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Consular Corner: December 2008

by Liam Schwartz

Deep Breath in Mumbai

We begin this month's column with a "Gosh it feels good to be an American" moment, thanks to the efforts of a couple of consular officers in the aftermath of the Thanksgiving-day atrocities in Mumbai.

"Finally, we are able to step back a bit from the events of the past few days in Mumbai. We have been working 12-hour shifts (and sometimes more), running between phone calls or text messages with American citizens who were trapped in the hotels, meetings with the people "upstairs" who wanted to know what was going on, inquiries from families in the States, media calls (which we promptly passed off), and "field" duty at places like hospitals, outside the hotels, the airport, and even the morgue. Things were changing several times per minute - it was nearly impossible to get an accurate picture of things to report to the higher-ups at any given time, because it would all be different by the time you finished saying it. Yesterday, as things at last started to wind down, we found ourselves talking of Wednesday as if it had been a week or more ago. We are all feeling pretty drained both mentally and physically.

There were some high points, like when three Americans unexpectedly showed up at the consulate on Friday morning, having somehow gotten out of the Taj Mahal Hotel. They had been living for the better part of 36 hours in a utility closet inside the hotel, and had some harrowing stories to tell. Another high point was when an older American couple with whom we had been in periodic contact was able to get out of the Taj - they were absolutely wonderful people, the kind of people anyone would love to have in their family or their circle of friends. They showed us their souvenir from the experience: a bullet that flew into their room one of the times they decided to test the waters and open their hotel room door. They came to the consulate, we bought them each a sandwich and a drink (considering they'd been subsisting on minibar food for the past few days, it was the least we could do), got them on the phone with their family in the States, liaised with their travel company, and sent them off to the airport on a rescheduled flight home.

There were also, of course, some low points. Like when one of our officers was allowed to enter the Oberoi Hotel - he left the hotel shaken, telling us of a horrific scene inside, with bodies in a restaurant where there were still meals on the tables. And, of course, each time we learned of a confirmed death of one of the people who we'd been looking for, or whose families or friends we had been in touch with.

The places that were attacked were places that I and nearly all of my colleagues have been to at least once, either as tourists or to attend official events. Things have slowed down enough now that I have begun to hear people having the "I was just there [insert amount of time] ago . . . what if . . ?" conversations.

Today, we are not going in to work. There will be a small team at the office to field any calls that might come in, but at this stage we're no longer in full crisis mode. After all that's happened in the past week few days, it will be nice to stay home for a day, and invite some colleagues over to help us eat the turkey we plan to cook before it spoils - today is a real day for thanksgiving, much more so than I could have imagined a week ago."

Consular Officers: Compassion within a Dark Shell

The spouse of the consular officer who wrote the above item is himself a consular officer in Mumbai. His own notable account of the days following the terrorist attacks appears below:

"And as ever, life continues. We debrief with the regional psychiatrist. Friends at posts around the world catch up on their holiday email and send notes of concern, of thanks, of shared pain and sorrow. Paperwork gets completed and sent away. Indirect fallout drifts in, nothing we can't handle, nothing we haven't seen before. People continue to look for US visas - for a temple dedication, they're from way outside of Mumbai; for a meeting in Bloomington, and everyone in their family is fine; to work on a cruise ship, they quit the Taj two weeks ago, thank god.

The media here is saying that this will separate Bombay into a "before" and "after." I really don't know if that will be the case. What will be separated into those before and after chunks is my career as a diplomat, such as it is. It was around 2030 in our conference room Saturday night, getting ready for a change in shifts, that the gravitas of our jobs really hit me. This job appears to be many things to those on the outside, especially aspirants: unique, honorable, unpredictable, glamorous, exciting. At any given time, all those adjectives can apply. Here's another adjective to add, after this crisis: deadly serious.

But more than the seriousness of this diplomat gig became clear over this experience. The one trait the officers I respect most have in common is a very strong and apolitical sense of compassion and care, and over this crisis my fellow officers have shown that they have that in spades. The other thing we have is a dark, dark shell around that layer of compassion, probably there to protect it, filled with black humor I don't think you want to know about. We've been laughing a lot the last few days. We laugh because it hurts too much to cry."

