Quote of the day/week/however long

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

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Off The Rails Again. And Again.

A run-through of post inspection reports will, more often than not, expose a tiresomely familiar villain: the visa referral. That is, unfortunately but predictably, one of the most likely threads to appear in even the most exemplary consular sections' assessments. And it might get better after an IG ding, but it seems to never stay better for long.

As modified and refined over time - most recently, only two months and three days ago - CA's visa referral policy is clear, direct, and (kind of) simple. 9 FAM 601.8 now even ends with a painfully detailed priority appointment requests program (601.8-4) that is nearly as long as the referral section.

But still.

In a typical recent report, the IG noted that the post's referral system had been 'troubling' before a new consular chief arrived, but that incoming individual very promptly and admirably 'took steps to correct and explain' the program. Even so, and for all his/her efforts, it was still not in sync with 601.8-1 through -3 when the IG came to call shortly after. The IG correctly did not note - but Madam has no such compunctions - that the post's two previous inspections, reaching more than 12 years into the past, had carried similar scoldings.

What is the problem? It has four main components, each equally daunting, and so are listed here in no particular order:

1. The difficulty of having to tell one's supervisors, all the way up the chain to the ambassador, that they must do something that the don't want to do, in a way that they don't want to do it. FSOs are selected for their ability to patiently compromise and give way if necessary, but 601.8 brooks none of that from officers who might be the lowest-ranked and most vulnerable - and the most expected to give way.

2. The shameless pressure, hinted threats, and covert and overt bullying practiced by higher-ranked FSOs who might indeed hold consular officers' futures in their hands.

3. The meticulous handling required of referrals by sections that are often swamped by conflicting priorities, insufficient staffing, rampant fraud, and overly-complex internal procedures that (always) build up complexity over time.

4. The need to make local VIPs understand that their embassy contacts cannot simply give them visas; however fond they might (pretend to) be of each other, there is only one procedure and it cannot be avoided or averted.

What's the cure?

Sadly, 601-8 is the cure. It is hard and ugly and frustrating and exasperating; it makes foes of people that embassy officers and conoffs need to have as allies; it never shuts up and goes away; it's never done once and for all.

And it's the rules.


And by the way, never mind that if a post's NIV interview appointments were up to date, 601.8-4 would not be necessary. That is a whole 'nother dragon.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Don't Tell Them

A recent OIG inspection report on a mid-sized post presented some details on consular procedures not-quite-correctly adhered to and a few other minor problems, but then it finished with an item that warmed every single one of the cockles of Madam's heart:

"The Deputy Consular Chief and non-immigrant visa line officers held monthly adjudication training sessions over lunch. An officer read sample notes drawn from real cases, and others indicated how they would adjudicate the case, then discussed perspectives and reasoning. The exercise provided a relaxed, interactive setting for officers to learn non-immigrant visa regulations, develop interviewing skills, improve the quality of adjudications, and expand their understanding of how local conditions affect consular work."

Wait. What? A consular supervisor scheduling, preparing for, and conducting regular interactive visa adjudication training for line officers? 
Not hiding in his/her office behind an oversized monitor? 
Not lurking outside the front office waiting for the next opportunity to kiss the DCM's shoes (the ambassadorship being currently vacant)?
Not waiting until an officer makes a 'wrong' adjudication decision and then reprimanding her?
Not even doing the Lecture-and-Leave thing, but interacting, encouraging discussion, letting everybody else talk, not even, apparently, making a final announcement about how the case SHOULD have been adjudicated, but letting the people who have to do the work decide.

This is what genuine training is about: guiding intelligent people in non-fear-inducing ways to see what they do, how they do it, and how they might do it even better. Rather than browbeating or expecting them to guess, and God help them if they guess incorrectly.

Well, Madam can't think of a single snarky comment to make about this. Just

Monday, October 10, 2016

Yes, Tell Them

Not often enough, Madam and senior FSOs have complimented posts that publish articles and even regular columns in local newspapers and on local online forums, and send consular officers to speak at local schools, clubs and events. These ventures always include a lot of information about visas. In fact, whatever the main subject, the questions afterward always concentrate on visas.

