US Burns Through All High-Skill Visas For 2015 In Less Than A Week

Posted 17/04/2014 by maavn
Categories: Articles, Commentary

Tags: , , , , ,


Give me your highly skilled, your well-educated, your ambitious,
Your best and brightest yearning to climb the proverbial career ladder
and in doing so meet the desperate needs of a de-skilling and graying society,
The sons and daughters of the world’s educated classes, immigrants and international students alike.
Send these, the talented, the promising, the chosen few, to US,
We open our nation’s aging doors ever wider to increase the number of young, high-skill and high-degree folks to the benefit of all!

MAA – With a nod and an apology to the American poet, Emma Lazarus

The screaming headline above is from a recent TechCrunch article about the recent lottery that issued 65,000 H-1B (work) visas for the fiscal year 2015 beginning 1 October 2014 from more than 172,000 applications.  As in the past, demand far exceeded supply.

us capitolAs the article states, “more people applied for high-skill and high-degree U.S. work visas in the first five days of the application period than there were slots.”  In pointing out the obvious, the author noted that “This indicates that the number of high-skill and high-degree folks out there who want to come to the U.S. is far higher than the number this country is willing to accept. Each year, 65,000 H-1B visas are awarded to high-skill immigrants, along with 20,000 advanced degree visas for the highly educated.”

Why this demand and need?  The US is a country whose population is rapidly aging – median age:  37.6 (male: 36.3; female: 39) -  compared with 29.2 in Vietnam (29.2 (male:  26.1; female:  30.2) and whose labor market desperately needs more high-skill and high-degree workers than the US educational system is able to produce from among its own (domestic) ranks.

Compete AmericaObservers with a vested interest include U.S. information technology companies, some of which created an organization called Compete America, dedicated to ensuring that the US has the highly educated and innovative workforce necessary to grow the economy and create American jobs.  Here is one of the points that appears at the top of its website right under the running tally of jobs lost because of H-1B visa limits:

Thanks to the limits on H-1B Visas, America loses not only scientists and engineers who could fill vacant high-skilled jobs, but also the additional jobs that these scientists and engineers would create. As a result, America loses 500,000 jobs every year. Spread across 50 five-day workweeks, this translates into 2,000 U.S. jobs not created every business day because of overly-restrictive U.S. immigration policy; or, to put it another way, that roughly equals a new job that is lost in America every 63 seconds.

This trend is one reason why US student visa policy will change in the coming years and why the third pillar of the holy trinity of the process will fall by the wayside:  plans to return to one’s home country.  Immigrants have contributed and continue to contribute to the US economy, which needs a certain percentage of international students to remain.  Call it brain drain or brain circulation; emigration is ultimately a personal decision.

The day is fast approaching when applicants will no longer have to say that they will “return home to contribute to the development of my country” and/or to run their parent’s business, a mantra spouted by millions of young people standing in front of the five-minute glass.  The only criteria that will matter are 1) their status as bona fide students and 2) their ability to pay.


U.S. Student Visa Update: Upward Trend Continues

Posted 15/04/2014 by maavn
Categories: Commentary, Updates

Tags: , ,

bureau of consular affairs

According to the latest figures from the US Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, a record 10,867 F-1 (student) visas were issued in Fiscal Year 2013, which ended on 30 September 2013.  That represents a 5%  increase over FY2012.  As you see from the chart below, the take-off phase, which reflects the rapidly expanding Vietnamese economy and the concomitant growing ability to pay, began in 2005.  With the exception of a spike in FY08 and a significant dip the following year, the increases have been steady.

F-1 Visas Issued, FY97-13

In case you’re counting, the US Mission in Vietnam has issued a total of 78,448 student visas since FY1997.  According to an official source, the current refusal rate in HCMC is 50%, where the majority of visas are issued.  One can assume that it is considerably lower in the Embassy in Hanoi.  Last year, the worldwide issuance rate was 77%.



Creating and Maintaining Productive and Effective Partnerships

Posted 12/04/2014 by maavn
Categories: Conferences

Tags: , , , ,

ccid logo

This was my first presentation in absentia.  I was scheduled to present at the 2014 CCID Conference in late February about Creating and Maintaining Productive and Effective Partnerships for community colleges, along with my distinguished colleagues, but wasn’t able to attend.  Below is the abstract and list of presenters.  Follow this link to download a PDF version (2.4MB) of the PowerPoint presentation.  Thanks to my friend and colleague, Judy Irwin, for representing me.



