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.