Quote of the day/week/however long

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

Friday, July 30, 2010

They Shouldn't Be Alive

 Have you signed your Privacy Act Waiver, sir?

A group of Scouts and their leaders walk into the Grand Canyon with too little water, no marked trail and no survival plan.  A pair of teenagers in a junky rowboat paddle directly into a massive ocean rip tide.  A father and son in Turkey go skiing without checking the weather report.  An ATV lover drives into empty desert alone, crashes his vehicle and is pinned underneath for days.  Newlyweds take a walk in the Amazon jungle, arguing too intensely to remember to drop cookie crumbs behind them.

You got the optional rental insurance, right?

Madam is only a moderately rabid survivalist, preferring a dinner of veal oscar and a nice white wine to wickety grubs, and she would rather sleep on 500-count sheets with a scented candle in a quiet room than on a hippo-ridden jungle mud bank swarming with starving mosquitoes.

Nevertheless, she is riveted to the Discovery Channel to watch people for whom that river bank doesn't seem such a bad deal at the moment, and to Animal Planet to watch Darwin Award nominees like the fisherman sticking his fingers into a shark's mouth, since it must be dead.  A man flapping a newspaper at a rutting bull elk.  A wildlife photographer clicking off half a role of shots of a grizzly bear and two cubs advancing upon him with clear purpose.  An out-of-shape and drunken American targeted by a very fit and clear-headed bull in Pamplona.  A woman shooting flash photos directly in a half-tamed elephant's face.  A large man mauled by a very small pony who has finally had enough of this.

Wonder what he's going to do next.

There are times that Madam is convinced that not only should these individual humans not have survived their personal attacks of freeze-brain, but the entire human race is doomed to face a revolution in which all other animals will rise in exasperation and stomp us into paste, every one of us.  Any limping, disoriented survivors will be driven away from air conditioning, central heating, hand-knit fisherman's sweaters, pizza delivery and chemically treated water to suffer the fate of the terminally out of touch.

And well deserved, would say the three-pound Chihuahua who shouldered the responsibility of administering Madam's most recent reminder of what animals really think of us.

Until that particular Revolution, however, we consular officers need to remember to stay in regular, positive touch not only with police and hospitals, but also with tour companies, public bus stations, cafes and coffee houses in all population centers however modest, and hoteliers of all levels from the Sheraton through respectable B&Bs to the owner of the four rooms over the train station, reminding them that should lost or troubled Americans wander into their facility, we will be happy to take the Americans' calls.

Our wardens are masters at distributing such dual-language business card-size reminders listing numbers for ACS and the duty officer, and the ACS email address that is closely monitored by a bright and savvy ACS local staff member.  So that until the ponies and Chihuahuas and the earth itself finally get their turn, we'll take their calls and assist however we can.  However hard we laugh as soon as we hang up.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Show Jumping Fail

Quick, raise your hands, everybody who knows a lot about show jumping.  Yes, that thing that people sometimes do on horses.

Hmm.  Not many of you.  Okay then.  Raise your hands, everybody who didn't raise your hands before but still think there is something very wrong with what's happening in this photo.

See?  You don't have to be an expert to know when something doesn't look right.  And most of the time - says one of Madam's favorite laws, the one about William of Occam's razor - if something doesn't look right, the simplest and therefore the most likely explanation is that it's wrong.

Remember this the next time you're buried to the ears in a hard-bound multi-colored tabbed 6-inch binder about an H or L case.  Even if you aren't an expert in the employer's field, if something looks or feels or smells wrong, you're probably right and it probably is.  Follow the scent; you'll find the proof right there.  It might not be as obvious as, say,

but you'll know when you see it that it's a 'fail.'

And all the rest of the time, keep your head up and your heels down.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"A free press can iron dirty laundry..."

"...but then you'll pay for the heat."

Faithful followers might remember long ago when Madam wrote,

"With apologies to the half-dozen highly competent immigration attorneys that Madam knows -- what the heck is with the rest of them? Is there no test of competency or even basic knowledge before an 'immigration attorney' can hang a shingle?

[American Immigration Lawyers Association] conventions one can only be stunned by the incredibly clueless questions some attorneys ask, and the information they try to offer. In panel presentations, it is not uncommon that audience members are so ignorant of the law and so instantly hostile toward US consular representatives that their fellow attorneys have to shush them and drag them back into their seats.

"A hint: if you have to use six different fonts in a letter expressing your indignation about a case that hasn't been going your way; if you can't find relevant legal decisions and so quote - at length - decisions that actually have no bearing on your case; if you find yourself insulting, name-calling, and quoting at length from an interview that you did not attend; maybe you need to consider one of two things:

"one, maybe your applicant is not going to get a visa for some very good reason, such as he doesn't qualify under the law.

"two, maybe you need to go back to the books and learn what you're trying to practice."