Partnering with reputable international educational consulting companies is an effective way to boost international recruitment, develop new partnerships (faculty/student exchange, in-country training, articulation programs), and safeguard the interests of higher education institutions and their international students.  This session describes different ways of screening and evaluating prospective partners.  Panelists include representatives from an organization promoting professional recruitment standards and ethical principles; a community college working with agents and a leader in best practices; and a full-service educational consulting company working with both institutional ( U.S. colleges and universities) and individual clients (students and parents).


Judy Irwin, AIRC (American International Recruitment Council), Session Chair
Ross Jennings, Green River Community College
Mark Ashwill, Capstone Vietnam

Coming Full Circle: A Conscientious Objector Returns to Vietnam

Posted 06/04/2014 by maavn
Categories: Articles, vietnam

Tags: , , , ,
Doug Hostetter

Doug Hostetter

Below are some excerpts from an article by Doug Hostetter, who is director of the Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office in New York City.   He was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war, who did his alternative service working for Mennonite Central Committee in Vietnam from 1966 to 1969.  Doug was a member of the National Student Association delegation to Saigon and Hanoi that negotiated the People’s Peace Treaty in 1970 and served as executive secretary of  FOR (Fellowship of Reconciliation)-USA from 1987–1973, and international/interfaith secretary from 1993–2001. Doug has published widely on the issues of war, peace, and nonviolence.

The photos below are of Doug and the daughter of an artist friend of his, Le Dinh Sung, taken when she was about 11 and during his visit last year.  As he mentioned in the article, They (Phuong Long and her older brother) both remembered me well, as I had spent much time in their home with their father.

I mentioned Doug and his work in Vietnam in this 2/14 Huffington Post piece entitled Jumping on the Vietnam War Commemoration Bandwagon: The Vain Search for Honor.


 “The Path of Return Continues the Journey” (Quote by Thích Nhất Hạnh)

When I learned that Vietnam had invited a group of 15 U.S. antiwar activists to come to Hanoi in January 2013, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords that ended U.S. direct involvement in the Vietnam war, I realized that it was time for me to return to Vietnam.

Le Thi Phuong Long and Doug Hostetter - 1968 (Photos: Village photographer)

Le Thi Phuong Long and Doug Hostetter – 1968 (Photos: Village photographer)

Le Thi Phuong Long and Doug Hostetter - 2013 (Photos: Village photographer)

Le Thi Phuong Long and Doug Hostetter – 2013 (Photos: Village photographer)

I had first gone to Vietnam back in 1966, soon after graduating from Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  I had received conscientious objector status from the military, and then volunteered to do my Alternative Service in Vietnam, at the height of the war, working for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Vietnam with Vietnam Christian Service (VNCS).  VNCS was a joint program in Vietnam of the Mennonite Central Committee, Church World Service, and Lutheran World Relief, but was directed by MCC.

As a Mennonite I understood that I had no enemies, but was called to use the “weapons” of love and truth in the struggle to build a just and peaceful world.  Our Mennonite vision of the world clashed sharply with that of our government.

My path of return to Vietnam was a continuation of my original journey to learn peacebuilding.  As I relished the renewal of relationships from nearly half a century ago, I began to comprehend that a critical element of peacebuilding is authentic friendship.  Peace is founded upon relationships that transcend the national, racial, ethnic, religious, and political boundaries that usually separate humanity.

Follow this link to read Doug’s article in its entirety.


Same Same But Different

Posted 04/04/2014 by maavn
Categories: Commentary, Events

Tags: , , , ,

VFPEarlier this week, on a humid evening, the air heavy with memories and raw emotion at the Cinematheque in Hanoi, I met some of the 17 members of the Veterans for Peace Chapter 160 Spring 2014 Tour, who are here for a two-week visit, including Hanoi, Dong Ha/A Luoi, Khe Sanh, Danang, Hue, Hoi An and HCMC.  (This is the only VfP chapter in Vietnam.)