For Those Who Are Wondering: Yes, Hawaii is a State

"I try not to blog about the specifics of work too much - privacy and all that..... but the occasional "quote of the day" (if you will) must be responded to.

Announcement To The World At Large: Hawaii is a State. Hawaii is part of the United States. Going to Hawaii is NOT/NOT leaving the country.

Spending large chunks of time in Hawaii after entering the States on your B1/B2 Visa does NOT count as leaving the country and YES, if you are an overstay.. you are STILL an overstay while you're hanging island style.

Just letting you know................

Time to Leave

The Department of State authorized the departure of non-emergency personnel and all family members of U.S. Embassy personnel, from four U.S. Embassies during 2008. The human toll these authorized departures can take is described in the following account, relating to an authorized departure from Yemen in 2002:

"The biggest piece of news in my life is that I have decided to resign from the Foreign Service. This has been a very difficult decision for me to make, and one that I have had to make during the most difficult period of my life that I can remember. I gave up everything to give this job--this career--a try. Jen gave up far more than I did, including her job (and put her entire career on hold) and, for most of the last year, all control over her own life.

By way of explaining my decision as well as giving you the background on the news here, let me start with a recap of the events of the last couple weeks.

About two weeks ago the Embassy issued a warden message warning of attacks on Westerners in Yemen and advising us to stay away from popular grocery stores and restaurants. As if it wasn't bad enough assuming that people would attack us on the streets once the Embassy was too hard of a target, now we had it waved in our faces. That was actually the latest of a series of increasingly worrisome warden messages. Of course, as Political Officer, I was also privy to more of the specifics than we can put in the warden message. What I learned did not give me reason for optimism.

Then last Friday, a man, apparently acting alone and possibly mentally disturbed, threw two grenades at the Embassy. He did this on a weekend evening, and only got one of the grenades over the wall. No one was injured, and he was arrested. Clearly he hadn't thought this out too well in advance. Nonetheless, this incident does not inspire confidence when you're already feeling uneasy about the security situation in Yemen.

Just two days later, the Undersecretary for Management agreed to lift authorized departure for adult family members. Children still can't return. That means that Jen could now return to Yemen if she wanted to. However, I am here on the ground where I can assess the situation for myself and I do not believe that it is safe for dependents to return to post. Obviously those with more authority disagree with me, but I have a responsibility for the safety of my own family, and I have to use my own judgement. In addition, I know that Jen would not feel comfortable here in the current security environment, regardless of whether she would "actually" be safe or not. (I don't feel safe here, and I spend the majority of my time in Fortress America, also known as the Embassy.)

In the meantime, Jen for the last two and a half months has been in DC, still in temporary quarters and feeling tossed about by forces beyond her control. The very timing of the lifting of authorized departure is a perfect example. Each extension of authorized departure is for 30 days. But in late February it was announced that it would end March 4th, two weeks early. Then, because of the threats here, the lifting was cancelled on March 3, if I remember right. Finally, no decision was made about what would happen at the end of 180 days until on the 180th day. That meant that no evacuee could plan ahead for what would happen when their per diem ran out. I predicted that would happen and Jen and I started planning for ourselves weeks ago, on the assumption that State would handle it badly (as they did). First, I tried desperately to get my assignment changed. Despite the risk that I would ruin my long term career by requesting a new assignment, the only way to salvage my Foreign Service career at all was to get out of Yemen. For Jen's sake, I felt that I had to be assigned to Washington, so that she could start looking for a job and a place to live and could settle down into some kind of normalcy after spending seven of the last eight months in total limbo. If the State Department would not reassign me to Washington, I was willing to consider what the other possibilities might be so long as we could establish a plan reasonably quickly, for Jen's sake.

Unfortunately, Human Resources was totally unhelpful and post management was not willing to let me change my assignment. So my choices were:

  1. Jen could return to post if authorized departure was lifted.
  2. I could serve out the rest of my tour (18 months) unaccompanied if authorized departure was not lifted.
  3. I could resign.

I have already explained why choice one is not viable. Choice two is obviously unacceptable. Which leaves only choice three. So the question became how to implement choice three."