That was a very fun rant to write.  But now here is another that puts Madam's little pique-fit to shame.  It was written to an AILA-members-only info board by a disgruntled and disillusioned AILA attorney, and it is a doozy.   It is quite long, but a positively rolicking read that, like all great literature, hints at deeper, wider issues of the utmost seriousness.  Enjoy.

AILA’s InfoNet Message Center (MC)

    Let me start by confirming what many of you already know: I am not a big fan of the organization known as AILA. But I digress.

    The Message Center is another of AILA’s attempted suppression of free speech and its almost vitriolic hatred of the Federal Government and how it tries to enact, interpret, and enforce its immigration laws. It’s not even remotely an open question anymore, for AILA as an organization and too many of its individual members don’t even recognize the concept of the “loyal opposition” (to wit, those who don’t think the government is automatically wrong, 100% of the time.). This can be seen on an almost daily basis on the MC.

    (And, by the way, let me here insert an interesting tidbit, to reinforce what some of you may already think about me. I only started recently posted on MC because I learned that Google uses website listings on blogs and places like the MC as part of its algorithms for rankings, and thus every time I post something on the MC and use my website address of www.rinzler.com, it helps my business. In short, it’s free advertising, but at least I am honest about it. While I also enjoy being a mentor, I have found that effective mentoring generally requires the attorney to call the mentor to discuss the facts of the case in detail, rather than posting some ridiculously incomplete statement of “facts” on the MC. This rationale would seem, of course, to put me and every other MC poster in violation of the MC’s laughable “Terms of Use”, specifically “[When posting a message, you must agree] (e) not to use the Message Center for advertising of products or services.” Everyone who posts on the MC is advertising themselves and the opinion they have to offer as much as anything else. Yes, we all know that many, if not most, people who post do it out of the goodness of their hearts, but from where I stand many more seem to do it because they like seeing their name in print and it’s a contest as to who can post the most and the fastest.)

    That being said, the MC Rules open with “The message board is designed to provide an informal open forum to AILA members for the exchange of information, experiences, and ideas.” It also states that “reproducing or publishing any contents of the Message Center in any other forum or forwarding contents to others is strictly prohibited.”

Under Terms of Use can be found: When posting a message, you must agree: (b) not to use the Message Center for the posting of any material that is defamatory, offensive, blasphemous, or obscene;
The statements you post may be actionable for defamation, invasion of privacy, or other legal cause of action. Readers must avoid comments that are false and injurious to others.  
Repeated violations of these standards may result in the Member being barred from access to the Message Center.

    Please tell me this overly broad, incredibly subjective, and completely unenforceable language was not written by lawyers, especially lawyers who are supposed to be champions of free speech. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has recently ruled that one may say curse words on TV. And “blasphemous”? Are you serious? Did AILA get that suggestion from the Pope or from Al-Qaeda? When did AILA become the keeper of the public’s morals? Who gets to determine when someone is offended and, if so, whether it merits 40 lashes or just ten?

    As for not “forwarding contents to others”, then we might as well close up shop. How about emails between colleagues? Listserves? How about all the so-called liaisons sharing information with those evil U.S. Government (USG) personnel in an effort to help the membership? What about the talks I have with my mom, my neighbor, my Congressman? But those are technicalities, and not what I really want to discuss here.

    I do not feel constrained by the MC’s mostly stupid, yes stupid, rules, and thus I do not feel the need to abide by them. That statement should be enough to get the conspiracy theorists in a lather. And as for explicitly and/or implicitly agreeing to them by using the MC, I’d offer the analogy of when one installs software on his computer: if you don’t “agree” to the 10,000 word license and click on the “Next” button, you ain’t getting to Kansas, Toto.

    So please, moderators and other keepers of the faith, stop telling us what the MC rules are, and how that if we share what we read, we will not only burn in hell but might have our posting rights revoked. It’s not for you to decide and it’s an unwarranted infringement of the right of freedom of speech, as well as simply undermining AILA’s credibility in so many ways. If you feel you’ve been personally defamed, then sue. Otherwise, move on. And as for the constant reminders that MC postings are sacred texts not to be shared with anyone, I suggest you enter the 21st century. Any adult who posts on the internet, anywhere on the internet but especially to a forum where one knows that at least 5,000 members or so have unfettered access, has no expectation of privacy. If you don’t want it spread around, then don’t post it. You’re afraid of breaching attorney-client privilege? Don’t post it. You don’t want someone else to talk to an FSO and say “watch out for this future applicant’ or have your statements possibly misinterpreted, then don’t post it. You want confidential advice from a colleague, pick up the damn phone, don’t post it. Again, it’s not rocket science. And, ironically enough, anyone who follows the blogosphere knows that the State Department has already punished numerous FSO’s for their blogs and for not toeing the party line. One would hope AILA would be above that.