It’s an eclectic group that includes veterans of the American War in Vietnam, conscientious objectors and peace activists, among others.  What they all have in common is Vietnam and a heartfelt desire for peace and reconciliation.  Some have been here before, others for the first time, i.e., in the post-war era.  Each participant will donate $1,000 to support a charitable cause.  At the end of the tour the group will decide which project(s) to support.  Below is a list of Chapter 160 projects:

  • Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City- Has a special unit for Agent Orange (AO) babies & children.
  • Project RENEW – Clears UXOs (Unexploded Ordinance – landmines & unexploded bombs) in Quang Tri Province & throughout Vietnam; supports victims, teaches children & adults how to be safe.
  • VAVA – Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin – In A Luoi (“A Shau”) Valley in Quang Tri Province, Nha Trang & throughout Vietnam.
  • DAVA – Danang Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin
  •  The Friendship Village in Hanoi – A residential, medical & vocational center for Agent Orange victims, including Vietnamese veterans & their family members affected by AO.
  • HIVOW – Helping Invisible Victims of War is a non-profit 501(c)3 incorporated in New Jersey in 2009. Funds Duc Son Pagoda in Hue for disabled children & provides food to indigenous tribes along the former DMZ.
  • Orange Cow – Provides a cow or water buffalo to Agent Orange-effected farmers in the Hue & A Luoi Valley area by partnering with Hue University & “Hearts of Hue” to fund training, materials for the animals’ shelter, feed, & veterinary care

Same Same But Different

Chuck Searcy, Vice President of VfP Chapter 160, International Adviser for Project Renew and one of the subjects of “Same Same But Different,” introduced the film.

The highlight of the evening was the screening of a film entitled Same Same But Different, the story of veterans returning to Vietnam to heal the wounds of war.  It consists of interviews with four veterans who return to Vietnam to do what they can to right some of the wrongs of the past in different fields, some related to war legacies such as Agent Orange and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO).  They are Chuck Searcy (Hanoi/Dong Ha, Quang Tri), Chuck Palazzo (Danang) and Mike Cull (Nha Trang), all friends of mine, I’m proud to say.  Same Same But Different was produced by  Deryle Perryman, a veteran (see photo below), and Moisés González, a film producer.  It was funded as a Kickstarter project with donations that totaled $25,050 and completed in 2012.  (Kickstarter is the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects.)

The post-film discussion included some very emotional and eloquent comments by several members of the delegation and expats, all with a connection to Vietnam and the war. Two of the more notable contributors were Andre Sauvageot, a retired US Army Colonel, and another retired US Army Colonel and U.S. State Department official, Ann Wright.  One expat who works in the field of education spoke about losing three brothers and a cousin in the war.

Sauvageot,  who speaks fluent Vietnamese, arrived in Vietnam in the summer of 1964 as a US Army district adviser to local forces.  He worked for Frank Scotton, a pioneer in counter-insurgency warfare, and was hired by Covert Action Chief Tom Donohue into the CIA’s Revolutionary Development Cadre program.

Wright is best known for her outspoken opposition to the Iraq War.  She was one of three US government employees to publicly resign in protest against the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, in addition to  Brady Kiesling and John H. Brown.

As many veterans have told me, the impact of a return visit to Vietnam is profound and therapeutic on so many levels.  This is something I wrote about in this 2013 article entitled From the Lion’s Den: An Open Letter (and Invitation) to Vietnam Veterans.


P.S.:  Here’s a Vietnamese language article about the tour:  Cựu binh Mỹ vì hòa bình: Tích cực trong giải quyết hậu quả chiến tranh.

Deryle Perryman, co-producer of "Same Same But Different"

Deryle Perryman, co-producer of “Same Same But Different”


2014 VSN International Conference “What Is A Good University?”

Posted 02/04/2014 by maavn
Categories: Commentary, Conferences

Tags: , , , ,

conf2I was recently invited to speak at a conference in Hanoi organized by the Vietnam Scholar Network (VSN), the Vietnam Centre for Economic and Policy Research (VEPR) and the University of Education, and sponsored by the British Embassy Hanoi.  The conference, which was kicked off with remarks from Prof. Dr. Nguyen Huu Duc, Vice President, Vietnam National University(VNU)-Hanoi, Dr. Nguyen Duc Thanh, Executive Director, Vietnam Scholar Network, Dr. Antony Stokes, British Ambassador to Vietnam and Assoc. Prof. Le Kim Long, Principal, University of Education, VNU-Hanoi, included Vietnamese and foreign scholars and practitioners.  The themes were:

  • Rethinking Universities
  • Universities in a Changing World
  • University Research and Teaching
  • Drivers for Innovations in Universities

My talk, entitled Higher Education Admission Reform in Vietnam:  The Next Generation, focused on the pressing need to reform a system that no longer meets the needs of Vietnam’s rapidly expanding higher education system and developing society.  It included a brief look at the redesigned SAT and U.S. higher education admission as a negative and positive role model.

