21 Nov

The Consular Corps: Touching People’s Lives

Recently 1-800Home organised an event for study abroad students called Exploring Foreign Service Careers. Our panel members were senior officers from the US Embassy in London.  We recorded their remarks and are publishing them in a series of blogs for benefit of a wider audience.  

Our first blog reflects the remarks of the Visa Branch Chief who represented the Consular Section on the panel.

What happens if you get taken to jail? Who is the first person you call?  If your family is not here and you don’t have friends around who are you going to call? You call the Embassy and talk to the duty officer after hours and word gets to us in the Consular Section in our Special Citizens Services unit and we will talk to you on the phone and be sure you are alright. We’ll tell you what we can do for you, give you some names of lawyers you might be able to get in touch with and explain generally what is going to happen next. And then we’ll make sure during the time you are incarcerated that you are treated no worse than anyone else who is incarcerated.

Our Assistant Secretary likes to say that what we do in the Consular Corps is  touch people’s lives. We are ones who make the hard phone call in the middle of the night when someone has passed away abroad to their family back in the United States and help repatriate that person’s remains back to the United States. We’re the people who also have the pleasure of documenting the birth of your child abroad as an American citizen and providing that birth certificate that they will take with them for the rest of their lives. We also help you to recover a passport when you’ve had a rough weekend and you’ve lost your passport and you need to get home. We will get you a passport generally within a few hours and get you on your way back travelling.

In addition, we have a mission of protecting the border of the United States and facilitating legitimate travel to the United States and that’s my branch of the embassy. We have the responsibility to adjudicate immigrant and non immigrant visas for foreign nationals who wish to travel to the United States. Here in London we do 165,000 of those a year for people of 180 different nationalities. It’s not just a matter of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ You have to interview each and every one of those people. You have to talk to them. And you have to know a little about what is going on in their country. For example, if someone is applying for a tourist visa and they are from Russia or Ghana, you might need to know what is happening in those countries that might make someone want to leave there. The officer who does that sort of work is a Foreign Service officer and they generally speak two foreign languages. In our section we have twelve of those people on the line every day making sure that the people who come and ask for a visa are who they say they are, that they are entitled to a visa and that they are not perpetrating fraud against the United States Government. In addition we have a fraud prevention unit which covers the entire section and makes sure that fraud is detected, acted upon and also prevented.  On any given day I am talking to a police sergeant up in Glasgow about an organized crime member who is trying to go to the United States and running that information through our system and figuring out who else might be travelling with him or I might be working to clarify a law in immigration. Immigration law is a slice of federal law that is pretty dynamic. It changes quite frequently and requires a lot of interpretation.

As far as numbers of consuls, here in London  we have approximately 120 personnel and that consists of 27 officers who have a consular commission.  At the window, our junior officers, of whom we have twenty, rotate and do a variety  of things during a two year tour. In that very first tour there is a great deal of on the job training.  After the training they are given a consular commission.

Once the officers have been granted a consular commission they have to be ready to go to the morgue and identify remains of anybody who has passed away and then be prepared to make the hard phone call to the family members back home.  They’ve got to be prepared to visit  prisoners in some pretty rough prisons.  I don’t know how many times I have been in a prison in the visiting area during lock down because of a prison riot – this was not in the UK! In addition, the commissioned officer has got to be ready to go to the site of an airplane accident to do just about any difficult thing that can come up in the consular world.

Finally, in terms of posts in various countries, consular officers work in about 280 posts around the world. If you want to make sure you have a shot at working in Ouagadougou or in Chengdu or pretty much anywhere, there are two cones (State Department specializations are called ‘cones’) where those officers are always going to show up – one is management and the other is consular.

This ends the remarks of the Consular member of the panel. The next blog post will focus on the contribution of the Economic Section.

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11 Nov

Representing America in a Career that Matters

Joining the Foreign Service offers an opportunity for an interesting career and a chance to serve.

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18 Sep

“More Military Grocery Workers Than Diplomats”

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26 Aug

Joining the Foreign Service

In October, 1-800Home will host it’s first Foreign Service Careers Panel for US students studying in the UK.  In the run up to the event we will be showcasing useful resources for individuals considering a career representing the United States of America.

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29 Jul

Consular Reality on TV

The US Embassy in London allowed a film crew to embed itself in the embassy and film them at work. The result was a 3 part series called Inside the American Embassy including an entire episode devoted to the Consular Section. This was not actually ‘reality TV’ which oddly has come to mean filming people in artificial or contrived  situations. This was not artificial people were at work. There is not doubt of that as we saw when Karen Ogle, who in overall charge of Counselor Affairs cut the ribbon in the new Embassy. She reminded her staff members of their mission. “We do serious work here. Our raison d’etre in our counselor section is to facilitate travel for legitimate travelers and keep people who intend to do us harm out of the United States through our contacts with the police agencies here in the United Kingdom.”  Everyone applauded and then got to work.

There were a few cases shown of services to Americans but most of the program focused on visa work.  We saw for ourselves that consular  work is indeed serious.

Here is what else we learned.

  1. Facilitating travel of legitimate travellers helps the US economy. UK tourism to the US is worth 16 billion dollars.
  2. The section works very hard indeed. They adjudicate many thousands of visa applications under time pressure. A staff psychologist is on hand to help officers deal with the mental burdens of making the correct decision for each case and maintaining a healthy mental attitude.
  3. Toughness is part of the system but so is compassion. A man who had served time for a serious crime was not given a visa. However people, who commit minor offenses, have reformed and who meet the other criteria may be given a visa. A touching example was of a man in this category wanting to take his little daughter and wife to Disneyland. In another case an officer gives a woman with a difficult family situation time to collect herself emotionally before leaving the office. He explained that he could give her another 5 minutes of his time because ‘everyone needs to leave here with their dignity.’
  4. Consuls implement policies from Washington as do other diplomats and explain visa denials politely but clearly. In the program we saw the consular section had prepared a paper to give to applicants in which the President’s order regarding visa denials for citizens of select majority Muslim countries was set out.
  5. The career officers provided outstanding leadership. It was crucial for the new officers in particular that senior officers at the embassy had stood in their shoes. In addition, the senior officers understood when they needed support. On the day on which they would for the first time be implementing the ban the senior officer in the section spoke to her colleagues. ‘You are a great team. I’m really proud of you and you’re going to do a great job with this today.’

And they did. We saw it for ourselves.

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