    And speaking of intentionally or unintentionally sharing postings with the government, when did Uncle Sam become AILA’s enemy? Why are government attorneys prohibited from joining AILA? Not that any rational one would want to, but are they not one of the key groups we need to work with in this life? And as to the State Department’s Foreign Service Officers (FSO’S), why is it that the only thing AILA and the overwhelming majority of its ignorant, yes ignorant when it comes to the realities of what FSO’s do and the conditions and expectations they operate under, membership ever says about them is that they are relentlessly incompetent, inefficient, uncaring, and opposed to letting anyone – anyone – into this country at any time and for any reason? With the exception of the late Steve Fischel, it is almost impossible to find a positive reference by AILA and the majority of its members to an FSO. And this from a group who is relatively clueless about how American diplomatic posts operate, who have generally not been to a consulate unless it’s to the ACS window when they lost their passport while overseas or Aunt Tilly kicked the bucket in Florence and they need to ship the body home, who have not ever witnessed first-hand a visa interview or have had to face the difficult decision of whether some applicant might be the next terrorist or is “simply” someone who might be lying through his teeth. The FSO’s don’t make the laws; they are charged with enforcing them. And they don’t get a commission for every applicant they reject. And by actually living and working in-country, often under quite trying conditions, and by speaking the language, they are actually often more knowledgeable than an attorney from the U.S. who can only cite regulations (often without understanding the rationale behind them) and who unquestionably believes every single thing his paying client tells him, to the point that if Lady Macbeth came in for a consultation with blood covering her hands the first and maybe only question the attorney would ask after accepting payment was if she needed a napkin for that.

    The stated mission of AILA is “to promote justice, advocate for fair and reasonable immigration law and policy, advance the quality of immigration and nationality law and practice, and enhance the professional development of its members.” How is that possible if we always treat the government as the enemy? And how is that possible if AILA believes that virtually any violation of the immigration laws should be forgiven by a waiver so that anyone can get a visa or remain in this country, that an attorney should virtually never say to a prospective client “Hey, I may not turn you in but I sure as hell don’t want to represent you”, or realize that some clients lie or at least conveniently forget key facts and couldn’t/wouldn’t accurately relate what transpired in a consular interview if their lives depended on it (which they sometimes do).

    This past week there was a posting on MC which raised some very serious ethical issues as well as freedom of speech ones. It appeared that a CBP officer had broken the law in some quite serious ways, thus potentially opening himself up to extortion attempts and other national security issues as he is a law enforcement officer on our Southern border. I struggled with whether I should contact law enforcement authorities on this, and I advised the poster to give her course of action a lot of thought about what he/she might want to do. I also commented that I thought it was “sad” that so many of our colleagues were more concerned with the theoretical aspects of how to help this client accomplish his objective, rather than with the possible ethical and security considerations involved about having personal knowledge of someone who is charged with protecting our country’s security. Only one other poster thought I raised some valid concerns, while another made a joke about grabbing a firearm and making a citizen’s arrest on the officer. But at least there was some discussion, and then at one in the morning the string vanished.

    Since then I have learned the how and why of the string’s deletion. In short, one of the moderators thought he/she was doing the right thing; a motive I respect, but I question as to why we feel the need for someone to have to be in that position in the first place. Also, why was my posting removed, rather than just the original poster’s; do I not have any say in the matter? The original poster didn’t see the need to delete (because, as explained to me in an email from that person, after posting he/she didn’t feel the need to be on the MC the next day), so why should AILA? I can only think that the primary reason was that too many members were afraid that someone would contact the government or that the government was monitoring the MC. You know what, maybe the government does. Why the hell do we care? Again, if you don’t want it out in the public realm, don’t post it; AILA cannot and should not be the big brother (in all senses of the term) in such matters.

    I know many FSO’s, both professionally and personally. Living in Washington, DC, and having travelled to forty countries helps account for that. Some of them are fantastic at what they do, some less so, and a few are, frankly, terrible. Funny, but the same can be said about AILA members. The difference is, however, that the typical FSO understands the attorney’s purpose in the visa process, and even enjoys working with those attorneys who show a modicum of respect for the FSO’s responsibilities, display a decent amount of competence and evidence of having done their homework, and try to see the case from the FSO’s point of view. Unfortunately, in my experience – and in that of most FSO’s --the same cannot be said of most AILA members. And if you think FSO’s are na├»ve enough or vain enough or stupid enough that they will show favoritism to an attorney simply because he tries to curry favor with them, well then you just keep on believing it because I have no energy nor desire to correct the limitless misconceptions held by AILA when it comes to FSO’s. In closing, I’ll even let you in on a little secret: while security concerns are one valid reason why some posts don’t like to admit attorneys absent exceptional circumstances, the overwhelming reason is because too many attorneys have proven to be incompetent, abrasive, and arrogant. The real reason posts have been limiting attorney access is because the people promoting it the most for the past 20 years are the same ones who have pissed off the most FSO’s. And consider this: we won’t let them into our house, why should they let us enter theirs?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Got The Bug?