Now & Then

Vietnam’s is undergoing a transition from an elite to a mass higher education system.  In 1987, there were only 101 colleges and universities; there are now 419.  The number of students jumped from 133,000 students in 1987 to over 2 million in 2013.

So what is a “good university” as it relates to admission?  One that…

  • is able to accommodate and channel demand for higher education (this includes postsecondary vocational programs)
  • selects students whose qualifications meet or exceed admission requirements and academic standards
  • admits students who will succeed

The Time for Reform – on Many Fronts – is Now

With a median age of 29.2 Vietnam is currently enjoying a “demographic bonus,” defined as 2 or more persons of working age for every person of dependent age (under 15 or 60+).  Experts say this is likely to last until 2040, when the country look like the U.S. and Canada do today, demographically speaking. (At that time, the U.S. and Canada will look like Germany and Japan, both of which have a median age of 46.1 years.)  With the gradual graying of the population, this window of opportunity will begin to close, which means that Vietnam has to do everything in its power to improve the quality of education and training for its young people, as well as the quantity and quality of employment opportunities.  (It’s estimated that 50% of all unemployed Vietnamese are between the ages of 15 and 24.)

The Annual Rite of Passage

If it’s July, it must be exam time. Every summer, the media is filled with inspirational stories about young people from the countryside who travel long distances at great expense to take and pass an exam that will allow them to gain admission to a university, presumably, a ticket to a better life.  This is a one-shot deal, a make-or-break scenario for those who have neither the time nor the means to retake this annual exam, should they not receive a satisfactory score.

In a nutshell, what’s wrong with the current university entrance exam?

  • Costly and inefficient for families and the government
  • Stressful for students, parents, teachers
  • Emphasis on rote memorization, i.e., lower-order cognitive skills
  • Inequitable: urban students spend 2X what rural students spend on exam preparation (i.e., extra lessons)

The Next Generation

The current exam will be replaced with a standardized exam that was inspired by the SAT, administered by the College Board, a U.S. nonprofit.  As I understand it, the “VSAT” will be administered four times a year at locations throughout Vietnam, and offer Subject Tests (11).  This score, along with high school grades, will comprise the admission criteria for most students in the coming years.  In the future, others can be considered, depending upon the level of selectivity of each institution, including a required and/or optional writing component on the VSAT, letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose (SOP), and an interview.

Redesigned SAT

cb_logoIn an attempt to be more useful, relevant, focused and, frankly, to compete more effectively with the other U.S. higher education “entrance exam,” the ACT, a redesigned SAT will be launched in April 2016.  Descriptions of the “new SAT” pay a lot of lip service to college and career readiness.  Significantly, there is a SAT-optional movement that was initiated 30 years ago by Bates College, a highly selective liberal arts college in Maine that is referred to as one of the “Little Ivies.”  There are currently 800 test-optional colleges & universities out of about 2,800 four-year institutions.  (The remainder of the nearly 4,000 regionally accredited higher education institutions are comprised of community colleges, which are open admission.)

nacac-logoLast month, the results of a three-year study entitled Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies and University Admissions were released by NACAC.  One of the key findings, relevant for Vietnam, is contained in this quote on p. 3:

Students with strong HSGPAs generally perform well in college, despite modest or low testing. In contrast, students with weak HSGPAs earn lower college Cum GPAs and graduate at lower rates, even with markedly stronger testing. A clear message: hard work and good grades in high school matter, and they matter a lot.

Obviously, one research priority, as Vietnam rolls out a new university entrance exam is to look at high school GPAs as a predictor of academic success and higher education academic performance over an extended period of time to see what the correlation is.  Something else to consider is whether the current upper secondary school completion exam should be retained, phased out or used a national benchmark.

Other Suggestions and Possibilities

ap logoGiven the high level of Internet penetration in Vietnam (about 40%), especially among young people, why not create localized versions of the following tools and resources?

  • The Common Application common app logo
  • Entity/Website similar to The College Board that includes information about college planning, college search and online registration for the VSAT
  • Advanced Placement (AP) Courses
  • Free VSAT Preparation similar to that being offered by The College Board in partnership with the Khan Academy  khan academy logo

Bottom Line

Reform of the way in which students are selected and admitted to colleges and universities will save time, money and reduce stress for students and other stakeholders in the education system.  I know that my Vietnamese colleagues working in this area have looked at many countries and systems around the world, yet another example of how outward-looking and flexible Vietnam can be and a textbook example of one use of comparative education.


