Quote of the day/week/however long

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

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?

Monday, February 16, 2015

Who Is Watching the Children?

  Once upon a time, Madam sat on a panel with the post's RSO, consulting doctor, and other pertinent officers and officials to address a gathering of newly-arrived Amcit residents in the district. It was an annual orientation, taken seriously by the local US Chamber of Commerce, the American school, and others who had professional or personal interest in the well-being of these new arrivals.

At one point in the RSO's presentation on how to call for assistance in police, medical or fire emergencies, he said, "And, of course, you'll want to learn enough of the local language to get the help you'll need."

The room erupted with at least a dozen scornful snickers.

Madam sincerely hopes that those who expressed such disdain for simple survival did, after all, survive. And she hopes that the annual orientation at that post has continued, with one critical addition.

The advent of the internet - and the Department's sputtering, semi-scizophrenic responses to it's employees' or their dependents' use of it - has raised a new specter, one even more terrifying than Madam's expressions of opinion (although those seem to have been terrifying enough). That specter is happy, homey blogs with titles such as "Our Year in Yerevan" "The Smiths Take On Santiago" "Jacked About Jerusalem" and the like, which are written by spouses with time on their hands and an even weaker sense of safety than those family heads who laughed at the idea of learning a hundred words that might save their and their children's lives. Now that 3 FAM has been driven, snapping and snarling, into a cage, these FS and civilian spouses can safely ....

Ah. But there's the problem, isn't it? They can blog. They can post freely to Facebook. But in the heady joy of blogging and Facebooking they may be placing themselves and their families in more jeopardy than any lack of language could.

With photographs.

Such blogs and FB postings can be freely accessed by friends and loved ones anywhere the world. And by anyone, anywhere in the world or two blocks away, who might consider doing harm to America or, as the country's proxy, any individual American. This ambassador has a bodyguard. Good. Do his sons and his daughter? And now the world knows what they look like.

 Got a grudge against the businessman who didn't hire you, against the president, against the US in its totality? Against the West? Against the world? Here are some potential soft, easy targets for your anger: their names, their relationships, their current color photographs, their car, and their front steps.

 Madam is delighted that these ladies enjoyed their shopping trip. So, perhaps, is the cousin of the man who owns the pottery store; a cousin who was refused a visa last week by one of the  husbands and he doesn't really care whose. And now he has a photograph from which he can choose the easiest target.

WTF would a loving parent be thinking, to direct a camera at these precious babies at an unguarded overseas school, then post those photos for the entire world to see, perhaps to memorize, to print and slip into a pocket, to stalk, to snatch, to gut? There are wolves out there...

Wolves that, if they can't get you, will do far worse. They will get him.

So please seriously ask yourselves and ask your Amcit residents, who is watching the children? And who else?

PS: due to the number of complaints in the comments, Madam clarifies: except for the first photo, none of these samples are taken from actual Amcit blogs. They were located via a standard Google Image search without "American" in the criteria. Which might serve as a caution in itself; the internet reaches much father than we sometimes imagine.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

It's Not Illegal to do Something That's Not Illegal

 How may times has this horror been visited upon sweet, hard-working, unsuspecting line officers?

OMG! A woman! Had a baby! In America! On a B1/B2 visa!

And out come the pitchforks and torches.

While babies can sometimes  be conceived by accident (although not nearly as often as the young might try to convince adults that it's true), they are never born by accident. And those that are born in the US, accidentally or not, acquire citizenship via jus soli.

So what, oh what, is a consular officer to do when faced with a  well-established, pregnant woman who is applying for a B1/B2 visa and dares to tell the truth: she intends to have her baby in the US? A baby that will automatically acquire US citizenship at birth?

Barring any other disqualification, the officer issues the visa.

Does Madam hear the sound of heads exploding all over the world? She is sorry for that, but not as much as those exploders might wish. And now let's make it even worse.

A well-established person applies for a B1/B2 visa in order to travel to the US, marry That Certain US Citizen Someone, and bring him or her home here to Wherever, Planet Earth.

Barring any other disqualification, the officer issues the visa.

Several members of a well-established family apply for B1/B2 visas in order to attend the wedding of a younger family member who traveled to the US on a B1/B2 visa, met That Certain US Citizen Someone, is now getting married, and has no intention of returning home to Wherever.

Barring any other disqualification, the officer issues the visas.

A person applies for a B1/B2 visa in order to travel to the US for a job interview. He/she plans, if hired, to return home to Wherever and wait for the approved petition but that's okay because s/he'll need to tie up a lot of loose ends here anyway.

Barring any other disqualification, the officer issues the visa.