The temptation is a powerful one.  Most long-term consular officers (that is, those who keep doing tour after tour as conoffs, whatever their cone) have been hit with the bug.

An extraordinarily strange day on the visa line will do that to you.  A perfectly ordinary day in ACS will, too.  Closing down at the end of such a day, any consular officer can be forgiven for thinking, "Some day I'm going to write a book about this stuff."

Consular work gives would-be writers a generous supply of unique material, sometimes every day.  Even if you remove the fussy law-related details that readers don't understand and don't want to learn, many consular stories are powerful enough to stand on their own as riveting just-so tales about the human condition and its complexities.  In fact, any story that will make listeners laugh out loud and want more when related in a friendly bar, can also make readers laugh out loud and want more.  (A tip:  the very best parties are the ones attended by both consular and DHS officers.  Each of us knows half of a great story.  We know the opening, they know the punch line.)

The US diplomatic community has, of course, proven itself to be an eager consumer of these stories, as recent editions of both the Foreign Service Journal and State magazine have proven.  So why not reach beyond  the choir, and tell them to the rest of the world?  With a few exceptions - such as this absorbing tale from O Henry - this can prove more difficult than we envision.

First, of course, is the difficulty of writing.  The world - as everyone knows - is divided into two groups.  In this case those two groups consist of those who want to write, and those who actually do write.  Writing is a surprisingly difficult and bossy taskmaster that, if it doesn't suck up every speck of your mind, energy and time, will go sulking off to afflict someone else and leave you with ten pages you will never get beyond.  As a dear and often-published friend of Madam's says impatiently to those who claim that they 'want to write', "Look.  You're either a writer or you aren't.  A writer writes.  Everybody else talks about writing.  Choose."  The British writer/impresario Alan Moore says, “It’s just constantly raising expectations for myself, to the point where, inevitably, I must surely collapse under my own mass and become some sort of creative black hole.”  Unless this observation makes you nod in rueful agreement, you're not likely to add much to those ten pages.

Second is the Privacy Act.  Some stories are so unique that we can't help but give away who the fool citizen was who got himself into such a pickle.

Third, and the highest hurdle to get over, is the fact that so many of our fellow citizens, safely moored in the warm and amiable harbor of the US borders, find it extremely difficult to grasp the situations in which their fellows find (or bury) themselves:  they are truly great stories, but who will believe them?  When we finish with some of them, even we can hardly believe them.  When we think of telling our consular stories, we remember that most often it is our fellow officers who roll on the floor laughing; even our own loyal family members smile politely but uncomprehendingly.

Should these difficulties stop us?  That's up to us and us alone.  You're either a writer or you aren't.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Get Out of the Office and ...

Try Geocaching

Run with The Hash, from Singapore to St Louis

The Sort of Official Hash Page

Harrier.net to find your closest club

Adopt a new pet

Learn to dance

Practice the language with a native speaker

Teach someone a new skill


Make yourself useful


Or just get some fresh air

Friday, July 23, 2010

Always Something

Americans, bless 'em.  They will...

Gather together smarts enough to get a passport and obtain a visa for some exotic country, but not smarts enough to actually READ the visa.  Like the part that says how long they can stay.

Pack 45 changes of clothes for a two week vacation, but not their antipsychotic medication.

Spend the whole hour on the bus from the airport to the hotel criticizing everything they see out the window.

Rent a car in a foreign country, then use it to try to teach all the 'locals' how to drive correctly (as it is done in Ohio or Oregon) instead of the way they actually drive there.

Fall in love with a ragged, ratty, diseased and completely undomesticated pet-type animal from the streets and expect to take it back to the US on tomorrow's flight.

Fall in love with a ragged, ratty, diseased and completely undomesticated human from the streets and expect to take him/her back to the US on tomorrow's flight.

Publicly and loudly complain about the quality of - or total lack of - toilet paper.

Believe that food cooked in front of their eyes on the street must be poisonous, but food that wanders out of an unseen hotel kitchen must be germ-free.

Bargain like pit bulls over 37-cent taxi fares.

Laugh at the local money because it looks funny, is funny colors, feels like play money, and they can't figure out what it's worth in 'real' money.

Stick cameras into the faces of innocent people without asking.

They will also...

Laugh at their own sorry efforts with the local language, but keep trying.  Especially 'Please' and 'Thank You.'

Give coins to beggars.

Try scary food.

Try to save the lives of ragged, ratty, diseased and completely undomesticated pet-type animal from the streets.  No matter how drunk, they would never do this.

Help old or infirm local people cross the street or carry heavy packages home, in directions the Americans were not going.

Smile at everybody until the locals think they must be crazy, but secretly like it anyway.


Pay their hotel bills without arguing and go home on time.  Usually.

Show up on Friday at 4 PM to ask for help with a problem they created on Tuesday morning.

