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.