Quote of the day/week/however long

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

Friday, October 28, 2011

Bravo, Sarajvo

Madam was very pleased and relieved to read about the gunman who fired at our mission in Sarajevo today.  He wounded a policeman but was fairly quickly subdued and taken into custody.

Why the pleasure and relief?  Because - aside from the policeman whose injury is tragic, unnecessary, and deeply regrettable - no other innocent bystander (such as, for example, any NIV applicant) was hurt.  Since the attack took place in mid-afternoon, perhaps the visa applicants had simply cleared out by then.  Or perhaps the consular section takes the safety of its customers seriously, and assures that none are ever compelled to wait in that world-wide danger zone, on the sidewalk outside a US embassy.  Madam has never been to Sarajevo, but the second possibility appears more likely than it might in another place, because Sarajevo's NIV backlog is only one day for all visa categories:  the first sign of a thoughtfully- and humanely-run consular section.

If only luck and timing were responsible for the lack of civilian casualties, Madam hopes that the mission will take note and take more care.  If it was deliberate policy that kept the innocent out of harm's way, respectful kudos are due to Anne-Marie Casella and her staff.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Let It Be Me

Many of us worry desperately about - and might admire enormously - those truly courageous souls who dare participate in the wave of protests and demonstrations now occurring and spreading in the world.  Where will this wave go now?  Maybe not China, maybe not North Korea, but not long ago we might have poo-pooed the idea of Libya, so we don't know.

As we read about our colleagues - only peripherally in the ordinary news, which at most might mention a ship or a flight 'arranged by the US embassy' - it is only human for a true consular officer to feel a tiny tug of envy.

Because in every such officer's heart is a wee little voice that whispers, "Me.  Involve me.  If it's going to happen, please let it happen while I'm here and while I can try my best to pass the ultimate consular test - to think fast and creatively and without hesitation to help and protect my employees and my American customers.

"Test me.  I can do it.  I'll think of everything, I'll think a step ahead of danger.  Let it be me standing on the tarmac, on the quay, on the train platform, on the side of the highway, waving goodbye to the last of those who trust and depend on me, as they race away to safety by means that I arranged.  Let it be me who will be able to say - "

" - Goodbye, hon.  Be careful out there."

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Bienvenue, Enfants

The NIV chief had a problem.  Her officers were having trouble getting away from their pro forma, routine questions (Got a job?  Married?), and their reliance on job letters, bank statements, and prior travel to other countries.  They were unconvinced by their chief's assurances that these customers might be deliberately fitting themselves into the patterns of their countrymen who had succeeded in obtaining US visas; they did not believe their applicants were that clever, or that their evidence could be fabricated.

After stewing for a while, the chief came up with a plan.

"Do this," she told the officers.  "If you intend to refuse an applicant for any reason and if the passport is still pristine, tell him in exactly these words, 'I'm sorry but you don't qualify for a US visa.  After all, you've never traveled out of your own country before.  You've never even been to France.'"

The officers laughed and complied, because they liked her but still wanted to prove her wrong.

And guess what?

In less than a month, every single NIV applicant's passport showed a week's recent travel to France:  a visa, and Charles de Gaulle airport arrival and departure stamps.

Faced with this phenomenon, the officers stepped out of their routines to ask questions whose answers surprised them.  Where had the travelers stayed in France?  With friends.  What friends?  Just friends.  In what city?  They didn't know; the friends 'took them around.'  What had these travelers seen in France? They couldn't name a single sight.

Those visas and stamps?  When turned over to the FSN investigator, they proved to be all masterful counterfeits.

Those officers are now scattered all over the world doing many kinds of interesting mid-level work, but every one of them remembers this experience with chagrin and gratitude.  They call it The Day the Refusal Rate Went Up.

Monday, February 7, 2011

So This Guy Walks in and Says...

Madam's nag last week had to do with the incautious handling of sensitive paperwork.  But what about incautious speech?

What could be more amusing than to relate the latest you-won't-believe-what-this-one-did Crazy Amcit story? There are times when we could be excused for believing that our resident Americans could not possibly have thought that up all on his own, and we can't help but wonder what the heck he was thinking of. And we could, briefly, be excused for believing that this will make a great story to tell colleagues and co-workers in the cafeteria, the elevator, anywhere we gather.

And so it might.  But please don't do that.

The Privacy Act of 1974 and 7 FAM 060 are extremely specific about who can be told what about Americans and their antics. And while most of these references concentrate on official documentary records, any note a consular officer has jotted down and stuck into a folder or onto a computer screen is part of those records. In practice, so is anything the American told a consular officer that hasn't been written down yet.

Can you tell the story if you leave out identifying information such as the person's name?

Consider: you can't be certain that a listener won't be able to connect the story with a specific individual. She might have seen him walk into the section and might know him from church, from the neighborhood, from the Hash. She might know details about his life that make him immediately recognizable. Even without any obvious identifying data, release of any information to another USG employee - even another consular employee - is still limited by the need to know.

It is routine for consular officers to discuss cases among themselves. Such discussions can serve as excellent learning and training tools. But be very wary about disclosing anything about any case involving an Amcit or LPR, even to closest colleagues. If you couldn't clearly and lucidly explain the sound professional reason behind this disclosure in front of a Congressional inquiry, think twice.