Madam has seen, again and again and again, perfectly qualified applicants refused under exactly these circumstances. However, mes enfants, conoffs do not/not - and have no grounds to - refuse visas...

due to the production of a new US citizen, and thus the possibility of possible future immigration 21 years from now or maybe much later or not at all;

due to suspicion that the applicant might perhaps some day change his/her mind, maybe, maybe not;

for revenge on a family because one member supposedly 'tricked' a conoff into issuing a visa and will now (legally) marry and (legally) adjust status, even though Mom, Dad, Grandma, and Uncle Jamil show no sign of intending to do more than dress well, kiss the bride, eat some cake, and come home;

for someone who fully intends, if hired in the US, to apply for and work under the correct visa category.

There should not be any questions.*

*Footnote, to fend off spurious complaining:
"214(b) Every alien... shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the consular officer, at the time of application for a visa...  that he is entitled to a nonimmigrant status."

Monday, February 9, 2015

03s Rule!

 Last week Madam wrote, accurately enough, that "a single sentence in an EER review statement can doom a good officer to years of undeserved 03-dom. A reader, commenting on Diplopundit, wrote “'03-dom' that is still a career for a large part of the FS. Get real.'

Madam replied, "...that is precisely why I included the adjective ‘undeserved.’ Some FSOs do not deserve and some do not want to move beyond 03, that wonderful level where the rubber meets the road."

Giving the matter further thought, and reviewing her own experience, Madam concludes that she was right. And that there appear to be three different 'types' of 03 FSOs:

1. The standard-issue 03. This is an officer who is passing through the grades, acquiring precious experience and knowledge and expertise that will do him/her well as he/she moves along.

2. The stuck 03. This officer would love to move to higher levels of responsibility but for personal, professional, whatever reasons is somehow not suitable for promotion and the system, however roughly or gently, recognizes this.

3. The professional 03. This officer is happy, productive, highly experienced, and loves that 'rubber meets the road' work in which, every day, there are actual people needing his/her help or advice, and when the phone rings he never knows what's going to happen, but it's going to be cool. He/she doesn't like or want to sit in meetings and make endless formal calls on local officials and the billion other things that 02s and especially 01s do that do not involve hands-on consular work.

Madam has known several officers who worked entire careers in a part of the world that they loved; enjoyed every day enormously; did excellent, rational, sensible, subtle, logical, absorbing, humane and correct work; left customers and staff the better for having known or worked with them; and retired with the well-earned and well-deserved feeling of success.

Some time ago, Madam ruminated on some very good career advice.That advice still holds. Too many FSOs are led - or lead themselves - to believe that they should want to rise to the highest ranks as swiftly as possible and there's something wrong with them if they don't, never mind the stress and headaches and ulcers and hours and distance from concrete reality. They lead themselves to believe that they are wrong to want to accept with joy another 03 job in a neighboring country, in a region that they understand and love deeply, where their family members are happy, and where they wake up every morning with eager anticipation of yet another amusing knot to unravel.

They are not wrong, and the world on both sides of the window is lucky to have them.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Yes, You're King of the World

Madam would like to think that US chiefs of mission will always set the best possible example for their underlings - an example for said underlings to aspire to, be proud of, and remember with fond admiration. Sadly, the newest crop of inspection reports confirms that far too many ambassadors are instead still playing the role of the biggest kid on the block - or the biggest frog in the puddle.

Flogging favorite charities, calling consular staff instead referring visa cases correctly, and insulting people who actually know how to do their jobs might seem like relatively minor offenses, but they are offenses even so. And they can be far-reaching. When the person at the top plays loose with the rules and with commonly courteous behavior, who would be surprised to see those below give up on walking a more stringent but unrewarding path?

Madam's dear sister in arms, Diplopundit, has stormed about and poked at these offenses for ages; 3 FAM 1214 was grandly revised last year; long-winded promises were made (in the midst of some confusion about whether or not inspection teams would even continue to write IERs for sitting COMs) and yet here come these inspection reports again, showing continued low-grade, low-class behavior by those who should behave better than angels.

It appears that, still, a knuckle slap by inspectors may or may not lead to a leash-jerk by the appropriate bureau, which may or may not lead to improved behavior, which may or may not last longer than it takes to write a reassuring email and then forgetting about it. But at the same time, all ordinary, well-behaved, well-trained, doing-the-best-they-can FSOs know that they will be the ones who will suffer if they try to follow the rules when the boss's boss doesn't want them to. A single sentence in an EER review statement can doom a good officer to years of undeserved 03-dom.

Ah well, as Madam has often said, we don't do our jobs for thanks. And yet, to all those good officers who do their best under pressure to not do their best from those who should be setting the highest-quality example but instead can't be bothered, thank you.