Quote of the day/week/however long

"Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does."
~William James

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Say What?

This is a repeat/update of an old post that bears repeating, in honor of  PS.

Interpreting, translating – what’s the difference? Most people use these words interchangeably, but an interpreter translates orally, while a translator interprets written text. In consular work, officers who are not fluent in the local language must sometimes depend on local employees for both skills, but interpreting is by far the most difficult.

Interpreters must be discerning listeners. They must be able to process and remember several sentences, and repeat them accurately in another language. They have to possess excellent public speaking skills, and the ability to transform idioms, colloquialisms and other culturally-specific references into analogous statements the target audience will understand. And they must be able to do this for speakers who are not trained to use interpreters, and so tend to speak in paragraphs.

Madam once watched a news broadcast of Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, making a statement. He was slouched comfortably on a small stool. Next to him sat a younger man, his interpreter. As the ambassador began to speak, the interpreter sat up very straight, concentrating on Zaeef's face and voice, clearly preparing to accurately and completely render his boss’s Pashtun to Urdu. But Zaeef spoke and spoke and spoke without pause. The young man’s forehead creased, his hands tightened into fists, his back tensed, his eyes widened. After well more than a minute, with no break in sight, it was the interpreter who broke. He suddenly let out his breath, closed his eyes, opened his hands, and surrendered. There was no way he could do that job, and he knew it.

Zaeef and his interpreter in better days

As consular officers, we cannot afford to leave our interpreters – our local employees – so dispirited.  After all, we need the information that the person we are interviewing will give us, and we need to pass accurate information back.  So here are the rules, learned from (and checked by) many excellent FSNs/LESs and professional interpreters:

The officer:

It is you and the customer who are having the conversation. The interpreter is not a member of that exchange. Look only at the customer, glancing at the paperwork or computer screen as necessary, but never look at or speak to the interpreter.

Use simple, clear sentences; no convoluted, complex, stream-of-consciousness, rambling.

Pause after every declarative sentence or two, and after every question, for the interpreter to catch up.

Wait for the whole response from the customer, and then wait for its interpretation.

If you want to consult with the interpreter about the possible veracity of the customer’s answers or for any other reason, get up and leave the window together, have that conversation, then return and resume.

Rinse, repeat.

The interpreter:

Stand or sit to one side, slightly behind the officer; your presence should be minimal. Your voice is the officer’s tool. You as a person are not there.

Translate only the exact words used. Do not preface any sentence with ‘The consular officer wants to know…” or “She says that …” 

If the interviewee addresses you directly, continue to translate exactly what he says. For example, if he says directly to you, in the local language, “Oh sister, please please help me,” what do you do? You repeat, “Oh sister, please please help me,” in English.

And please accept Madam's - and every officer's you have ever interpreted for - humble thanks and appreciation. After all these years, we still have no idea how you do that. Good job!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Your Bible Verse For The Day

Esther 4:14 -  When Esther hesitated to risk her life to save her people, Mordecai, her foster father said, "Who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"

"Daddy, do I have to?"

The entire story is riveting, but Mordecai's question can also stand alone. And it can be taken personally by anyone who is looking for their purpose in life - or at work.

Why and when and how might a humble consular officer relate to such a grand statement of finality and fate?

Every FSO was hired for a reason. Much of that reason is that the hirers decided that the hirees' judgement could be trusted. And much of the way that a person acquires judgement that can be trusted is through having complex experiences and learning the right lessons from them.

No consular officer stands at the window with an empty mind and blank character. Often it is previous life events that give conoffs the edge to make decisions not just by the book (or the FAM) but also by common sense, a clear heart, and courage.

An officer of Madam's acquaintance often tells the story of what most would consider a simple, easy visa refusal: in a European post many years ago, a young man from Eastern Europe applied for an NIV. The young man had no passport, only a refugee travel document from the country that had taken him in. He was not working. He wanted to visit his Amcit girlfriend in the US. Who wouldn't refuse such a case?

Madam's friend refused him, with apologies. The young man said, "That's all right. I thought you'd probably say no. It's just that this is the best time for a visit, since my work here starts in three weeks and then I won't be able to go for a long time."

They parted pleasantly. And that night Madam's friend couldn't sleep. In the morning, he dug out the young man's OF-156, called him, asked him to come back, requested a waiver for the travel document, and issued the visa. A month later, the young man came to the consular section to introduce the girlfriend - who had come with him back to Europe - and to reassure the officer that he had returned.

What's the lesson? Compared to possible genocide, a single visa decision might seem trivial. Compared to Amcits in real trouble, compared to rising unrest that might break out in bloody violence, compared to hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, maybe it is trivial. But even if the issue is not life-threatening, trust the judgement you were hired for, and trust yourself to do the right thing. Madam's friend issued the visa because, through years of raising teenagers, among other challenging experiences, he knew the applicant was telling the truth, and he was right.

Did that one NIV matter in the course of a consular career? Like the little child who tosses the starfishes back into the sea, the officer knew that it mattered to the young man he issued it to. And it mattered to the officer, too; he had done the right thing even though it was harder to do than to just invoke 214(b) and get on with his life. Perhaps most of all, it allowed him to exercise the judgement he had been hired for, and we all know that to keep any muscle (or thinking process) ready for action, it must be exercised regularly, not just wait for the big genocide-threatening life event that, unlike Esther's, might never arise.

Like Esther, the officer made the harder decision, which was the right one, not the easy one. And he didn't even need a peevish Jewish foster father to tell him so.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

What Mom Said

"It's for your own good." Isn't that what Mom always said? And she was right far more often than we could have admitted at the time - or perhaps even now.

Because we still rebel. We still procrastinate. We still dodge. We still avoid the hard things. We still start far too many sentences with, "Yes, but..."

And we still don't implement the simplest, clearest, most exonerating processes that would keep us well clear of trouble, should trouble come sniffing around. And, of course, in the consular business, trouble is always doing that.

The name of this picture is NOT "The political section hunting NIVs."

