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

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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