Yep.   That's ACS for you.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Great. Now Everybody Will Want One.

Once in a medium-sized, busy consular section a visa applicant went crazy.  Now, Madam knows this is not an extraordinary event; but wait.

The woman had made an 8:30 appointment.  She got to the embassy at 8:20.  She was admitted at 9:15.  She turned in her passport at 9:45.  She was still waiting for her interview at 10:20 when she lost it.

She flew out of her (hard, uncomfortable plastic) chair, ran to the intake window, hurled her coat and handbag to the floor, and started to yell.  The intake FSN, startled and a little wary despite ballistic glass, backed away.  Everyone in the waiting room sat up, suddenly alert and glittery-eyed, like hungry predators recognizing weakness.  The woman yelled something like, "I made an appointment for this and it's been two hours!  I have an important meeting!  My secretary doesn't know where I am!  I have a lunch appointment!  I - I - I "

What might have happened then happens far, far too often:  the section chief might have gone to the window, defended the (slow, ill-planned, disrespectful) visa application process, engaged in a criticizing contest, and finally might have called the local guards to send the woman away.

Instead, a new, first-tour consular officer, at post only a few weeks, went to the window, eased the FSN aside, leaned forward, made eye contact, and said, "May I help you?"

Panting and glaring, the woman shouted a shorter version of her rant.

The officer said - get this now - "I am so sorry.  Would it help if you could call someone?"

"Call?  Call!  They took my phone away at the gate.  I can't call!"

The officer reached into his pocket, took out his own embassy-assigned cell phone, slid it through the teller window, and said, "Use this one."

The world did not end, but it caught its breath.  The woman stared, then grabbed the phone, turned and began punching buttons.  The officer waited a moment to be sure the phone was working for her, then returned to his desk.  The world lurched back into its normal rotation.

A few minutes later, the intake FSN returned the officer's phone.  The woman got her interview, during which she was brisk, polite and good humored.  She left the embassy a little flustered but also satisfied with her experience there.  A crisis was - and perhaps lifelong dislike and resentment for the US in general were - averted by the most basically courteous gesture one person can make to another:  recognizing and acknowledging the other's distress, then acting decisively to relieve that distress in the simplest, most direct, most practical manner possible.

May we all view our customers as people first, visa applicants only a distant second.  And may that smart, quick, humane and sensible officer enjoy a long and entertaining career.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Stumbled Upon

Have any readers noticed how Madam sometimes throws in FAM references to bolster her complaints and admonitions?  Are you tired of it yet?

Well, too bad.  Here she comes again.  Her new favorite FAM item, encountered purely by chance:


(TL;PER-292; 9-15-95)

The treatment of our customers is an important aspect of how we are perceived as an agency. Because people will generally treat each other the way they are treated, good customer service must begin with the way we interact with each other. It is the policy of the Department that our employees must treat each other, as well as our external customers, with proper respect and courtesy at all times.

Did you see that?  Did you see how this little paragraph assumes that we treat our customers well, and so uses that as a basis to remind us to treat one another well, also?  How quaint is that?  And yet it was written in 1995, not in the 19th century...and not in the 21st, in which it sometimes seems that everything is always about somebody who can't be convinced that he is responsible for the consequences of his own selfish, myopic, arrogant behavior.

Madam hates to be a nag (well, not really) but she is happy to take this opportunity to repeat, yet again, what we were all told in A100, in ConGen, and in at least a hundred different places on the CA intranet:  treating customers well is mandatory, period.  The Department even promises - yes, promises, read it yourself - decent treatment to applicants in public, in print.

A consular officer might be the first American that a visa applicant meets.  The experience of making and attending an interview appointment can be momentous; people dress up for that.  They fret and worry.  And then - without consciously meaning to - they sometimes can't help but judge the entire US by their treatment at the US embassy, just as we might do if the situation were reversed.  When their anxiety is met with efficiency, patience, understanding and courtesy it's not only the perception of the agency that benefits, but it's the US as a whole.

After all, consular work is not about consular officers; it's about consular customers.  Yes, all of it.

This little saying is too cute, too trite, too old, and too still true:

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ali On The Corner

Madam is very fond of Ali, whose three sons and four daughters all earned masters' degrees from top US universities, their educations fully funded by 221(g)s.

In warm countries, Ali sits under a tree a few steps from the US consulate with a chair, a small table, and a manual typewriter.  In cooler countries, he rents a tiny office a few steps from the US consulate with a chair, a small table, a manual typewriter and a space heater.  He doesn't put out a sign; he doesn't need to.  He strolls to his work station - accepting respectful greetings from the queue of consular customers with great dignity - and sets up his typewriter every morning an hour or so before the consulate opens.  Then he nods to his first customer.