 This is not a bad, risky, or dangerous thing. It does not promote surges in visa applications. It does not promote fraud by giving away secrets. It DOES dispel misinformation: the belief that the post doesn't issue visas at all; that officers' decisions are arbitrary and capricious;, that officers are in collusion with local travel agencies, politicians and prostitutes (yes really); that officers took assignments to that country solely because they did not like the citizens and wanted to somehow disrespect and insult them.

When there is an information gap, it fills itself in with - well - non-information. If any officer has doubts, a quick glance at the visa links on the Quora web site should disabuse her of them. That quick glance will introduce the officer to the dizzying complications of visas from the recipients' points of view. It will also introduce the officer to the continuing questions and misapprehensions of actual visa holders.

If those noble posts that do their best to inform the public - and those that still fear to - would thumb (mouse) through current Quora questions, they would be able to aim their public information even more accurately. They would also dispel fear to such a degree that the applicants would be able to think and respond to questions - and perhaps even qualify for visas - rather than simply chatter in terror.

And all the more credit to those posts for that, too.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Ali Is Still in Business

For all the techno-amazing-ness of today's consular systems, Ali On The Corner is still a beloved fixture in many countries. His three sons and four daughters all earned masters' degrees from top US universities, their educations fully funded by hopeful NIV applicants.

In warm countries, Ali sits under a tree a few steps from the US consulate with a chair, a small table, and a rackety manual typewriter. In cooler countries, he rents a tiny office a few steps from the US consulate with a chair, a small table, the 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 own first customer.

Here is Ali, at work on a third-country visa application for some lucky customer. One 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, birth certificates, grade reports, school certificates, and census registers. He can write coherent and grammatical employment letters in several languages on any letterhead a visa applicant 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 visa applicant has heard through the very healthy NIV grapevine, either live or on line, that he should present a certain document when applying for a visa, Ali will very kindly and efficiently provide that document. And if 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.

In either case, for a reasonable fee, Ali will provide the form or letterhead, the data, the signature and the seal. He 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. And the applicant or re-applicant will (again or for the first time) try to get by on the weight of papers rather than truth.

Wait a moment. What does Madam 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. With the amount of legitimate, cross-checked information now available through the consular data base, even these are barely relevant to the decision process. Anything that is not required 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," a consular officer might say. "I need to see a (job letter, property deed, bank statement) to be sure that the visa applicant is what and who he claims to be."

No, you absolutely don't need a document to tell you this. You need to talk to the applicant. If he can respond lucidly and smoothly to questions about his family, property, or business appointments in the US, he is extremely likely to be what he claims to be. If he greets such questions with a glassy stare and starts shufflling madly through a sheaf of documents, he is extremely unlikely to be. And that single moment of panic is far more telling than any ten-minute perusal of Ali's handiwork could ever be.

"But travel.state.gov says that 'additional documents may be required' right here! And those suggested additional documents include all the stuff you keep saying not to bother with."

And Madam stands by her highly-experienced opinion - and that of most of the most highly-experienced US consular officers on the planet - and would argue this point all the way to the Secretary's office if invited to do so, that none of these should be asked for or given.

"But CFR 41.105(c) says that if a document is presented, the conoff should consider it."

To consider: To think about something or someone carefully especially in order to make a choice or decision.To think about something that is important in understanding something or in making a decision or judgment. If considering a stack of documents that the application does not require takes longer than four seconds and involves actually reading one or more of them, the conoff needs to go back to ConGen.

"But how will I know that he is what and who he claims to be?"

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

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Apple Core. Baltimore.

Who's your friend?

The duty officer.

We all know who's in charge of what, and what to do, when a full-blown, God-please-help-us crisis erupts, but what about the lesser-but-we-still-have-to-deal-with-it stuff that arises during ordinary down time, such as after normal business hours, weekends, and holidays?

Most Americans have this fond image of us constantly there: alert, erect, wide awake, fully caffeinated and ready to take on the world for them, whatever the hour. Most local folks, both civilian and government, know our reputation for excellent service and so either hope that we'll take care of them anyway, or are dealing with a crisis - either personal or professional - and come to us because no one else can help them and they truly cannot wait.

Good luck with this

 Madam has a well-earned reputation for tirelessly repeating merciless criticism and correction until the tragic subject of her wrath succumbs to either correction or murder/suicide. But we're dealing with another issue here - not ordinary consular incompetence, but larger mission shortsightedness.

