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.
- Facilitating travel of legitimate travellers helps the US economy. UK tourism to the US is worth 16 billion dollars.
- 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.
- 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.’
- 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.
- 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.