Here are only two examples from recently-inspected posts. This first is enough to make any conoff's blood run cold:

"The Offices of Visa Services and Fraud Prevention Programs, the Consular Integrity Division, and the front office of the Bureau of Consular Affairs all expressed concern about the embassy’s contravention of the worldwide visa referral policy. In the latter half of 2013, the Ambassador in seven cases and the DCM in two cases contravened the worldwide nonimmigrant visa referral policy by submitting noncompliant referrals and improperly advocating for issuance.

"Complications arising from noncompliance with the policy led to deteriorating relations between the consular officer and other embassy offices, perceptions of intimidation and isolation, and increased involvement of and intervention by various offices in the Bureau of Consular Affairs. In response to revised guidance from the Bureau of Consular Affairs on referral policy, dated January 13, 2014, Embassy XXX issued a management notice on January 17, 2014. On October 15 and 17, 2014, the embassy conducted briefings for referring officers and obtained current compliance agreements reflecting the revised policy guidance." (Note: the inspection took place only days later.) "The IG team met with the front office and the consular officer, and they confirm that they understand and are committed to continuing to comply with the policy going forward."

Not buried, but resting comfortably in the oh-so-cool OIG language are scenes and pressures that outsiders might only guess at. A consular manager was unable - even with the backing of several different CA offices - to leash and muzzle a runaway COM. The manager finally conducted (or was allowed to conduct) briefings and won compliance while the incoming IG team was literally on its way to post. Finally, a - ahem - heart-to-heart with the IG team was required to tame this bronc. What might have happened to the consular officer after the IG left has gone unstated.

Is it EER time?

Here is the second example, from another post:
"In at least 15 documented cases, the Ambassador contravened the worldwide nonimmigrant visa referral policy (9 FAM Appendix K, Exhibit I) by contacting the consular chief to communicate information about visa applicants instead of providing referral forms for the applicants. The referral policy states, “Referrals are the only allowed mechanism to advocate for or assist visa applicants prior to visa adjudication.” Some of the cases involved previously refused applicants. Referral policy permits requesting assistance via referral on behalf of previously refused applicants only in extremely limited circumstances. Few, if any, of the violations involved applicants who would have been eligible for visa referrals. The consular chief did not take adequate steps to stop the Ambassador’s inappropriate communications or to report them to the Department, as required by Department referral polices."

In this case, the strongest criticism is directed toward the consular chief. The front office's behavior is described but not its attitude, and we are left wondering if it used the same rough tactics as the first post above. The final sentence hints at the probable truth: insufficient effort by the consular chief to at least document and ask for CA's help with the problem.

The worldwide referral policy has been in effect for many years, and is regularly tweaked ( the most recent update was October 2014) to make it even more detailed, complex and onerous - for the referrers, for excellent reasons.

Madam could (but won't) touch here on the continuing, chronic inability of CA and the Department overall to see that this policy is implemented as required and written, and no fooling. It should not be left to beleaguered FS-3 and -2 conoffs to snap e-collars on their ambassadors. She herself, more than once, had her future career threatened by a fat white man in a Costco tie because he didn't like being told that he couldn't do exactly as he pleased in 'his' embassy. There are few more chilling work experiences than that, when you are twelve hours and a million miles from the beltway.

All Madam can tell you, with a full and highly-experienced heart, is to do your best, stand up for what's right, do what the FAM and FAH tell you to do, and - if you succeed or especially if you fail - document not only in your heart of hearts, not only in some quiet little manila folder somewhere, but in a saved exchange of multiple emails with two or more CA offices. And carry that exchange with you on a USB when you leave that place. Just in case. It's for your own good.

Now, stop running with scissors!

PS: One of those two IG reports included this as well: "Embassies are required to conduct at least one validation study per year in addition to an annual validation of referral cases as noted in 7 FAH-1 H-943.6-2 b." Let's just call this a word to the wise for now, and discuss the - well - interesting math of validation studies at a later date.

Monday, April 20, 2015

If Your Cause is Righteous and Just...

Once upon a time there was a consular section whose layout was beyond nonsensical. It dated back to the times when visa interviews were conducted at leisure across an office desk. Or it dated to the building's former use as a bar or a bicycle repair shop or a cattle byre. And it dated to the times when there were, at most, four visa applications in a day.

But those days were past. Now scores of applicants queued up outside, inside, outside and inside again, for up to eighteen hours, and were constantly pestered by sun, bugs, crooked cops, travel agents, leather-jacket punks, queue-cutters and general touts. There was no shade, no seating, no water, no restrooms. And they were supposed to consider themselves lucky, that the consulate would see them at all.


Madam has said so many times before: fix this. Does she even have to tell you why?

Three quick reasons:

- It shows a contemptuous lack of the simplest respectful courtesy for our host country nationals.

- If there is a drive-by bombing, these innocent civilians will be the ones killed: in the embassy bombing in Nairobi, 213 people were killed and 4,000 wounded, 99.9% Kenyan. Only a few hundred of those Kenyans were queued up to visit the consular section ; a few hundred too many.

- It is inefficient.

Remember what else she has said before, repeating the excellent advice of a colleague she admired: "Take out of the process everything that you won't be arrested for not doing. Then simplify everything that's left."

If it will take six hours to see a person who is in the queue now, that person should not even walk up to the building until six hours from now. If he's here long before his appointment time, it's because you're still doing something wrong so he doesn't trust you.

If you tried to fix this and your fixes didn't work, then keep fixing everything that you do until they finally do work. The Department-required appointment system doesn't work? Refuse to use it or get it fixed. After all, what do you have to do that's more important than this? Yes, that's a trick question. The answer is 'Nothing.'

Do you think that you, an ordinary consular officer, can't change a Department-wide foul-up of any kind for the better? You're wrong. One of the best pieces of advice that Madam ever got was from an officer with a lot of experience in moving the supposedly immovable for the better. That officer said simply, "If your cause is righteous and just and you don't get tired before they do, you WILL get your way."

Now.  Fix this.

Or live with this

Thursday, April 16, 2015

You Might be a Consular Officer If ...

- You start a conversation with the smelly homeless drunk who is sharing your park bench.  You find him interesting and articulate. You save his best stories to retell at the next reception.

- You can't borrow anyone's bathroom without looking in the medicine cabinet.

- You can use any bathroom or bathroom-like facility with aplomb, no matter how different it is from the one you grew up with.

