Sunday, July 18, 2021

What 6 Months of Adjudicating Visas Taught Me

I've been at U.S. Embassy Seoul for months and have yet to blog much about my actual work here. As longtime readers may recall, my last tour was in Public Diplomacy, which happens to be my cone/track. But here in South Korea, I'm doing a completely different job: Consular (CONS) work. For the first six months of my tour, I focused on non-immigrant visa (NIV) interviews, and now I'm rotating to another unit called American Citizen Services.

What are non-immigrant visas? They're the visas you need when you travel temporarily to a foreign country. They are different from immigrant visas, which you apply for when you plan to immigrate to another country permanently. As a non-immigrant visa adjudicator, it was my job to interview dozens of applicants a day and determine whether they met the qualifications for a non-immigrant visa. These requirements are set by U.S. immigration law (as well as Presidential Proclamations, court interpretations of law, and other policies).

So in no particular order, and with the surety that I'm forgetting some key things I should add, enjoy the list of things I found interesting enough to share that I learned from six months of visa work:

  • Visa interviews are a lot of fun. I know not everyone feels this way, but I love the chance to meet so many different people from all walks of life. Everyone applying to go to the United States has their own story, and I love learning more about them.
  • Most U.S. non-immigrant visa interviews are shorter than people expect. (I can do a straightforward one in about a minute.) But each one of those interviews is an opportunity to be a Public Diplomacy representative. Regardless of the visa decision, we can give people a positive impression of our country by treating them with kindness, professionalism, and respect.
  • Visa work varies wildly from post to post. Countries with more or less fraud, lower or higher issuance rates, and other factors will have very different applicant pools and post policies. For example, South Korea is part of the visa waiver program with the United States. As a result, many tourists and business travelers can go back and forth between our countries without a visa. That is not the case for the vast majority of countries.
  • Sometimes, people will lie to your face. You can't take it personally.
  • Once you become a Consular Officer, tons of people come out of the woodwork to try and ask you for visa advice. They often don't realize they're putting you in an awkward position, because you have to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. You don't want to give people the impression that knowing a Consular official or Embassy employee will give them a leg up in the visa application process. (It doesn't. If a friend comes in for a visa appointment, someone else has to interview them.) When someone asks me for visa or immigration advice, I always suggest they ask a lawyer.
  • There is a real camaraderie that comes with serving "on the line" with other entry-level officers. This was something I missed out on in my first post, where I was the only junior officer in my section. But now, I'm glad I got to enjoy the experience of sharing window hours with my colleagues, being part of a team of peers, and laughing over so many stories where you just had to be there.
  • Language skills can really help you out in a Consular job. Almost every day, I did a few interviews in Korean. It helped me maintain some of my language skills, but it also helped me save time during interviews.
  • In the digital age, people will leave reviews about you online. My colleagues and I read a few reviews of ourselves together for fun the other day. Someone referred to me as 백인 브루넷 (white brunette) and another called me "the lady who's always smiling and laughing" or something like that... I'll take it!

I'm glad Consular work is a requirement for entry-level Foreign Service Generalists. From my time in PD, I know that visa-related sections of Embassy websites (and posts on social media) usually get by far the most engagement. And any Foreign Service member can tell you that regardless of your position a contact will eventually mention something about a visa, and it's good to have some idea what they're talking about. I also think it gives new officers a common shared experience to draw from and connect with, while providing an opportunity for us to build our networks and meet a crucial overseas service need. What's not to love? I'm thankful for my time in NIV, and it may not be my last.

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