Five-Minute Glass: What Our Government Sees When It Looks Out the Window

Posted 27/03/2014 by maavn
Categories: Articles, Commentary

Tags: , , , ,
American flag behind a chain link fence. (Image: via Shutterstock)

American flag behind a chain link fence. (Image: via Shutterstock)

Below is an excerpt from a recent article written by Daniel H. Garrett, a former US Department of State foreign service officer and currently a senior associate at The Asia Institute.  I am posting it because it offers an insider’s view of the work of US consular officers, including student visas.  

In addition to the stories Garrett tells, based on first-hand experience, there are egregious abuses of power in the U.S. consular world such as  those committed by Mike Sestak, the former non-immigrant visa (NIV) chief in the US Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City.  Sestak pleaded guilty last November to accepting more than $3 million in bribes in a $9+ million visa-processing scheme that allowed nearly 500 foreign nationals to enter the United States.

Follow this link to read the rest of DH Garrett’s piece.


Part 1: The “Little” Picture: Immigration, Dimigration and Damnigration

Just as US drug policy and its failed “War on Drugs” is in good part responsible for creating the wealthy cartels and the violence they wield, so US immigration policy is in large part responsible for creating the nether-world of trafficking in people and the wealthy criminals who benefit from it.

I was once in my own small way a defender of our country. I stood at the border, a gatekeeper for who could come in and who would have to remain in the outer darkness. As a foreign service officer, I spent a long time at the window – the visa window – adjudicating supplicants. It was, I suppose, like being God. We demanded absolute truth and had the ability to make absolute, life-changing decisions. To some, we offered the possibility of a trip to heaven – the USA – while some slinked away, their fraudulent documents having been detected. And others went away in anger and disgust at not having been believed. For though we had godlike power, we really couldn’t see any better into someone’s heart and mind than the average Joe. We could ask whatever question we wanted, and an answer – an easily believable answer – had to be forthcoming, without any ifs ands buts or nervous facial ticks (“So you’re 25 and you claim to be in love with a 70-year-old man. Tell me what is his favorite position?”). We could demand any proof we desired (bring me the sheets of that consummation, unwashed and we may also require a DNA analysis, the cost of which you are responsible for). Oh, we learned to detect the more obvious tricks from experience, but that experience for many (if not most) officers hardened their hearts into a perpetual sneer of distrust: They’d been burned once or twice, and after that it was no more Mister or Miz Nice Diplomat.

If you had money, you had a better chance of getting a visa, but pity the poor applicant in an ill-fitting suit or the applicant who had a family member already in the United States who had gotten there by claiming asylum or “adjusting status” (in other words, they entered the US on a tourist visa then legally applied to stay as either a student or in a legal employment status). This was more often than not the coup de grace for a swift refusal. You see, the United States does preach the importance of family reunification, but only for families that have gone the orthodox route or have enough money ($1 million) to obtain an E visa – or enough money or desperation to hire a “coyote” of one stripe or another. Just as US drug policy and its failed “War on Drugs” is in good part responsible for creating the wealthy cartels and the violence they wield, so US immigration policy is in large part responsible for creating the nether-world of trafficking in people and the wealthy criminals who benefit from it.

Before I joined the foreign service, visa adjudication was the job I least looked forward to. Because I loved languages and had traveled widely and lived overseas for many years, many of my friends were from other countries. A significant number of them had horror stories to tell of their own visa interviews. Some of the women had been sexually propositioned. Several of the applicants from poor countries had had to apply several times before finding an officer they could convince of their bona fides. Many told of how arrogant, disdainful, imperiously cold the officer was, even if they did get their visa. And yet, given that this was the entry-level position du jour for new diplomats, here I was at the consular window of a US embassy in a small Asian country, granted the power to allow – or not – someone to visit or study or move to the US of A. My mentor called it the foreign service’s equivalent of hazing: It was unpleasant, but it gave the Department of State a way of sizing up your “cojones” and making sure you had the right not-too-much-empathy-for-outsiders stuff.

Photo:  US Embassy-Seoul

Photo: US Embassy-Seoul

My training in this magisterial art had consisted of being fire-hosed with US immigration law for a few weeks, combined with the occasional practice interview at a mock window. The proctors kept telling me that I “over-personalized” my interviews, meaning I smiled and tried to engage the interviewee as one human being to another. But the State Department didn’t want customer service skills. They wanted someone who asked three or four questions at the very most and on that basis was able to make a decision in less than two minutes about whether or not “214(b)” was overcome (214(b) is the front line, the thin line, the Maginot line that keeps the United States from being flooded with illegal immigrants, at least in the minds of most of the officers at the window; 214(b) states, “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 admission, that he is entitled to a nonimmigrant status.” It is, in other words, a system of justice that begins with the presumption of guilt.