Here is Ali, at work on a visa application for Pakistan for some lucky customer.  You might notice that Ali was able to provide the blank form.  He can also provide forms and fill in very convincing data for property deeds, automobile titles, bank statements and census registers.  He can write coherent and grammatical employment letters on any letterhead a consular officer might prefer.  He owns a fine selection of fountain and ball point pens, with which he can produce any sort of signature appropriate to a document.  He also carries an impressive line of ink and wax seals.

So when a consular officer refuses a nonimmigrant visa applicant 221(g) for any document that isn't required by the visa application, the applicant goes to talk to Ali.  For a reasonable fee, Ali will provide the form or letterhead, the data, the signature and the seal.  The applicant will return to the consulate and turn in the document.  The consular officer will issue the visa and the applicant will travel to the US.  Ali will deposit the modest fee - along with a dozen or two or three dozen other fees collected that day - in the education fund he has now opened for his grandchildren.

Wait a moment, you might say.  What do you mean by 'any document that isn't required by the visa application?'

Documents that are required before a visa can be issued are forms like I-797s, DS-2019s and I-20s.  Anything that is not required is irrelevant and should not be asked for; if offered, it should not be accepted.  Why?  Because it is irrelevant, it is distracting, it invites dishonesty, it substitutes for actual knowledge, and it keeps Ali employed.

But wait a moment, you might say.  I need a (job letter, property deed, bank statement) to be sure that the visa applicant is what he claims to be.

No, you absolutely don't need a document to tell you this.

Then how will I know that he is what he claims to be?

You will interview him. And Ali's grandchildren will have to pay for their own educations.

Monday, July 19, 2010

"Acts of Futility"

In the words of the wonderful cartoonist Hugh MacLeod, "All truly great ideas started life as acts of futility."  A list of such great ideas would surely contain many that intended to make consular services easier and more efficient for - wait for it - consular customers, NOT consular officers.

It is true that consular sections don't have to be nice to their customers, don't have to provide them with appointments, don't have to give them chairs to sit on, don't have to post inspiring Statue of Liberty posters or endless loops on how to give fingerprints, which their appointment times fade into the distant past and they still grip virgin documents in weary hands.  After all, consular customers are captive; they can't go down the street to the embassy that will treat them better.

Madam has even heard of consular sections dismissing their four- to seven-hour appointment-wait outside anyway-security-passport-fingerprint-interview-decision processes as perfectly acceptable since local officials don't treat their citizens any better.  Sorry, but since when did the behaviors of penny-ante misanthropic sadistic and lazy local officials set the standard for American behavior?

Appointment systems that work only as crowd control are not acceptable.  Appointment systems that are not honored by those who impose them are not acceptable.  Appointment systems that require all applicants to come at a single time, or in two or three large groups, are not acceptable.  Appointment systems that still leave dozens or hundred standing outside the mission's walls waiting to enter while exposed to any mayhem that might happen along, from gunmen to wearers of suicide vests, are not acceptable.

In the 1998 bombings of US embassies Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, 12 Americans died.  More than 300 Kenyans and Tanzanians died and over 5000 were wounded.  The majority of that 5300 were visa applicants, already queued up for hours waiting to submit applications, were the applicants friends or relatives, or were vendors selling drinks and snacks to the applicants and their friends and relatives.  Twelve years later, in some missions, very little has seriously changed to reduce the number of potential civilian deaths.

Public road on one side, blast resistance on the other, 50 people with 7:30 appointments in between.  Who would survive?

How can Madam put this politely?  In every US consular section, some responsible consular officer needs to pull his head out of his - pocket - walk outside, and count the number of innocent (214b is NOT a capital crime) civilians who would be killed or wounded in a suicide attack.

Then understand that you were hired because you are smart and responsible.  Prove it.  Generate and act on that truly great idea.  Fix this.  Today.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Other End of the Leash

This is the title of a justly popular best-seller among dog people, a book that - uniquely at the time it was written - looked at peoples' behaviors from dogs' point of view.

Completely unlike dogs, Madam hastens to begin, immigrants also have points of view, needs, desires, misunderstandings and impulses that differ wildly from those parts of the immigration process that consular officers know or believe they know.  To be able to see the entire complex tapestry (sorry) of immigration is not only extremely helpful for consular officers, it can prove extremely helpful, as well, for the customers those officers serve.  In fact, consular officers' knowing how immigration works in its entirety can keep them out of embarrassing situations, and keep well-intended customers from being inadvertently led down the garden path to the PTS room.

Once upon a time, a jock-ish young man was teased by his football team mates when he was caught with a dogeared copy of "Glamour" magazine.  Undisturbed, the young man answered, "Look at it this way; it's like capturing the other team's playbook."

Gaining access to on-line forums ('fora' for us purists) that sometimes or solely address immigration issues works that way, too.  Not only is one able to see more clearly what immigrants or intending immigrants were thinking of when they did whatever they did, or tried whatever they tried - many of them believing that those actions were perfectly legal under US immigration law - but a well-run forum in which hysterics and wild accusations are not tolerated and in which skilled experts answer questions sensibly and simply can be a powerful learning tool for a consular officer.  (Can you explain the H1B cap?  Know what an EAD is?  Know that many individuals who enter the US on the VWP ARE allowed to adjust status under several different circumstances?  Well then.)