 - You can't help asking most of the obvious immigrants you meet how they got to the US, just because you love to hear their life stories. You don't have to ask where they came from; you can tell.

- You will eat anything. After all, if a few million people like it, it must be good.

- When a group of people starts doing something you don't understand, you run over to see if you can do it too.

- You enjoy and have no trouble dealing with mind-blowingly complex multi-person chaos that would send a political officer straight to the bottle and a closet that can be locked from the inside.

- You firmly believe that a day in which you don't learn something surprising is a day that wasn't worth getting up for.

- You will give a dollar to a panhandler and absolutely not care what he might spend it on.

- You find non-American traffic patterns interesting and efficient, not weird and What the heck is wrong with these people that they don't know how to drive?

- When people burst into gales of helpless laughter at your mangling of their language, you laugh with them.

- You would not be at a loss for words if you met the President unexpectedly. You would probably ask him how the toe of his shoe got scuffed, and offer him half of your cookie.

- You don't mind knowing that any local eight-year-old in rags, shoeless, bugs in his hair, never spent three seconds in school, is infinitely better at life here than you are.

- A day in which you don't laugh at yourself is a day in which you suspect you weren't paying attention.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

It Won't Wear Out

 Many years ago, Madam read a book about a Regular White Guy's sojourn among the folks who live north of nearly everything on earth; people to whom the southern tip of Greenland is Miami. Once, during a casual meeting at the nearest store with a group leader (to call the group a tribe would make it sound larger and grander than it actually was), the leader happened to mention that a distant relative had passed through his village. As was the custom, the leader had invited the visitor in, fed him, and lent him his wife for the night.

The RWG was shocked. How, he asked, could a man so casually share his wife with another man?

The leader, in his turn, was simply puzzled. Why not? he asked. It was a hospitable thing to do, his wife was happy to do it, and it's not like she would wear out.

You Southerners are just so weird.

 Madam thought again of this story while reading through a lawsuit that has to do with retro-cancellation of derivative US citizenship. It can be found here.

 Without digging into the details of the arguments - Madam's readers are welcome to do that themselves, and it's a thought-provoking and rewarding exercise - it does raise an issue that troubles some consular officers: the issue of automatic entitlement to US citizenship through either derivation or jus soli. Somehow, from somewhere, in any conversation about these topics, the feeling sometimes creeps in that these means of becoming US citizens somehow  reduce or weaken or - yes - 'wear out' the value of citizenship.

Madam will leave it to a beloved and respected friend and colleague to respond to this. He recently wrote:
"American citizenship is not a loaf of bread, not finite. When someone becomes a citizen, its not like there's less citizenship left for the rest of us. We Americans are in no way diminished when a foreign woman's baby pops out in US jurisdiction and a new US citizen is born. It is wonderful for me to contemplate the thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of Amcit 3-, 12-, and 19-year-olds germinating in foreign soil in countries around the world. Some day the crop will ripen, some of them will come to America, and the nation will be generally the better for it. As immigration programs go, it strikes me as no worse than the EB-5 or the Lottery as a way to select future citizens."
If I win, who loses? Nobody, that's who.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Hanging's Too Good for Him

As a long-time consular officer, it takes a lot to reduce Madam to a state of sputtering outrage. But this story did it in record time:

Yesterday the FBI announced charges against Peter Senese, the founding director of the I CARE Foundation (“I CARE”), which advertises itself as a “self-funded non-profit organization dedicated to preventing child abduction and trafficking." He claimed that he and a team of (other) former members of Delta Force could and would recover children from other countries. Once he snagged a desperate parent, he would repeatedly send messages asking for operating funds, claiming to be overseas in various locations and often claiming to be very close to recovering lost children. In fact, according to the (other) feds, he never left the US. And he was never within sniffing distance of any actual Delta Force members, except perhaps in a grocery store queue.

Think you've seen the maximum hubris possible in the persons of certain political officers we won't name? Try this.
 Who me? I'm just a self-proclaimed war hero, liar and scum of the earth snake in the grass.

"The charges contained in the complaint are merely accusations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty."
Fair enough. If he's proven guilty, THEN somebody should hang him.

Monday, March 30, 2015

My Card

A consular manager of Madam's acquaintance, who is otherwise strongly averse to personal publicity in public, actually clipped, saved and even considered framing an article from The New York Times that mentioned her by name in the woeful tale of a well-justified NIV refusal. "They summarized the details of the case accurately," she has said admiringly, "and, being the Times, they repeated the lawyer's complaint without stepping, themselves, into the trap of making an incorrect judgement. And they spelled my name right!"
Bravo Times!
 That an NIV case could make a major American newspaper is remarkable. That the newspaper could get the issues right is surprising. That the article's author, who never spoke directly with the officer, could spell a strangely-spelled (although single-syllable) name correctly is no less than eyebrow-raising.

And how did this miracle happen?

This officer, like nearly all FSOs, orders business cards on arrival at every new post. Unlike nearly all FSOs - and especially consular FSOs - she passes those cards out generously to:
local authorities she meets on her official rounds; more important, she says, the staff members of those local authorities, who - flattered and delighted that she notices and respects them - will sometimes call and give her a heads-up about something ugly that's going to happen; local Americans who blithely swear that they'll never have a problem because "these people all love me;" visiting Americans who seem headed for the ditch; disgruntled friends, relatives and lawyers of 214(b)s; and anyone else who asks - either gently or threateningly - for her name, believing that she will back off and refuse, and so lose both face and credibility. Especially to that last category, she accompanies the card with a kind but firm, "When you write your congressperson, please spell my name correctly."

Does the generous dispersal of her name, job title and phone number sometimes result in cut-and-paste forgeries, as local folks try to intimidate other local folks by pretending that they're her friend or confidant, or that she's on their payroll? Yes, of course. But, as she says, "We're US consular officers. We expect and are prepared for this sort of silliness. We are not paid to hide in safe dark places and pass out decisions through the bung hole. And besides, the power of freely giving your name to someone who wants to threaten you can seriously deflate those threats."

How sure is she that this is the right thing to do? Sure enough that when she received a call from a man who told her simply but very firmly, "If you don't (XXX) we're going to kill you," she responded, "Fair enough. Just make sure that you send your bomb or your hired murderer after the right person. My name is spelled (XXXXX)." She never heard from him again, and is still alive.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

How Can I Make That Easy For You?