U.S. Visas - The Saudi Litmus Test

According to U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Ford Fraker, the visa issue is, for the Saudis, a litmus test for the country's relationship with the United States:

"It probably took me about 27 seconds to figure out the visa issue was the single biggest impediment to the bilateral relationship moving forward. I was warned about it before I arrived in Riyadh and it was instantly crystal clear and it moved right to the top of the list.

The visa issue had become sort of a litmus test for the overall relationship and the commitment of the United States to Saudi Arabia. Every time I went to see senior Saudi officials they did not want to talk about Iran or Iraq. They wanted to talk about visas. It was overwhelming the relationship.

We had such a position in the Kingdom, which is why it just drove me nuts - as a banker - that we were not capitalizing on the opportunities as we should have. When I spoke with the President, I talked about the billions of dollars of contracts that we had lost simply because our competitors could say to customers, well you can't award this contract to the Americans because 20 percent of it is a training component and you'll never get the visas to go to the United States to train.

In specific cases Americans were losing contracts for that reason. And when they were winning contracts, it might be specified in the contract that the training component would happen in the UK or Europe. So we were missing all the soft benefits from this business as well. The President is a businessman and he got it."

Parenthetically, the primary improvement in the U.S. visa situation for Saudi nations appears to be a five year reciprocal validity period for certain visas, including B-1/B-2 and F-1/F-2.

Ambassadors and Visa Applicants: The Common Thread

One of the most prominent elements of the current visa application process is that young officers - largely 20-somethings, some in their early 30s - conduct the critical interviews of our visa clients.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Department of States relies upon these same young men and women to conduct the critical interviews of veteran foreign service personnel, vying for senior positions such as ambassadorships.

The pros and cons of having "youngsters" conduct these interviews is evidenced by the following op-ed article by Thomas A. Schweich:

"You know you have arrived when you get interviewed by the 29-year-old instead of the 22-year-old," the 57-year-old foreign service officer said to me with a laugh. It was late 2005, and this three-time ambassador had just been interviewed for a top post at the Department of State.

Her interviewer was part of a large corps of 20-somethings - some were in their early 30s - who ran the Office of Presidential Personnel. Many of them were sons or daughters of supporters of President George W. Bush. Others had connections through congressmen. With few exceptions, they had one thing in common: very little experience and a very big attitude.

Another top foreign service officer called me after his interview to be ambassador to a volatile African country. "The problem was," he told me, "the kid interviewing me could not pronounce the name of the country I was being interviewed for. It made for an awkward interview until he just started saying 'the country we are considering you for.'"

President-elect Barack Obama has chosen an all-star cabinet with great promise. But the next level of appointments - assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries and ambassadors - are just as important. These people will brief the cabinet officials as they confront harrowing domestic and foreign policy challenges. We need competent people in these positions. And to get those people, we need experienced screeners, interviewers and decision-makers in the Office of Presidential Personnel.

My own experience is typical. I had three jobs in the Bush administration: ambassador for counternarcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan, deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement affairs and chief of staff of the United States mission to the United Nations.

For two of these jobs, my appointment was preceded by an effort by a 20-something in personnel to place an unqualified friend in the job. (In the third instance, the State Department went out of its way to avoid the personnel office by appealing directly to a senior assistant to the president.) For one of the jobs, two State Department officials, John Bolton and Anne Patterson, had to intervene.

In the worst cases, the "kids" - as many of us called them - would search for a candidate and eventually conclude, like Dick Cheney when he was the head of George W. Bush's vice presidential search team, that they were the best candidates for the jobs.

The problems that resulted occasionally made the news. There was small bit of outrage in 2005 when a 30-something personnel employee picked herself to head the new Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security. (Her tenure included the publication of a photograph online of her standing next to an employee, who was costumed in blackface and a prisoner's uniform, during a Halloween party that she hosted.)

Similarly, the inexperience of Monica Goodling, the former liaison to the White House at the Justice Department, contributed to the politics-based hiring of career lawyers and helped create a demoralizing scandal from which the department still has not fully recovered. But there were many other such stories that stayed below the radar screen.

In fairness to the Bush administration, for which I retain a great deal of admiration, putting young campaign workers and connected college graduates into White House personnel positions is nothing new. And some of them, like Stuart Holliday and Dina Powell, who ran President Bush's personnel office for a while, were true professionals.

