The more you know: Immigration executive orders, Consular Affairs and visas

Yesterday morning, the Trump administration introduced a new executive order (to replace the previous one) addressing visa applicants from (now) six countries. Not long after, I walked into my Diplomatic Practice class and learned we were having a guest speaker: Ambassador Michelle Bond, the former Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs.

Man, living in D.C. is weird sometimes when certain people cross your path at the right moment.

Bond is a career diplomat, having entered the foreign service in 1977. Along with serving as the ambassador to Lesotho (Africa), Bond was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs by President Obama. She was one of the career diplomats asked to hand in her resignation when the new administration took office.

(A note: I should point out that there are two ways to become an ambassador. There are those who are political allies and donors of the incoming administration. Then, there are the career foreign service officers who have spent their lives serving the United States overseas who are usually appointed due to their expertise and experience. They may have multiple ambassador assignments and serve both Republicans and Democrats.)

My professor, a former ambassador himself, invited Ambassador Bond to come teach us the responsibilities of consular officers in an embassy. After she spoke to our class, I asked if I could share some of what I learned from her with you.

She said “sure,” so long as I put in a plug to remind you to look at your passport to see if it is about to expire. She says there are approximately 21 million Americans whose passports are set to expire in the next year because they received their passports before the U.S. changed the law that required Americans to have a passport to travel to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. So, check your passport and renew it before you get stranded abroad or you’re not allowed to board a flight!

Did you check? Great! Moving on.

First, I should explain what Consular Affairs exactly entails. Consular officers are the people in an embassy who you’ll meet if you have an emergency, lose your passport, or if you are a foreign national trying to get a visa to come to the United States. As Ambassador Bond told us, they are the face of the embassy. How people are treated by these officers reflects the United States and the people who encounter these officers will talk about their experience—good or bad.

Some of the services that consular officers provide U.S. citizens overseas:

  • Help with lost passports
  • Publish advisories about countries
  • Help register the birth of Americans overseas
  • Respond to parental abductions
  • Help assist families in checking on the welfare of family members overseas
  • Assist Americans in connecting with good medical care if injured overseas (Note: They don’t pay for care, just help get you to the right place)
  • Help repatriate the remains of Americans
  • Visit people in jail/prison who have been arrested
  • Help with overseas adoptions
  • Help Americans if there is a disaster or emergency overseas

If you are a foreign national, the consular officer is the person who interviews you after you fill out your application and submit the $160 fee.  Everyone receiving a visa does a face to face interview. (Keep in mind: There are 38 countries that are part of the visa waiver program.)

Those consular officers then decide if you get a visa to come to the United States. As Ambassador Bond pointed out, the United States doesn’t send someone a form letter of rejection if they don’t get a visa. Consular officers tell the individual to their face. That makes for a both stressful, and incredibly rewarding, job.

These officers sometimes make life and death decisions by deciding which visas to approve.  (Our professor spoke to us about a supervisor he had early in his career who was haunted by the visas he did not approve in Poland leading up to World War II.) They also have tremendous responsibility to make sure bad guys don’t get visas to come to the U.S.

Here are some of the things I learned about the consular officer’s role that I thought might be interesting to share with you and might also help you make your own decisions when evaluating the new executive order.

  • A visa to enter the United States can be good for up to ten years.
  • The U.S. asks for a lot of information including where the applicant will be staying, their family, their employment and in some cases, in countries where documentation is hard to get, they even administrate DNA tests on family members to ensure they are indeed related. (Some people lie in order to bring other people they care about over to the United States.)
  • They also ask the home country for information about that person before approving the visa.

The interesting thing that Bond pointed out is that it is a genuine concern that we ensure the right people are allowed into the country. We should review the process and make sure we are doing our best to keep our country safe. Meanwhile, you should know the United States constantly works with local governments to get information about criminal records and terrorist ties in order to keep those people out of our country. Our best defense is our partnerships with other countries who give us a heads up about prospective applicants.

In some countries, like Somalia and Iran where our officers don’t get as much cooperation from the government or can’t move as freely, it’s tough to corroborate information. But that doesn’t mean we let just anyone in.

The consular officers evaluate the information to see if there is enough to warrant letting the person into the country. As I understand it, they can and often do say no when they don’t have enough information to make that decision. In fact, here’s a blog post from the Center for Global Development which has a map of visa rejections by country. Even then, the United States can still decline to admit the person once they show up at customs.

In addition, she pointed out that with refugees, the consular officers look through a pool of files with detailed information about the refugee. The officers then select the profiles of people they think the United States should accept. From what I understand, it’s not like they are presented a candidate and say yes or no… they actually hand-select the candidates from the pool.

Another note: I asked how budget cuts would affect the consular positions. I learned that the consular department is self-sustaining from fees paid by those applying for a visa.

By the way, if you are interested in becoming a consular officer and you speak Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese-Mandarin or Russian, you can apply to be a Consular Fellow where you serve in an embassy overseas. It’s a pretty awesome opportunity to serve our country with some great benefits.

My own two cents: I greatly enjoyed hearing from her about how things work in an embassy and how we process these visas. It is good that this time the executive order allows for consular officers to issue waivers for people in need. We also need to continue to work with our overseas partners to make sure we are gathering enough profile information.

However, I don’t believe blanket-rejecting visas makes us safer. If consular officers feel they have enough information to know this person is OK, they should be allowed to make that decision. There are lots of people who are nervous now, wondering if these actions will be expanded. I have at least one friend at school who is concerned because he moved his family to the U.S. to finish a graduate degree but worries he could be sent home before he finishes it. Imagine moving your family, spending a year and thousands of dollars to pursue a degree, only to be sent home a semester short with nothing to show for it!

Ninety days may seem like a short time to this administration, but in real life it is an eternity to someone trying to attend a funeral, go to a wedding, or finish a semester of school.

Now think what kind of message this sends to their families and the people in those countries about what America represents. I already have friends whose families are urging them to head back to their home countries after graduation due to the current political climate toward immigrants here in the United States.

It’s certainly not a great way to win the hearts and minds of those abroad, and I’m not sure that’s the image we want to project to the rest of the world.

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