Consular officers overseas are encouraged to join such forums, both to listen for problems and to help resolve them.  Domestically, one of the best can be found among Yahoo Groups.  It is owned and run by two immigration attorneys who do not permit whining and mud-slinging, and who give their answers in quick, clear, accurate bites.  One must be a member to read the questions and answers, but signing up is easy and learning about the rest of US immigration - that is, what happens before, during and after the parts that consular officers are familiar with - is extremely useful and even eye-opening.  There is no need to feel obliged to answer forum questions; the owners do that.  And they appear to understand consular processing far better than consular officers understand domestic processing, to our detriment.  By simply following the Qs and As, consular officers can gain a broader and extremely useful understanding of the process they thought they knew well; the other team's playbook; the other end of the leash.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Solomonic Decisions

Every adoption tale is complex at the very least, and often frustrating, heart-rending, risky, expensive, terrifying, fraudulent and shamelessly illegal as well as joyous and fulfilling, as an earlier entry here considered.  There is, however, one adoption story that might be totally unique; for which there might be no precedent.  It is so unusual not because of the circumstances that developed - those are far too common - but because of the way the families dealt with those circumstances.

Americans adopting domestically suffer nightmares that include pregnant women repeatedly passing them over to choose other parents for their children.  They include last-minute mind-changes in the delivery or recovery room.  They include popup fathers or other family members suddenly demanding - and getting - the child back.   It is the fear of such possibilities as much as the lack of available American infants that drives would-be adopters overseas.

Overseas, the nightmares include unconscionable adoption 'fees' (as much as $45,000 per child).  They include seemingly healthy children who begin to demonstrate mental illness or uncontrollable violence brought on by deprivation, abuse, or drug- or alcohol-abusing birth mothers.  They include the fear that the child was purchased or stolen from loving but destitute parents.  And they include the fear that a child's birth family was sold an 'adoption' process that included constant contact, a US education, regular visits, and final return, after high school or college graduation, to the birth family...that is, no relinquishment but only a fixed-term lease.

The May 15 episode of the PBS series "This American Life" includes a 31-minute segment called "Where’s King Solomon When You Need Him?"  You can access and stream it here, or download it from Itunes or Audible.com.  See how American adoptive parents learned the truth about what their new daughter's birth family was told, and what they all did about it.  The choices they made would not be viable for everyone, but the reasoning behind them is worth a careful listen, and consideration.  And after that 31 minutes it might be a bit harder to dismiss parents' fears too easily.  Even CA/OCS/CI has a role in this tale.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

ACS Dissonance in Kigali

A U.S. lawyer released from a Rwandan prison on medical grounds credited America's Secretary of State with his release but said Sunday the U.S. Embassy did not help him secure food or medicine while in prison

"Peter Erlinder, 62, said he had to sleep on a concrete floor without a blanket and without assistance from the embassy after his May 28 arrest in Kigali, Rwanda's capital. The Minnesota law professor thanked U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for saying Rwanda shouldn't arrest lawyers [emphasis added] but said embassy officials in Kigali and Nairobi have not helped much. 'My government insisted that I take my medications from my captors rather than bringing me medications directly,' Erlinder told a news conference in Nairobi, his first public comments since his arrest. 'It was impossible for them to arrange a doctor whom I would pay so that I wouldn't have to get my food and my medication from my captors.'

"A spokesman in Kigali said the U.S. embassy there offered regular assistance to the imprisoned lawyer. 'Embassy officials visited Erlinder every day and were in constant touch with his family,' embassy spokesman Edwina Sagitto said. 'The Embassy also provided him food every day, and medicine from his doctors in the United States every day.'

"Erlinder did not outright say that he feared taking food from Rwandan authorities, but that was the implication. He added that it wasn't clear to him that 'my own embassy was working in my interests.'  He did not elaborate."

The story goes on (find the rest here) but perhaps this is enough.

The story does not mention which Rwanda prison.  This is Gitarama.  Wonder where these gentlemen get food and medicine daily.

Anyone could find the contradictions in this story:  the embassy didn't help, didn't provide the exact help he wanted (implying that there was help, just not his favorite flavor), didn't provide its help in the way he wanted...  And by the way, Madam has searched the net in vain for the Secretary's statement to the effect that lawyers shouldn't be arrested - can someone else find it?  There are SO many possible (and shamelessly funny) responses to that observation that Madam simply can't choose between them.   

Nevertheless, welcome home, Professor.

