A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Playing The Role Of Gatekeeper To America

There was a grown man crying at my visa window. It was my first week interviewing visa applicants at the American embassy in Skopje, Macedonia, and before I’d even had a chance to ask this man why he was applying to visit the U.S., he was sobbing uncontrollably on the other side of the bulletproof glass window.

“Why are you crying?” I asked, in Albanian.

The man said that his son in the U.S. was gravely ill and he needed to visit him right away. My computer indicated that this man had already applied and been refused for visas ten times in the past five years. The son had just had an operation and the man before me believed that his family was lying to him about his son’s condition.

“My son’s wife is a liar,” the man said, in Albanian. “I know it’s much more serious than they are telling me. I don’t know if he’ll make it.”As the man handed me a sealed letter from a hospital in the U.S., I braced myself for a heartbreaking story that I assumed would involve cancer, leukemia, a terrible car accident or who knows what else.

My eyes scanned the letter from the hospital and when I saw the worlds “soccer” and “ankle” I almost burst out laughing. As my visa applicant dried his tears in a handkerchief, I told him that his son had sprained his ankle playing soccer and would be just fine.

These are the kinds of mini-dramas that are acted out at U.S. embassies and consulates millions of times per year, as Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) screen applicants who want to visit, study or work in the U.S. Because of the crushing demand for U.S. visas around the world – last year more than 7 million foreign nationals applied for non-immigrant visas to the U.S. – all FSO’s are required to do a consular tour as junior officers.

Doing a consular tour is seen as a sort of rite of passage – paying one’s dues, so to speak. There are all kinds of horror stories about visa work – some people who are interested in joining the Foreign Service don’t follow through because they’re afraid of doing visa work and others join but expend a lot of effort bitching about the consular requirement.

I found that visa work could be tolerable, and even enjoyable under the right circumstances. Or it can be miserable, depending on workload, whom you share the visa line with and what level of support you receive from management. Here are a few points about visa work at the State Department and surviving the consular tour requirement.

Will you be Able to Say ‘No’?

A common sentiment I’ve heard from friends and colleagues who worked at the State Department in a civil service capacity is, “I don’t think I could do visa work because it would be too hard to refuse visa applicants.”

U.S. law requires consular officers to consider most categories of non-immigrant visa applicants – tourists, students and the like – as intending immigrants unless they prove they have strong ties that would compel them to return to their home countries. In other words, most visa applicants are to be considered guilty until they are proven innocent, and in many poor countries, trying to prove that you won’t overstay your visa isn’t easy.

As a lifelong traveler, I too wondered before I joined the Foreign Service if I’d have a hard time enforcing the law. As a frequent traveler, my gut instinct coming into the Foreign Service was that almost anyone should be allowed to come and visit the U.S. But after I started the job, and saw how many people were abusing the system, my perspective changed, and I came to understand why the law is written the way it is.

Occasionally, I’d feel bad having to refuse people who had particularly sad cases, but you handle so many applications and hear so many lies that after a while, it isn’t really possible to conjure sympathy for everyone. There are millions upon millions of people who want to live in the U.S. and sadly, it just isn’t possible for everyone. If it were, our population would be 3 billion instead of 314 million.

There are some FSO’s who never really learn how to say ‘no’ to visa applicants. I know a few who had 97 or 98 percent issuance rates, but the vast majority learns how to do it with no real problem. Like anything else, practice makes perfect.

Is it Hard to Get a Tourist Visa to the U.S.?

The common perception is that it’s very difficult for people in developing countries to obtain tourist visas to the U.S. While many are denied each year and many more don’t even apply because they think they won’t qualify, or can’t afford the fees, it isn’t nearly as hard as people think.

Take a look at the visitor’s visa issuance rates in countries around the world, and you’ll probably be very surprised. In fiscal year 2011, the issuance rate in Mexico was 87 percent, in Brazil it was 96 percent, Russia was at 90 percent, South Africa came in at 95 percent and even Pakistan, Kosovo and Syria had issuance rates hovering around 70 percent. By my calculation, using the State Department’s total issuance and refusal figures, about 85 percent of visa applicants were issued around the world in FY 2011.

There are a number of reasons why the State Department issues more visas than it denies, and I explored this topic in a research paper a few years ago. I won’t go into all of these reasons here, but suffice it to say that it’s a lot easier to issue visas than it is to deny them. Applicants who get their visas head off to the U.S., while refused ones stay home and enlist their friends or relatives in the U.S. to call and send pleading messages to the embassy to get their visa refusals overturned. FSO’s are constantly asked to justify refusals but rarely are asked to explain issuances.

Bid Carefully to Avoid Visa Mills

For those who want to join the Foreign Service but are wary of having to do visa work at a so-called “visa mill” posts, where one might have to adjudicate tens of thousands of applications per year, do your research in the bidding process. I’ve done consular work at three overseas posts and none were considered “visa mills” but the consular workload at each post varied dramatically.

It might take a bit of research, but find out how the post you are bidding on is staffed, and then look at the total number of visa applications they get per year. It’s not an exact science, but you’ll get an idea for how busy you’ll be.

Better Have a Thick Skin

Visa interviews are high stakes affairs for the applicants and while most visa applicants are courteous – even if they are refused – you will inevitably have to endure some abuse at some posts. I know FSO’s who had applicants in Haiti cast voodoo-like spells on them, toss mysterious substances at them under the document slot, and worse. If you adjudicate enough visa applications, you will have people curse and condemn you.

But the worst vitriol sometimes comes in the mail. Many applicants say nothing when refused at the window, but write letters, or have their relatives or their relatives’ congressional representatives write letters alleging outrageous conduct that never occurred. I will never forget one failed applicant who wrote a letter comparing me to a Nazi prison camp guard.

Once in a blue moon, you might receive a thank you letter from an applicant who received their visa, but for every one of those, there are 1,000 complaints and all of them require a response. But for all the negatives, visa work can also be fun. You meet a lot of people, you hear great stories and you get to practice using the local language wherever you are. In limited doses, at the right post with good management, it can actually be enjoyable.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.

[Photo by Omar Omar on Flickr]