ACS and NIVs are, rightly, the center of OUR lives. But some missions become so used to their duty officers only fielding visa, passport, and arrest calls that they forget about other duty possibilities, and forget to account for them.

For example, a recent OIG inspection report included this: "The embassy's duty officer program was geared solely to the provision of emergency consular services." And in an actual situation that must have humiliated the post's upper management: "The duty officer recently failed to provide appropriate after-hours assistance to a XXX government official."

As if front office attention weren't enough, the inspectors rightly had to rub in more detail: "According to 2 FAM 115.3-1, embassies are required to arrange for personnel to be available at all times outside regular office hours. Furthermore, according to 2 FAM 113.8, the Management Section is responsible for developing and maintaining a duty officer guide that includes information about each of the mission’s programs, embassy and host country contact information, and scenarios for a range of frequently encountered after-hour services.

"The duty guide did not include this information. It included no reference material other than American Citizens Services-provided materials and how to handle after-hour telegrams. All information on the duty officer tablet dated from 2012. Management’s role in the program was limited to developing the quarterly duty roster and transferring custody of the duty tablet and cell phone."

And finally, as if this detailed damnation were not enough, inspectors tied this problem back to the major importance of consular work, the true heart of after-hours duty: "Absent program oversight and updated guidance, the embassy risks being unable to provide appropriate emergency services in ...cases affecting the welfare of American citizens or embassy employees."

And, just as a throwaway: "Duty officers were not always reachable when the Marine Security Guard called them."


So, a consular officer might say, the post got a righteous and well-deserved hand-slapping for this, directed, for a change at the management folks. But how does it affect consular work enough that Madam has devoted this week's rant to it?

One word: competence. We may be consular officers, but no one at post sees or recognizes the depth and breadth of duty responsibilities the way that we do. What happened to consular management, which never looked at or questioned the lack of most of that depth and breadth, let alone the age of the information that consular management itself had provided? By not looking beyond their own narrow ACS-NIV interests, they lost an opportunity to help the post take are of business, and look good while doing it.

Okay, two words. The second is development. Most duty officers in larger posts are fairly junior. Most fairly junior officers are assigned to the consular section. If these young folks can't be prepared for the more rare and complex non-consular issues that might arise after hours, and - ideally - be able to handle them on their own - then when they get an out-of-consular assignment they will be less ready to learn, understand, and perform that work. They will have less self-confidence later, as well as now.

So who is a consular officer's best friend? The duty officer, who lets everyone else sleep through the night.

And who is the duty officer's best friend? The consular officer, who sees to it that he/she is ready to handle anything that might go thump in the night.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Yes, They Are Still Called Customers

After some inexcusable time off, Madam returned to this site to discover a long-pending comment on a prior entry.

Being as pique-able as always, Madam deleted the comment (with some force) before noting which of her specific posts it referred to, and she can't quote it exactly. But roughly the commenter claimed that calling visa applicants 'customers' is no longer in fashion.That 'Disney-esque behavior,' the person noted, 'went out of fashion on 9/12.' They are 'applicants' and 'the public.'

Oh child, where to begin?

Let's just start here:

9/11 was not perpetrated nor performed by any one of the scores or thousands of applicants for consular services who have appeared before you since that date. If you have been rude to the utterly innocent because some totally different people perpetrated a criminal outrage, Madam must admire your ability to hold a senseless grudge for more than a decade and a half, but she must also admonish you for your utterly cruel irrationality.

If, when you open your service (yes, service!) window every morning, you glare out into the waiting room with hostility and suspicion, you are tainting your career and your life with your own fear of the extremely unlikely. You have, besides, abused the English language. Merriam-Webster defines the word 'customer' as, 'one who purchases a commodity or service.' There is no implication of murderous intent in that word, even if, in the end, the customer only purchases a 214(b) refusal. But most of them won't, will they? And were you nasty to them, even while providing the service they deserved? If so, shame on you.

Do you remember the part about how you can catch more (ants?) with honey than with vinegar? You are far more likely to hear the truth if you speak to your customers with kind civility rather than accusatory hostility.

And it will be far easier for you yourself to digest your lunch.