As Madam often says, consular officers don't do their jobs for thanks.  But thank you, Kigali!  And never mind.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Child Abuse

Immigration gives so many adults such excruciating headaches, why would anyone choose to inflict something so arcane, complex and divisive on a child?  After all, children are meant to be protected and cherished, not tortured.  Besides, there are very good reasons why consular officers' children refuse to participate in "take your child to work" days - they already know more than they want to about what we do, how and why.

And children think of our founding immigrant ancestors, as our dear Gore Vidal famously noted, as "boring but perfect."

Nevertheless, the US is a nation of immigrants, etc, etc, etc; immigration is often a subject of family stories and legends; and despite childrens' very sensible propensity to presume that whatever news readers, newspapers and adults are discussing is deadly boring and has nothing to do with them, immigration can actually be made to be pretty interesting, even for them.  If anyone can do that, it would be the folks of Scholastic, that fine old organization that still publishes the "Junior Scholastic" magazine that Madam remembers fondly from her own youth.

Just a glance at this page of resources and suggestions can give any consular supervisor a half dozen ideas not only to genuinely amuse the children in spite of themselves, but also to shape a worthwhile Consular Leadership Day, in place of the usual character-building (boring, really; come on!) lectures, films and crisis management exercises.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A US Political Ad That Appeals to Sane People?

This will never work.  Not in the past decade, nor probably in this one.  Americans seem to have far too much fun ranting illogically.  Still, together with the Pulitzer-winning PolitiFact (which brilliantly and responsibly concentrates its efforts in the regions richest in easy pickings:  Washington, Texas and Florida) perhaps it's an early sign of better things to come.  Perhaps even a safe place to send our puzzled and concerned foreign friends when they insist on gently laying the backs of their hands to our foreheads to check for fever or contagious rising national idiocy.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Say What?

It seems to be a contest:  who can get into the most trouble quickest via social media?  Neither ambassadors  nor reporters are immune to scolding and even firing for expressing opinions not held - or at least not spoken aloud at that moment - by their superiors.

Earlier this week, our beloved Diplopundit devoted an entry to patient dissection of the new 5 FAM 790Madam strongly recommends that any State employee or dependent who is even thinking of blogging or tweeting study this very carefully.  Especially the part about how "the Department encourages the responsible use of social media consistent with current laws, policies and guidance that govern information and information technology."  And how "Department organizations will not arbitrarily ban access to or the use of social media" despite the dozens of anecdotes that appear to contradict these very statements, from new A-100-ites to veteran spouses.

As Madam often insists, the plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data.'  Still, the treatment of the spouse who was ordered to take down her personal blog in which she wrote that she did not love Oakwood still seems pretty harsh, as does the fate of the new FSO who was ordered to delete the personal blog in which she dared to admit to finding A-100 tiring.  Not to mention the blanket instruction to A-100-ites (officially denied but subject to dozens of first-hand confirmations) to not blog, period, lest they in their newbie ignorance make any statement that could in any way be construed as criticism of the Service or any of its processes.

Consider, on the other hand, the admission by Margot Carrington, the highly skilled and otherwise well-qualified principal officer in Fukuoka, that "Despite having worked six years at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, I initially encountered a bit of culture shock when I arrived in Fukuoka.  First, I had to contend with our local dialect of Hakataben and not knowing what yokinshatta (welcome) meant!"  Madam can't help but wonder if such a public-media admission of ill-preparedness by a lower ranking FSO might have been so quickly glossed over in favor of breathless admiration for her kabuki efforts - which, fortunately, the local population appeared to find flattering rather than offensive.  But then, this admission by the ranking US diplomat at post was published via Embassy Tokyo's DCM's official blog.  So it's all good.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Heat / Light / Children

Every consular officer knows how delicate the subject of adoption can be. Emotion runs extremely high; costs can be astonishing (spending tens of thousands of dollars for a child is routine); the complexity of the process can drive the most stable of adults to serious drink; and it's absolutely true that child-hungry would-be parents can fall frantically in love with a child they've never met and might do anything to get that child 'home.'

The internet is full of sad stories, desperate stories, joyous stories, untrue stories, hilarious stories, unfair stories ... very few thoughtful, well-balanced stories.  The New Yorker published one of the few such stories in May of this year. It is written by the adoptive father of a Haitian orphan whose processing - all done by the book in both Haiti and the US - was complicated by the January earthquake.  But he never lost his cool and the article, although long, is well worth reading by any consular officer.

The article includes a history of the whole international adoption phenomenon.  For example, the writer took the time to research the numbers:  in response to the often-asked question, "Why don't Americans adopt American children?" he wrote, "Since the seventies, the supply of healthy infants available through domestic adoption has contracted sharply... In 1970, a hundred and seventy-five thousand [U.S.] newborns were adopted; by 2002, that number had dropped to under seven thousand.  Most of the fifty thousand domestic U.S. adoptions each year are of older children in foster care." The article also, of course, includes his family's own compelling and ultimately successful story.

For more adoption-related numbers from a variety of reliable sources, check here.