Of course, only Americans and LPRs are protected by the Privacy Act.  But might that very funny visa applicant be a friend, relative or countryman of a local staff member who happens to be within earshot?

Maybe we could talk about the political section's latest stunningly clever dimarche instead.  Or the weather.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Can We Put That Away, Please?

No, Madam is not referring to the occasional disturbed Amcit who believes that his personal parts are so attractive that local ladies - or gentlemen, or children - would like to admire them in public places. She is talking about consular records.

Some otherwise well-run consular sections remain cluttered after hours with files of ongoing fraud investigations, death and custody cases, immigrant visa cases, and loose documents such as birth certificates and Social Security cards - anything and everything left where it was used last.

As you know, Madam will be the first to say so if she believes that the FAM or the consular management handbook have wandered off base. But with this issue she stands staunchly with the most conservative of our managers.

We need to remember five points:

- There are people who pass through the consular section after hours, from the MSG to painters and plumbers. An escort can only watch so many workers. These folks might be absolutely honest, but they still have no need to know about consular cases. The temptation to learn about them should be removed.

- Even within a consular section, need-to-know rules apply. No consular employee - officer or LES - should have casual access to a file or a case that he or she is not actually working with.

- Mischief can happen.

- If there isn't enough secure space or containers to store everything as required, it is the consular chief's responsibility to acquire that secure space or those containers.

- A cluttered desk is NOT a sign of genius.

In a well-run consular section, every day is lockdown day. At every close of business we must make sure that computers are logged off, of course, but also all files and sensitive documents are secured;  foils, passports, cash, stamps and seal are locked up. And it should be the section chief himself or herself who makes it obvious that he or she is cleaning up his own work space and locking things away properly, then performing the benign but firm final sweep of the entire section. Leading, as always, by example.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Job Isn't Finished Until the Paperwork is ... Ignored

In July, Madam expressed very clearly her experienced opinion of the documents that applicants like to bring to their NIV interviews:

What is it about paper, that consular officers love it so much?  There is no document anywhere in the world that can't be produced on demand, either as a genuine document fraudulently issued, or as a work of art created by Madam's dear friend Ali on the Corner, all of whose children have graduated debt-free from good US universities thanks to their father's work.

If it's not a mandatory I-20, DS-2019, I-797 or the like, it is not just useless; it is a dangerous distraction.  Because let's be clear:  there is nothing about a piece of paper, however fancy, that will tell an officer anything about a visa applicant's intentions.  Documents are crutches; flipping through them to look for a reason to issue or refuse is a futile task.  A bank book, a job letter, a lease, a car title:  none of it means anything.  If the customer intends to stay in the US, he will willingly leave all those things behind - even if they really exist and he really owns them -  without a glance.  And besides, an officer's job is to interview applicants, not shuffle papers.

How do you resist the pull of papers?  Don't ask for them.  When offered, don't take them.  If refused applicants, in their later complaints, eventually get around to the worldwide whine "...and the officer didn't even look at my documents!" the proper response is, "the officer interviewed you."

Friday, January 14, 2011

Coming to a Visa Line Near You?

"The most notorious corrupt official in Indonesia not only left his Indonesian jail cell to view a tennis tournament in Bali, he also traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Macau.

...and to the International Space Station?

"Gayus Tambunan, who is a former mid-level tax officer, told officials that he was on vacation when he exited his jail cell and traveled abroad with his wife in September last year.

"After his arrest in Bali, Tambunan admitted that he paid in excess of $40,000 in order to be let out of jail on 68 occasions."

Madam notes, by the way, that Pak Tambunan's annual salary was about $1400.

She is amused, but also hopeful that a routine name check will keep him from vacationing in Tulsa next summer.

And by the way, of course 'authorities' are blaming the wife, not the 10,000 cops who could have kept his silly, arrogant ass in jail.  And the government officer who issued the passport on which he traveled has been promoted.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

We Need to Talk

Here, chosen purely at random, is a sporting attempt to explain the complexity of crossing into the US with an adopted child.  Not only is it written in English by way of Babelfish,

but a lot of it is simply wrong.

And here is an attempt to make sense out of US passports for children.

If a cheery, ambitious, articulate entry-level officer were assigned to skim local or suspect web sites and correct, respond to, or comment on such attempts to clarify people's situations, he or she would not only provide a valuable public service, but would also give a supervisor a very nice item or two to include in the next EER.

But of course, we don't do our jobs for rewards, do we.  We do them because they are our jobs and we love them.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Congratulations, Sort Of

These days, most US consular sections use appointment systems of one kind or another not only for IVs and NIVs but also for various ACS applicants:  notarials, CROBAs, and the like.

Well, good.  Except...

Does this mean that when an applicant arrives at your mission ten minutes before the appointed time, s/he is admitted immediately?  Is s/he called to or welcomed at the intake window at the exact appointment time?

If so, good on you.  If not, you do not have an appointment system; you only have crowd control.

 Madam has heard far more often than she likes the argument that either

1.  This is the best the consular section can do, and/or

2.  The people here don't expect any better.

To which, after a suitable expletive, she must respond, "No, it's not" and "So what?"

If you made an appointment for any purpose anywhere in the US and that appointment worked the way that your section's does, would you feel you had cause to complain?

If so, fix it.  Remember the part about setting a good example, and the relentless need to present the best possible face of the US in all interactions overseas?  Please.  You have an appointment system; now make it work like one.