A consular manager whom Madam respects very much once told her, "The first thing I do when I get to a new assignment is watch. I watch how everything is done: how forms are handed out, how they're taken back in, how the customers line up and where and when, how data is entered, how interviews are performed and notes taken, how printing and handing back and filing and everything is done. Then, once I'm sure I understand the entire process, I take out of it every step that I won't be arrested for not doing. What's left, with only minor tweaking, is sudden efficiency. And effectiveness."

A somewhat old-school manager, this person also believes unwaveringly that  efficiency is not necessarily effectiveness. That is, you can do a lot of stuff very quickly and skillfully, but if it didn't actually need to be done, you just gave up a lot of time, effort and brain cells for nothing.
 And then what?

This manager freely admits that she had to learn this lesson several times before it stuck. "The time I remember most clearly," she told Madam, "was in XX. Our passport applicants queued up to get an application form, then queued up again to turn it in. That meant the not only did the customer use a lot of time standing in queues, but our FSNs had to deal with every one of them twice.

"My deputy CG asked, very reasonably, why we did it that way. After consulting with the senior FSNs, I told him it was because the forms disappeared so quickly: applicants would sometimes take a handful instead of just one. He gave me the long, patient gaze that such an answer deserved. Then he said, 'So then you put out more.'

"I sputtered, 'But they'll be wasted!' And he answered, with far more calm than this idiotic exchange deserved, 'So what?'"

The truth is that nearly every job benefits from exactly the culling that this officer now uses ruthlessly:
 Yeah sure. Bring it on.

!. Remove every step that you won't be arrested - okay, or transferred to Elephant Island - for not doing. 'Order' and 'chaos' are not automatically opposites. They can be Siamese twins. Just because it's orderly doesn't mean it's effective.
2. Rearrange the remaining steps into the most logical order, both physically and process-ly.
3. Perform every step only once. This means, as the most obvious example, that if someone checks the documents, they have been checked and they will not be checked again.
4. Make every decision only once.
5. Don't send two people to do a one-person job. One investigator, one passer-back, one waiting room monitor.
6. Whoever starts the job, finishes the job. Cases don't pass from hand to hand; each belongs to a specific individual who becomes the expert on it. This is essential for IV, citizenship and L cases.
7. Always ask yourself, "What if we don't do this at all?" If the answer is, "Nobody will notice or care," then don't do it. If someone complains, then do it only if you can't talk them out of wanting it done.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Outrunning The Tiger

Two men are walking through a forest.  Suddenly they see a tiger in the distance, walking towards them with an intent look on its face. One of the men takes some running shoes from his bag, and starts putting them on.
“What are you doing?” asks the other man. “Do you think you will run fast than the tiger with those?”
"I don’t have to run faster than the tiger,” he says. “I just have to run faster than you.”

This joke is told all over the world, with the hunting animal variously a lion, a bear or, as here, a tiger. There is a reason it is so widespread. It's funny and it's also true.

It's the reason that US homeowners, even in low crime areas, are often advised to get a big, serious dog, and that apartment dwellers are advised to get a teeny, yappy dog.

It's the reason that seasoned American travelers do not walk around the world wearing gunboat-white athletic shoes, elastic-waist yoga pants, and T shirts or sweatshirts with any logo at all emblazoned on the chest. It's the reason that they talk and behave quietly in public.

It's the reason that a wealthy European might own an extremely fancy car for weekend touring, but will commute in a banged-up, ten-year-old VW or bottom-of-the line Fiat.

Quick. Which of these two cars is most likely to be driven by someone worth kidnapping?
It's the reason that AID's Laurence Foley - rather than someone else - was murdered in Amman. He had personally harmed or offended no one, but men like him, in his neighborhood, had been targeted before; he parked on the street; his movements were highly predictable; he was American.

It's the reason that experienced consular officers, whose faces may be especially well-known in some cities, don't mind in the least being quietly, distantly and discreetly followed by plain-clothed cops. Madam has been followed by such gentlemen in many countries on several continents, and always welcomed the additional safety and freedom of movement they provided.

 It's the reason that US embassies all over the world, not just in very hot spots, warn their American and local employees and American expat populations to stay alert, stay wary, and not call attention to themselves, their homes, or their families.

There will always be exceptions and outliers, but the numbers are on the side of the possible prey who moves quietly and warily, or who makes it inconvenient to bother with him when there are slower, less alert, or less well guarded targets nearby. We will never stop crime nor criminals, but we can certainly make them work harder to get to us and ours, so they will look for easier victims.

To offer a slight adjustment to Ecclesiastes: The race isn't always to the swift nor the battle to the strong nor survival to the careful, but it's sensible to bet that way.

The tiger will eat. There is far more than luck, fate or bravado involved in avoiding being that next meal.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Circling The Prey? The Wagons? The Drain?

 Madam doesn't often concern herself in these messages with ongoing news items. But the secret merriness surrounding the issue of what the FAM really is, is really irresistible.

According to Diplopundit, AFSA just woke up from its usual moribund state to write, with great subtlety, courtesy, and apparently straight faces, to DirGen Arnold Chacon, "We would be grateful if you could help us understand if there is, in practice or by law, any difference in how these standards apply to and are enforced for non-career appointees as opposed to career employees, both Foreign Service and Civil Service."

This approach has clearly required a bit of thought and planning on AFSA's part. Rather than giving Mr Chacon a choice between The Fam Is God and "The FAM is Nice to Know if You Have Nothing Better to Do", AFSA instead has narrowed the issue in order to seem to offer an escape route. "Does the FAM," AFSA seems to be asking, "apply to the SecState too, or can that person (plus, of course, any old run-of-the-mill renegade, sexist, racist, lazy, arrogant, idiotic appointed ambassador) do as he/she pleases?" 

A positive response to this question could finally explain why, only a few years ago, FSOs were actually punished, in real life, for daring to write blogs of any sort - even blogs having very little to do with their professional lives and work - while COMs were free (and still are) to blog or tweet or YouTube any ludicrous, unprofessional nonsense they chose and were even praised for doing so in the name of 'outreach' and/or 'approachability.'  It might even explain what happened to the very short but wonderful life of a certain extremely welcome and useful Reddit poster, far more recently.

