The Daily Demarche
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
"IN THE TRENCHES DOING DOG'S WORK."
Former Ambassador J. Anthony Holmes, head of the American Foreign Service Association (our "union") set off a firestorm last week when he described Consular work, specifically non-immigrant visa interviewing, as "dog's work." Several readers e-mailed me after the interview came out to express a range of emotions- some were clearly outraged by Holmes' words, others thought it was about time that someone on the seventh floor (executive level) of the State Department spoke the truth when it comes to the visa work done primarily by entry level officers.

The timing on this, for me, was amazing. While on my travels last week I read two books pertaining to immigration in the United States. The first was On the Line: Inside the U.S. Border Patrol by Erich Krauss and the second was Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores by Michelle Malkin (travel, like Internet service and everything else involving electricity and/or a motor here can be trying, so I always travel well prepared for delays).

"On the Line" covers a lot of ground in a short read, ranging from the earliest days of the Border Patrol (the first BP agent was commissioned to stop Chinese coming in from Mexico) to the amazing armed incursions into America- with shots fired- made in the last decade by the Mexican army. The author details the rigorous training Border Patrolmen go though and takes the reader into the world of BP special ops from Elian Gonzales to road blocks in Bolivia in the war on drugs. When he writes about how open the northern border is, and how little political will there is to stop illegal immigration or to pursue illegal aliens already in the U.S. it is enough to make your blood boil and give you the chills at the same time.

"Invasion" takes this theme a step further and provides vivid details about crimes that have been committed by illegal aliens in the U.S. , such as Angel Maturino Resendez, "The Railroad Killer" and Edward Nathaniel Bell who shot and killed Sgt. Ricky Timbrook of Winchester, Va. Both Resendez and Bell had multiple contacts with INS, and yet they were able to either remain in or to re-enter the United States. (Click here to read the NRO review of this book, and to learn more about the failures of our immigration system.) I wish I had read this book when it first came out. While much has changed since then, at least cosmetically, much still remains terribly the same.

Whereas the Border Patrol is charged with protecting "the line" of our nation's borders, there is another "line" of defense against those who would not only break our immigration laws, but also do us intentional and massive harm. This is the "visa line", the first contact many would-be visitors and immigrants have with the government of the United States. The State Department took a lot of heat over the "Visa Express" program that allowed many of the September 11th hijackers to breeze through the visa system, and as result many things have changed, such as more and better shared information from law enforcement, and increased use of technology to catch impostors and criminals.

One thing, though, has not changed. The officers charged with manning the line are almost entirely entry level, and most are not Consular officers. The State Department, in order to meet the demand for visa services, mandates that all entry level officers spend at least one of their first four years on a visa line, and most spend at least two years doing Consular work. Training for these officers, while better in recent years, is by no means intensive, and the convoluted immigration laws and policies of the U.S. don't help. Neither does attempting to apply these laws in a foreign language. In a "visa mill", a post that exists largely to feed the visa beast, such as Manila or Bogota, officers may "interview" over 100 applicants a day. This is down somewhat from the pre-9/11 days, I can clearly remember "interviewing" upwards of 250 a day on my first tour at one of the top 5 visa mills' but it is still too many. At the most an officer will have 4 minutes with each applicant, but processing of the cases and administrative work cuts that down to more like two minutes per case.

So when Holmes says the following in regards to entry level officer and "transformational diplomacy" he is not at all off the mark:

"probably 80 percent of them go for their first assignment to a visa mill, where they interview 50 to 75 to 100 visa applicants every day. And that isn't transformational. I mean, that is -- you're in the trenches doing dog's work."

Unfortunately, Holmes has been forced to backpeddle from his statement:

The point I was making is that working on the NIV line at many posts is particularly challenging and stressful, full of pressure and stress, and sometimes thankless. These new officers are truly "in the trenches," on US diplomacy's front lines, and this tough duty is the bread and butter of the Foreign Service.

[snip]

As this work is what most new officers do before they get assignments doing "transformational diplomacy," I was trying to convey that it will take time before the bulk of the DRI new hires start doing what the focus of the NPR piece was all about. My broader point was the need to get the resources necessary to do the job.

This release by AFSA was followed by an "all hands" e-mail from Asst. Secretary of State Maura Harty sharing a copy of a letter she sent to Holmes and AFSA, that read in part:

Foreign Service Officers embarking on their initial tours are engaged in activities that are both critical to our nation's security and central to our government's sacred responsibility to protect American citizens abroad. Our officers serve on the front lines of the global war on terror and put their own names on the line every single time they decide whether a foreign national is eligible to visit the United States. They must exercise good judgment and have a mastery of complex substantive material - namely U.S. immigration law and consular regulations - to protect the United States and its citizens. Their first Foreign Service tours give them an invaluable opportunity to develop language and interpersonal skills and management ability, while acquiring a sophisticated understanding of the societies in which they live - all to the benefit of the Foreign Service.

The real problem in all of this is that both Holmes and Harty are right- it is dog's work and it is critical to our national security. My question, then, is why is this work left to our most junior officers who in most cases are merely marking time and "paying their dues" on a visa line. Why do we not have a corps of professional visa adjudicators, well versed in law and policy who speak the local language at a high level? To borrow an example from the military, why are we staffing the front lines with lieutenants right from OCS, who are replaced every year or two? Where are the NCO's with twenty years experience? Frankly, I don't want the people in the visa section in my Embassy to be developing language and interpersonal skills and gaining management experience. I want them to be implementing the law and making informed decisions on who is, and is not, to be granted the privilege of visiting the United States. I want them to be holding the line further from the border.

Holmes deserves to be praised for his honest assesment of the facts in the "new" State Department, and those in the trenches deserve our thanks. Beyond that, though, we should be aiming at making our borders ever more secure, and perhaps making the trenches a little less trench like.
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dé·marche 1) A course of action; a maneuver. 2) A diplomatic representation or protest 3) A statement or protest addressed by citizens to public authorities.

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