Armed with this prescription for distrust, and confirmed in their prejudices by the occasional applicant who was clearly fraudulent (the five-star hotel “owner” with a hilariously misspelled letter of self-introduction on stolen stationary, the would-be graduate student with a purchased master’s degree in physics who couldn’t explain the second law of thermodynamics, the Buddhist “priest” who knew only two of the Four Noble Truths, etc.). I saw officers sometimes refuse nine out of 10 applicants, including some who were world-famous (thus requiring an apology from the ambassador in the local newspaper). There were many days when the officers raced each other to see who could refuse the most applicants (volume helped their career chances); on other days, they played Non Immigrant Visa Bingo (the “bingo” card had squares like ship crewman visa, fake monk applicant, fake student documents, medical emergency). Our consul general (himself rumored to be skating on the tit-for-tat side of sexual indiscretion, or as he so eloquently put it, “You can sleep with a woman here for the price of a Coke.”) explained it helped to pass the time and reduce the stress on the officers. I thought about the stress on the applicants who were each paying the equivalent of that country’s yearly average wage for the opportunity to be made sport of.

Officers were afraid to disagree publicly with the perceived wisdom of their superiors lest their career careen out the gilded door.

I do not mean to demonize the officers. It is a tough job. Often the hours are long and the pressure is immense. I’ve seen officers on the line snap, and begin pounding the glass, yelling, “You’re a liar, you’re a liar.” I’ve seen others call the embassy guards to drag a poor applicant away for little more than asking “But why? You’re wrong. Let me explain.” Officers in general do not like to be interrupted in their questioning, and once they’ve made a decision, it’s final: No pleading, explaining or, especially, begging is allowed. The dramas that unfold at the Visa Window deserve a sitcom or two. And of course the applicants have their own way of getting revenge. Some of the officers were so unpopular in-country for their haughty ways that they avoided going out for fear of being ridiculed and spat upon. One particularly disgruntled applicant literally took a crap at the window to express his displeasure at being refused. In many countries, there are web sites and chat rooms in which the consular officers are given nicknames and their peccadillos analyzed in (imagined) detail.

The gossip on the street was that male officers were easier, and indeed, every once in a while, an officer would slink back from the visa window with a sheepish smile on his face and mutter to the other male officers “Gene Pool Visa.” For, yes, a particularly beautiful woman at the window in a particularly fetching dress sometimes stirred an officer to his, er, core, to rise to the occasion and issue the, er, visa. My weakness was students, and I became known as the “Student Visa Guru” as students across the subcontinent would perform puja in hopes of getting my window (basically, if a student was accepted at a college and had enough money, I issued the visa). Other officers issued a visa to students only with straight A’s or students going to prestigious schools or students who were studying something they thought was “practical” for their country. But pity the applicant who had a previous refusal. The thin grey line of future diplomats did not easily overturn the previous decision of a fellow officer, even if, of course, it was wrong. And so there were applicants caught in “previous refusal hell” with very little chance of getting out no matter what they did.

Part 2: The “Big” Picture, A: Seeing Things That Are Not There, Not Seeing Things That Are There

What I saw that nervous morning when I first took my position at the visa window was a room full of smiling, hopeful human beings who still basically held the United States in high regard as a place, whose ideals and dreams were still aspired to. By the end of the day, though, more than half of them had had their illusions destroyed, not so much by the fact that an officer didn’t find them qualified (economically) to visit the United States, but because of the arrogance if not rudeness of the officer they encountered. Wanting to ingratiate myself with the techno-geek servants of the Homeland Insecurity state and save my foundering career (my boss said I was “insubordinate” for issuing too many student visas and overturning demonstrably mistaken refusals), I suggested a system based on expert systems and neural networks. The idea was that if we were to determine our visa decisions basically on little more than a combination of stereotyping, racial profiling, personal prejudices, and how an officer was feeling on any given day (plus, yes, some experience) we might as well codify and objectify the system and give it the ability to learn and grow from the experiences of every officer combined with real feedback about what actually happened to the applicants. Better than that, of course, would have been a little sensitivity and customer-service training for our future “diplomats.” But, hey, there were no careers or money to be made in being kind.


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