 The small but select membership of the State Blogging/Tweeting/Redditing Graveyard are no doubt very interested in how (or if) Mr Chacon will respond. It would be lovely to see a few careers rise from the dead.
The career graveyard always has room for more

 We will now return to our regularly scheduled consular commentary and nagging. Thank you for your time.

Monday, March 16, 2015

After All, What's The Worst That Could Happen?

 Unfunny comedies aside, this is a serious question that might have serious implications for just about any post in the world, however safe, secure, healthy and first-world it might seem. Not only does the list of hazardous posts seem to grow daily, even more and more of those that once could be depended on to be staid and stolid, year after year, are turning iffy. In the most respectable, stable countries, terrible things happen. Volcanoes in Italy. Terrorist attacks in France. Hurricanes in the South Pacific.

And who is responsible for helping American citizens in those places, in those unexpected and terrible events? Who is responsible for being ready at every moment to handle the worst ACS problem imaginable?
Me! I am!
 Yes dear, it's you.

And are you ready?

More and more, OIG inspection teams are forced to report "The consular staff has a limited understanding of the role the U.S military in ... would play in a crisis or how the consular section could assist the military. The consular staff does not conduct liaison activities with DOD personnel. According to 7 FAM 1813.2-4, consular crisis planning should include liaising with DOD officials in country."


"In the event of a crisis, consular staff is unprepared to operate emergency
communications equipment, including laptops and portable satellite telephone systems. Current laptops are old and use an antiquated operating system that the Department no longer supports."


"...the consular staff uses portable satellite telephones in the field to communicate with the embassy, the Department, local government authorities, and private U.S. citizens. The portable satellite telephones enable communication via Internet and telephone and are of primary importance during a crisis. The consular section is not conducting periodic drills to ensure that consular staff is proficient in the use of these telephones."


"According to 7 FAM 071 (Introduction), the consular section chief is responsible for managing post’s warden system, including periodic testing, and 12 FAH-1 H-711 (Crisis Preparedness – Purpose) notes that effective emergency planning requires training, drills, and exercises."


"In the event of a crisis, consular staff is unfamiliar with the range of support it could
expect to receive from, or provide to, other U.S. embassies in the region."


"Department regulation 12 FAH-1 H-332 (Post Profile) recommends that consular managers be aware of employees at U.S. embassies in neighboring countries who possess relevant skills and who could assist in a crisis. The consular section provided no documentation that it met this requirement."


"During past crises in ... consular staff coordinated the evacuation of private U.S. citizens to neighboring countries. The consular sections in U.S. embassies in those receiving countries have played central roles in coordinating (those) evacuations. ... Embassy ... should establish working agreements with U.S. embassies in neighboring countries that identify the types of consular support that it could receive from and provide to those embassies in the event of a crisis"


"Consular crisis plans do not reflect awareness of the crisis preparedness of groups that include substantial numbers of U.S. citizens. The embassy reports that 40 percent of the estimated 300 U.S. citizens in ...are attached to missionary organizations and an additional 40 percent work for nongovernmental organizations. Such organizations typically have their own crisis management plans. To prepare adequately for a crisis, the consular chief would benefit from familiarizing herself with the planning of those organizations, briefing leadership on the embassy’s crisis plans, and exploring areas for collaboration."


"To prepare adequately for possible crises, the Bureau of Consular Affairs relies on embassies’ crisis management plans, including periodic updated risk assessments that identify likely crises, describe the consular services to be provided, and detail the challenges the embassy faces in providing these services."

"The Office of Consular Crisis Management recommends that an embassy coordinate its crisis plan with consular sections of U.S. embassies in nearby countries. Embassy ... has not done so, however. Such coordination prepares embassies in the region to assist evacuated private U.S. citizens and to provide temporary duty officers, if needed."


"The consular section chief estimates that approximately 75 percent of the 5,500 U.S. citizens present...are attached to missionary organizations and a large proportion of the remaining 25 percent of U.S. citizens in ... are attached to nongovernmental organizations. Both missionary and nongovernmental organizations often have their own in-house crisis management plans that take advantage of the groups’ long-term experience in the areas in which their personnel live and work. Consular personnel need to be familiar with these organizations’ plans, to learn from them, and to identify how consular section’s crisis plans can complement them."


"The embassy has not informed the Bureau of Consular Affairs about its crisis plans. As a result, the bureau’s Office of Crisis Management is not aware of the types of support the embassy would need in the event of a crisis. The Bureau of Consular affairs underscores the importance of consular managers providing regular risk assessments that identify likely crises, needed consular services, and associated challenges."

Enfants, these go on and on. But when the ground is rolling, the bullets are pinging, the coconut palms are flying past your window, is not the time to wonder where your Amcits are and what you might have to do for them.
Maybe we need a meeting about how to handle this...

If, at the moment that the ground rolls, the bullets ping, the palms begin soaring, you, the consular officer, can rise from your desk and shout "Let's do it!" and every single consular employee will sprint for his or her emergency duty station to handle this crisis without a further single word, you will have done your job.

Until then, you've got some work to do.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Five Rules of Supervision

Madam is rarely struck silent by anything less than far too much tequila on a warm, dark night. But she has to admit that this item succeeded in not only sealing her lips but making her forget to blink for quite a long time.

Now that she has regained control of the most vital bodily functions, she feels this might be an appropriate time to turn away from blatant WTF stupidity and look at how the competent do - and should do - their jobs.

There are as many lists of such laws/rules/regulations/suggestions as there are people willing to write them, and this one is in no way definitive. But it is far shorter than most. It is clear, broad and simple and, while not getting into details, has been known, all on its own, to provide a reliable highway along which to drive a successful career - and pick up good karma along the way.
Control the controllable.  Life is a balance between what we can and cannot control. If you can fix the inefficient, the impolite, the repetitive, and the time-gobbling, absolutely do so. If it's hard, so what? What better things do you have to do? And what will give you the most satisfaction when you look back on your career?

Eliminate the uncontrollable. The true price of anything is the amount of time you exchange for it. If something you’re doing or thinking isn’t fixing or improving the situation, then it’s wasting your time. If you can, stop doing it. If you're certain that you can't, then explain, apologize, and get on with things.

