Consular Diplomacy

Working in the consular section isn’t the stereotypical image of diplomacy. Many times the work is characterized as drudgery, stamping 100s of visas in a mill in some backwater. Truth is, it’s pretty interesting work, or at least it can be depending on the post. Nigeria is definitely an interesting one as much as the work of visa interviews goes.  You have to stay on your toes and think on your feet as you only have a few minutes to figure out if someone is a legitimate candidate, qualified for the visa, or if they aren’t.

But beyond the basic work of adjudicating visas, it is easy to overlook the real diplomatic work that goes on at the window.  For a lot of people in the host country, the consular officer is the only American they’ve ever met and their first real interaction with our country.  It is important to treat people with dignity, especially when they don’t qualify for a visa.  This is a challenge not because its hard to do but because it is easy to forget as you fall into a rhythm of sorts. While I see between 40 and 60 people a day, they only see one American and its important that they leave with a good impression that they had my full attention, concern, and consideration.

That’s the daily responsibility, but sometimes the diplomatic role of the visa officers is even more obvious. Everyone who wants to travel to the US needs a visa, even the President (note: I did not interview the President.) Some countries are part of the visa waiver program and they don’t have to apply for simple visitors visas; they get one automatically at the border when they enter. Japan is like this, for example. You can just show up and get in for 90 days (and the same goes for the Japanese coming to America. But there’s only a handful of countries in this program and it only applies for basic tourist visas; everyone else has to come to the embassy and apply.

Sometimes we get important (and not-so-important but still very relevant) people in the government at the window. It occurred to me that there is potential for serious problems between nations at this point of contact. If someone were to be rude or offensive (or even just give the person at the window an excuse to get offended), the host government would get pretty upset. There have been some pretty innocuous statements made by new officers that have unintentionally upset the host government, so you have to be careful and above all, be a professional.

I take a lot of pride in being able to professionally and politely explain to people who don’t qualify for for visas why they have been denied. It’s important that they feel that they were treated fairly and with respect. It’s common sense and common courtesy, really, and I don’t mean to make it out to be more than it is. Now that I’m getting more comfortable in the execution of my work I’ve just been able to reflect on it more now and I think it’s an interesting and important element of the work.

I’m really happy with this gig. It might be my only time working in a consular section (every new Foreign Service officer does it for one of their first two tours; Consular officers do it as their mainstay) and I’m getting the most out of it. I get to meet a lot of people, get to grant a lot of joy and happiness, and have to be considerate when that joy and happiness isn’t forthcoming. You hear a lot of stories too, some of which are pretty amusing. And fundamentally, it’s important work.

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