk from one end to the other. I've only gotten lost once.

Security here is unlike at any other mission. Not only do we have a huge staff of Foreign Service security agents, there is a large number of contactors. I would estimate that half of the people under "chief of mission" authority are security folks. Add to that the large number of uniformed military wandering the Palace and the surrounding compound. To put it simply, there are a lot of people with guns.

The hours are long, but not insane. This is not really a bad thing because I'm still learning what people do when they're not working. I bounce back and forth between the compound (where we live and will eventually work) and the Palace. This weekend I may wander across the street to a local market and also accompany a colleague to the rug store. I may also go over to one of the pools. The food is… decent. I won't starve here, but I won't get much culinary delight either. We have kitchens in our apartments, but there's no place to buy groceries (hence my trip across the street to the local market).

The apartments are comfortable. To accommodate a larger-than-planned number of residents, they converted one-bedroom apartments into two-bedroom apartments by turning the living room into a second bedroom. So we have our own bedroom and share a kitchen & bathroom. There's a gym at the compound that I go to whenever I can. Overall, the daily routine is fairly monotonous. The movie "Groundhog Day" is a common reference among employees.

Working in the front office will be a great learning experience. I can already tell that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I don't regret for a second my decision to come here. My portfolio includes the Political-Military section, the Public Affairs section, Hostage Affairs and a whole lot of acronyms I couldn't begin to explain. That probably sounds more impressive than it is. I move paper back and forth. But I get to read a lot of interesting things.

With all the hoopla last year about the State Department possibly "forcing" diplomats to serve here, it's surprising how many people here have either extended their tours or have returned for a second tour. Even with all the frustrations, inconveniences and dangers, there are a lot of people who love what they do and are very committed. I'm proud to be counted among them."

To Heather and her colleagues in Iraq and other danger zones, this salute from the legal community (paraphrasing McCain's message to Obama):

We'll go at it, that's the nature of the visa application process. But you have our respect and admiration. Despite our differences, much more unites us than divides us. We are fellow Americans…and we wouldn't be Americans worthy of the name if we didn't honor our consular officers for their achievements.

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

Dhahran, which has only just begun providing nonimmigrant visa services, leaps into the Top Ten with a 153 day wait period. Lengthy wait times in Riyadh, the other visa processing post in Saudi Arabia, are unchanged from last month. The "2" and the "7" in Recife's wait times switched places during the month: it now takes just 27 days to obtain a nonimmigrant visa interview appointment at post, as opposed to 72 in August.

# Country US Consular Post Visa Wait Time Increase/Decrease from July 2008 Last Month Top 10 Position
1 Cuba US Interests Section Havana 769 days 0 days 1
2 Venezuela Caracas 200 days 0 days 2
3 Saudi Arabia Dhahran 153 days New listing New listing
4 Haiti Port au Prince 100 days 0 days 3
5 Columbia Bogota 88 days +8 days 7
6 Brazil Sao Paulo 87 days +3 days 5
7 Saudi Arabia Riyadh 82 days 0 days 6
8 Dominican Republic Santo Domingo 62 days -26 days 4 (tie)
9 Cameroon Yaounde 60 days New listing New listing
10 Brazil Rio de Janeiro 54 days -5 days 9

**Updated to September 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.

Top Wait Times by Region:

The Americas (excluding Cuba) Venezuela/Caracas (200 days)

Middle East and North Africa Saudi Arabia/Dhahran (152 days)

Africa Cameroon/Yaounde (60 days)

Europe and Eurasia UK/London (40 days)

East Asia and Pacific Beijing and Manila (tie) (18 days)

Central and South Asia India/Mumbai (14 days)

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

1) Chile and Singapore.
2) e (refusal rate of over 64%)
3) c.
4) a.
5) Monterrey and Neuvo Laredo.
6) c.
7) b.
8) c.
9) There are over 9,000 dedicated officials in the consular world, and over 11,000 dedicated members of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
10) b.
11) To carry out the requirements of U.S. immigration law. 9 FAM 41.53 N29
12) d. (Parenthetically, CG Palfrey was also the first of the now hundreds of American foreign service officers who have lost their lives in the course of duty.)

Quote of the Corner

"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. If we remain true to our founding ideals, this century will remain an American century precisely because of the universal appeal of America."

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.