Give away all the credit. You will be right to do so. Your employees will see what you're doing, and will love, support, and defend you when it counts. They will be emboldened to present long-suppressed great ideas that will truly improve the process. And you might make up for many years of credit-sucking officers who came before you.
Take all the blame. Protect your employees even at your own cost, always. That's your job. And if you had done your job properly, they wouldn't have made that mistake, right? They will see what you're doing, and will love, support, and defend you. And you might make up for a few of the many FSNs casually tossed under the bus by selfish, callow, shallow officers who came before you.

Bring the cookies. Madam is continually dismayed to watch officers chow down on the FSNs' contributions to the snack table (and don't even try to tell her that you don't have such a thing. She has seen it.) while providing nothing of their own.

Think this is trivial? It absolutely is not. It's a behavior that does not go unnoticed, and it implies all sorts of unflattering things about those who practice it: hierarchy-snobbery, selfishness, self-importance, cheapness, stinginess (not the same thing), untrustworthiness, disrespect.

 Can't (or won't) make complex local dishes? Nobody expects you to. Frequent bags of Oreos will serve. They will feed far, far more than tummies.
Yes. In your conscience.

Monday, March 9, 2015

And What About The Rest of That Story?

Here are a few simple rules of speedy, productive interviews, gathered over many years from mentors, co-consuls, subordinates, and experience. More suggestions for this list are warmly welcomed.

 1. Be Nice
     The good applicants will appreciate civility and good manners; the
     'bad' applicants will be disarmed by them. In any case, never forget
     that you are the only American these people might see today.
     Impress them with your calm, courtesy and professionalism,
      even in a refusal. Especially in a refusal.

2. Ask, Don't Tell
    "Where will you stay?" not "So you'll stay in a hotel in New York City?"
    "What is the purpose of your trip?" not "So it's a business trip."
    Why? To assure that the applicant actually knows what the application says.

3. If it Doesn't Matter, Don't Ask
    Don't waste time on questions whose answers are irrelevant.

4. Always Ask the Next Question
    If the story seems shaky or overly generalized, ask for pertinent details: "With
    whom will you conduct these business meetings?" "What will you see on the
    tour?" "What is your schedule of appointments?" "When did your niece meet
    her fiance?" People don't lie all that well; they run out of answers and end up
    at the end of the twig with nowhere further to go.
 EEK! I'm out of answers!
 5. Don't Ask a Question if You're Not Sure You Want to Hear the Answer.
     Most pertinent to ACS cases, often taking the form of "Why on earth...?" or
     "Honey, what were you thinking?"

6. Look It Up
    The internet is everywhere in the consular section. Applicant is going to a
    symposium or conference? A few seconds will assure you whether or not
    such a meetup will actually take place. If so, there will usually be a schedule
    of events or presentations that you can ask about if necessary.

7. If There's One Fib, It's All Untrue
    If the conference is not happening, the hotel doesn't exist, the dead guy didn't
    die and so is not having a funeral, the interview is over. You don't need the
    preponderance of evidence, just a single pertinent untruth and you're done.

8. If the Story Seems Unlikely But Hangs Together, It's True
    Again, people don't lie all that well. You will quickly get to know the specific lies
    that your applicants are likely to tell - and yes, they vary from post to post. If
    the applicant never runs out of answers to increasingly detailed questions,
    he's telling the truth.

9. Don't Agonize
    This revolutionary, nearly insidious, idea has long been perpetuated by the most
    realistic and professional consular managers: one shouldn't let the perfect be the
    enemy of the good. Grab a solution that seems reasonable and get on with life.

    Issuing a visa to a person who does not return is not the end of the world - only,
    sometimes, the source of some teasing. As a friend and colleague puts it, "Most
    officers I knew considered ... denying a case with weak visible ties but genuine
    intent to be preferable to (issuing an intending immigrant). The rationale was that
    the genuine would-be tourist with few visible ties suffered no major harm and
   could vacation somewhere else, but the sneak who got in somehow 'damaged'
   the USA."

   He probably doesn't, probably won't, and the world will not explode if you decide

    Just make up your mind and get on with it.

10. He Paid for the Visa, Not for the Interview
      Madam has watched officers drag out interviews with totally qualified
      applicants. When asked why, the officer would reply, "I feel like I owe
      them my time."

      No, you don't. All you owe them is a clear, prompt decision. A perfectly
      adequate NIV interview might consist solely of "Good morning. Your visa
      will be ready for pickup tomorrow. Have a good day." And a smile.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Iatrogenesis At Work

This title is understood, in the outside world, to refer to the creation of illnesses or complications by well-intentioned medical treatment. Here in our little consular universe, it refers to the type of NIV fraud that is practiced by applicants who are perfectly qualified under the law but who believe that telling the truth will not be good enough. And, as the world knows, the majority of applicants only get, at most, one fair chance. After that it's nearly all, always, routine re-refusals. So they doctor the application and only turn a good one bad. Or they get the visa anyway, but attribute that 'win' to the doctoring process and are encouraged to advise others to do the same.

 The lawyer is right - but is also wrong. Most interviews are less than 5 minutes.

Remember our dear friend Ali? This entrepreneur was able to send all his children to the colleges of their choice because of iatrogenesis; because visa applicants paid him to produce fraudulent documents to bolster their applications, even if there were no grounds under which, if telling the truth, they would or should have been refused. Because even the best qualified among them were sure that the truth would not work.

(Let Madam be clear here: she does not refer to those applicants for whom, no matter what documents they bought, there was no possibility in this world or the next that they would qualify for visas. They are a whole different group of - admittedly wonderful and highly entertaining - applicants. Who here doesn't remember favorite refusals far more clearly and fondly than favorite issuances? Madam thought so.)

Here is a brand-new-very-old news flurry about 'baby hotels' and about women paying huge amounts of money to 'fixers' who help them apply for NIVs, prepare for consular and CBP interviews, and travel to the US to give birth. The news footage on TV was dramatic. And yet, as we all know, having a baby in the US is not illegal. Traveling to the US to have a baby is not illegal. According to the story, "Zoning laws have generally been the primary legal tool against maternity hotels, since it is not illegal for pregnant foreigners to visit the United States or to give birth while visiting. And while lying to get a tourist visa is illegal, it is not easy to prove."