But if our new president wants to make an important change to how government works, he should fill the personnel office - and the liaison offices to the White House at the various executive branch departments - with a combination of veteran government employees and human resources experts. That's the way to ensure that the best people get the jobs that will shape our country for the next four years."

Are You Smarter Than A Junior Consular Officer?

1) Which of the following countries was NOT recently added to the list of countries authorized to participate in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP)?

(a) Czech Republic
(b) Estonia
(c) Greece
(d) Lithuania
(e) South Korea

2) Name two Embassies at which the Department of State authorized the departure of non-emergency personnel and all family members of U.S. Embassy personnel during 2008.

3) True or false: HIV infection is still included in the newly revised definition of "communicable disease of public health significance" published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in October 2008.

4) The presence of moral turpitude is determined according to which of the following: (a) The legal standards of the country in which the offense was committed; or (b) The legal standards of the United States, regardless of where the offense was committed.

5) What title is held by the person in charge of the business of an embassy when there is no ambassador commissioned to the host country?

6) Which Mexican port city, now home to America's oldest continuously active consular post, was used by Confederate traders attempting to bypass the Union blockade of the neighboring port of Brownsville, Texas?

7) The United States' mission to Mexico comprised 10 consulates; how many consulates does the Mexican mission to the United States comprise?

8) A foreign domestic employee may NOT accompany which of the following employers in B-1 status?

(a) A U.S. citizen stationed in a foreign country who is visiting the U.S. temporarily.
(b) A U.S. Permanent Resident stationed temporarily in a foreign country who is visiting the     U.S.
(c) An E-2 nonimmigrant relocating to the U.S. with her husband and children.

9) After the post in Ciudad Juarez, which is the largest U.S. Immigrant Visa (IV) processing post?

10) Who was the first Secretary of State to become President of the United States? Who was the last?

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

Havana and Caracas aside, every single U.S. consular post around the world reports wait times of well under two months. A year ago, every single consular post on the Top Ten list showed wait times exceeding three months. Granted, wait times are seasonal, but someone in Washington is definitely doing something right!

# Country US Consular Post Visa Wait Time Increase/Decrease from October 2008 Last Month Top 10 Position
1 Cuba US Interests Section Havana 825 days 0 days 1
2 Venezuela Caracas 206 days +6 days 2
3 Canada Vancouver 50 days + 7 days 4 (tie)
4 Saudi Arabia Riyadh 48 days 0 days 7
5 (tie) Canada Ottawa 42 days 0 days 5 (tie)
5 (tie) Canada Toronto 42 days 0 days 5 (tie)
6 Brazil Sao Paulo 41 days - 19 days 3
7 Canada Calgary 40 days 0 days 7 (tie)
8 Brazil Rio de Janeiro 39 days + 3 days 9
9 Bolivia La Paz 36 days + 1 day New listing
10 (tie) Nigeria Abuja 35 days 35 days 10 (tie)
10 (tie) UAE Dubai 35 days 35 days 10 (tie)

Updated to December 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 (206 days)

Middle East and North Africa Saudi Arabia/Riyadh (48 days)

Africa Nigeria/Abuja (35 days)

Europe and Eurasia UK/London (26 days)

East Asia and Pacific China/Beijing (21 days)

Central and South Asia India/Mumbai (14 days)

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

1) c
2) La Paz, Bolivia; Nassau, Bahamas; Sana'a, Yemen; Tbilisi, Georgia;
3) True
4) b
5) Chargé d'affaires
6) Matamoros
7) 45
8) b
9) Manila
10) Thomas Jefferson (1801); James Buchanan (1857)

Quote of the Corner

"We arranged a roundtable of young Saudi entrepreneurs, all U.S. educated business owners…. The President said, okay tell me about your businesses. All twelve of them went after him on the visa front with countless stories about business they've lost. The frustrations they've had. The fact they are not traveling to the United States any more. They're not sending their kids to the United States for vacation or to attend universities. At the end of it he walked out and said I gotta fix this."

Ambassador Ford Fraker, on President Bush's January 2008 visit to Saudi Arabia.

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.