Zoning laws, the terror of the 214(b).

And the part about 'lying to get a tourist visa is illegal?' Does that mean the ladies should be permanently ineligible in the future because of fraud? 212(a)(6)(c) please? No. If the lie is not material - that is, if she would have qualified for the visa has she told the truth - the lie is not fraud. CA has reminded us of this, oh, maybe a jillion times. Maybe more than a jillion.

Imagine how pleasant life would have been for these ladies - all of whom, apparently, were wealthy and were fully intending to go home - had they been able to simply tell the truth. Instead they felt they had no choice but to be led through a maze of shady dealings and pay a huge amount to fixers. But had they told the truth, and had consular officers issued the visas to which they were entitled, they might have worried far less. They might have stayed in the Hilton San Gabriel, with room service, instead of a shabby boarding house surrounded by suspicious neighbors. They might have saved the money they paid the fixers to more easily pay the doctors and hospitals who delivered their babies. They might have made generous down payments on the babies' eventual US educations.

A highly experienced and highly pragmatic officer of Madam's acquaintance once observed "Every bona fide applicant given a 214(b) is living PROOF that other NIV applicants should not just tell the truth. They should buy fraudulent docs that puff up their income. They should lie about relatives in the USA, and civil status. They should say they plan to stay 2 weeks and not 2 months. Soon everyone is giving us fraudulent docs and telling us lies." And soon every consular officer believes he has reason to disbelieve every applicant, so refuses nearly everyone, proving that the applicants' original suspicions were true. So next time, if there is a next time, they'll lie even harder.

 Iatrogenesis Ourobouros, and so it goes

Monday, March 2, 2015

Aim For The Crash

Watching NASCAR races on TV puts Madam in mind of an instructor at the Crash and Bang Course (which was sometimes more sternly called the DSAC and which she strongly recommends that consular officers take as often as possible). The man said, "In auto racing we learn that, if there's a crash on the road ahead, don't try to stop because you'll get rear-ended and don't try to dodge around it because it's still moving. Instead, aim directly for it; by the time you get there, it will be somewhere else."
(Everybody survived)

And yes, Madam mostly watches the races for the crashes. Make something of it. She dares you.

She also reads inspection reports for the crashes. And has been known, when asked, to recommend troubled posts for ongoing assignments for the many consular officers who want something gristly to chew into submission; a Gordion knot to untangle; a wild horse to bend to the bit. Not to mention work worth doing, a great EER, a good reputation, and a promotion.

If the NASCAR model works, though, shouldn't it be true that by the time an officer gets to a badly-reviewed post it will be all better and there will no longer be anything to gnaw/untangle/bridle? No, because it seems to take much, much, much longer for bad posts to clear up than for cars to slide into the infield. She remembers the years - year after year after year - that a certain North African post carried a terrible reputation through inspection after inspection, change after change of officers, for decades.

So the same problems will be there? Some of them. And maybe some new ones. But, like so many NASCAR crashes (and most magic), such crashing and burning always/always looks, sounds and smells a lot more terrifying and complicated than it actually is.

Here is a great example. Keep in mind as you read the consular portion of this report that  inspectors are masters of understatement.

The head of this consular section didn't suffer for his genuinely awful management, since he was strolling into retirement anyway.* And careful reading reveals a large section populated with  smart, honest, competent employees - both FS and local - eager to do a better job than they were allowed to do. Once you've read that report, read a few others and you'll see the same pattern: worker already in place, most of whom are desperate to do a good job and all they need is a sane, serious, fearless, trusting and trustworthy hand to help them. Let such a hand it be yours. And, of course, give all the credit to them, which will reflect onto you and everybody wins. Without the noise and flying auto parts.

So, thinking about job hunting? Read inspection reports. Unlike NASCAR crashes, those targets move very, very slowly. Choose the one you find most enticing (smelly, tangled, inexplicably awful), would love to tackle, and go for it. With cleverness, imagination, application of laws and regs, cheering from CA, and confidence, you can fix it. Then, unlike #21 and #33 above, everybody will win.

And if you ever hear that that Crash and Bang Course is on, beg, borrow, steal, horsetrade or fib your way into it. It is extremely valuable: Madam credits what she learned there with three misses of what could have been very close calls. And it's terrific fun.

*This phenomenon, in which what used to be a highly-regarded, highly competent officer simply quits working, is referred to as RIP - Retired In Place.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

What Child is This? Ours!

One of the many great things about the foreign service is that, at every post, there will be a whole stack of issues that incoming officers, however experienced, have not seen elsewhere. It's always a learning game.

Some of the best fun that Madam ever had the pleasure to watch was indulged in by a group of first-tour consular officers at a certain post as they thrashed the stuffing out of INA section 101(c)(1) with the combined weapons of limited legal knowledge, logic, common sense, and good humor. It resembled, one of them laughingly observed, a game of Twister* with the addition of one or two small children and far higher stakes than simple humiliation for the adult players.

Even now, in the happy age of DNA, some immigration and citizenship cases still hang out on the line, undecided for years for reasons that range from ignorance to recalcitrance to death. Finally, though, Madam is delighted to report that the Board of Immigration Appeals has spoken, and the babies win.

'We now hold,' the BIA declared, 'that a person born abroad to unmarried parents can qualify as a legitimated “child”...if he or she was born in a country or State that has eliminated all legal distinctions between children based on the marital status of their parents or has a residence or domicile in such a country or State... irrespective of whether the country or State has prescribed other legal means of legitimation.'

So, under some previously knotty circumstances, such as US naturalization, a parent now might not have to - or does not have to be able to - formally legitimate a child in order for that child to benefit from that parent's status or actions, exactly as a child born in tiresome wedlock might.


 Hats off to Crescenzo DeLuca and the nation of Jamaica!

* "1966 Twister Cover" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1966_Twister_Cover.jpg#mediaviewer/File:1966_Twister_Cover.jpg

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Deep Blue Storm Effect, Twice Removed

Raise your hand if you remember blue sheets.

Oh crap. She's doing nostalgia again.

For the newer members of the consular service, blue sheets were the fourth or fifth carbon of the I-797 form, which - when sent by then-INS to the post that had issued the NIV - often provided a swift slap to the ego. There was little harder on a new and uncertain conoff than to receive one or (usually) several of these showing that NIV recipients had barely unpacked their suitcases in the US before applying for change of status.

To add further injury, the days of blue sheets were also the days when a conoff might  receive a cable from the Dark Lords of CA themselves, demanding to know why the officer had not applied 214(b) to what was, to them, obviously an intending immigrant. Madam remembers those (thankfully few) days with needlepoint clarity.

Can there be any doubt why the green, the desperate-to-do-the-right-thing, and now the shell-shocked might have refused just about everybody? And can we understand why, feeling surrounded, besieged, and traumatized by being lied to by grownups, they might have been less than kind, patient and thoughtful about it? And why the interview notes, scribbled in the margins of the OF-156, might have been less than diplomatic?

Eventually the process was partially computerized, so that interview notes went into the system, where they could be seen by CA. Then followed several years of scolding cables as CA took officers to task for unflattering, irrelevant and sometimes plainly offensive assessments of applicants' ties, appearances, and intentions as expressed in those notes. Many posts had even devised their own codes such as LP=looks poor, DH=dirty hands, VD=very dark (yes, complected), LC=looks cheap (yes, really), etc. to make the greet-then-refuse process most efficient.

Slowly, conoffs (mostly) stopped insulting the applicants while refusing them. At least, where anyone could catch them at it, such as in writing.

They also complained that writing out notes took a lot longer this way. They were right, for sure. But so it goes.

Now there is one more step. As of last week, all inquiries from the US about NIVs are to be directed to a Washington phone number. This means that many curious, confused, disgruntled or furious friends, relatives, or illegal employers of your 214(b)s will call a 202 number rather than the post in question. And employees who answer that 202 number might not be totally familiar with individual post's rapid-fire interview-and-refuse processes.

So by now, surely, all consular managers and supervisors have discussed this change with their line officers, who understand that their notes, more than ever, must clearly, calmly and succinctly specify how and why the applicant did not qualify for the visa requested. Because they don't want to get THAT call just as an earlier generation never wanted to get THAT cable.
But now all conoffs will explain even better than they've done before, right?

Excellent! Madam is proud of them. So should their supervisors be.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Perhaps Plumbing Tools Would Help?

Once upon a time, Madam visited a post at which the consular chief was responsible for several different locations, and was always apparently busy with one whenever another needed her help. So skilled was this officer at sitting in her office, tapping away at the keyboard and looking thoughtful, that it took several days to realize that she was actually doing - how can Madam put it diplomatically - nothing while raw first-tour officers ran themselves ragged and hollow-eyed, making half-wrong decisions.

Some years later, Madam observed a senior FSO doing exactly the same (no)thing with exactly the same results: inexperienced officers and half-trained FSNs doing their best alone, and failing as often as succeeding while that very experienced officer fiddled with emails and schmoozed with the front office on the phone.

And only half a year ago, at two adjoining posts, a similar tune was still playing for an OIG inspection team.

While Madam tries to keep this blog quick to read, observations by the inspectors are worthy of full insertion here:

"The consular section chief only adjudicates high-profile or referral visa cases. Recent guidance in 13 STATE 153746 reminded consular managers that they are expected to do some interviewing themselves. The section chief’s lack of hands-on participation contributes to longer hours that the more junior employees have to spend interviewing, and remoteness from actual processing undermines her credibility as an expert. It also reduces the opportunities for management to train new personnel and to identify potential interview technique and workflow efficiencies

"Recommendation 13: Embassy XXX should require the consular section chief to conduct routine visa interviews on a regular basis.

"The consular chief reviewed only 5 percent of the visa and American citizens services chiefs’ nonimmigrant visa adjudications in the past 6 months. Neither the former chargĂ© d’affaires nor the former acting DCM reviewed the 65 cases that the consular chief handled in the past year. Failure to review the required 10 percent of visa approvals and 20 percent of refusals, per 9 FAM 41.113 PN 17 and 9 FAM 41.121 N2.3-7, leads to lack of consistency in visa issuance and refusal. Adjudication reviews are also a vital management control to prevent malfeasance.

"Recommendation 14: Embassy XXX should bring its process for reviewing visa adjudications in line with Department regulations."

Please excuse Madam's sudden coughing fit. The consular chief handled 65 cases in a year? That number - cleverly slipped in by the consular inspector to provoke the outrage that it certainly does - is simply insulting.

"Is it safe to come out? Is all the work done?"

And next door:

"In FY 2013, YYY processed more than 100,000 nonimmigrant visa applications, but wait times for visa interviews have approached the 30-day mark. The entire staff is hard pressed to keep up with demand from the traveling public, even though the number of positions available to interview applicants is appropriate for the case load. A series of unanticipated staffing gaps in FY 2013 magnified the problem. Interviewing officers and local staff work hard but are not necessarily efficient. Officers, tired after a minimum of 6 hours of interviewing, make too many simple mistakes that in turn require time-consuming corrections. 

"Too many cases, particularly those awaiting advisory opinion responses, are not processed to conclusion promptly because of lack of oversight and clear standard operating procedures. The consul general and the visa chief rarely adjudicate visa applications, except for high-profile or referral cases. A recent cable (13 STATE 153746) reminded posts that consular managers are expected to do some interviewing themselves. Not only does the lack of hands-on participation contribute to the long hours that the more junior staff has to spend interviewing, this remoteness from actual processing undermines their credibility as experts. It also reduces the opportunities for management to train new personnel and to identify potential interview technique and workflow efficiencies

"Recommendation 11: Embassy YYY should require both the consul general and the visa chief to conduct routine visa interviews on a regular basis."

We could parse this information in SO many different ways. Every phrase is a gem, and a head-shaker. And what is likely to be the consequences for consular managers who should be helping, leading, pushing, guiding, advising, encouraging, diving in, staying late, bringing in snacks, cheering, grinning, back-slapping, dirtying their hands, sweating, breaking fingernails, surfing with the sharks, but are not?

Two choices: punishment or promotion.

Where will you place your bets?