The Daily Demarche
Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Visas and Immigration - Comment and Critique, Part II (of what now looks to be III)
First off, I’d like to thank our alert commenters who chimed in with their own takes and experiences regarding my first post. In particular, I’d like to thank LB, who pointed out that the Bureau of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), and not Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE, the best acronym in the federal government) handles inspections at ports-of-entry around the country. Thanks for keeping me honest. I’ve corrected the original post to reflect this.
Yesterday, I discussed the current state of play regarding visa issuance by the State Department. Today, I’m going to expand my scope a little, and talk policy issues and suggest possible changes.

Supply and Demand

In my mind, the problems facing our customs, immigration, and consular personnel can be distilled to a rather simple form: supply and demand. The demand for entry into the US, both legal and illegal, far outstrips the supply of people and resources we have to handle it. This is the main reason that we have long waits and lines at consulates and embassies around the world and masses of people illicitly traversing our borders daily. Unfortunately, the finding a solution to this problem is more complex than simply hiring more people and allocating more funds.

Doing so would help, however, but the resources must be directed the right way, and they must be placed into a system that can make best use of them – not an easy task when faced with several different, elephantine bureaucracies. For one thing, despite recent improvements, high volume visa "mills" (Mexico City, Seoul, Manila, etc) could probably still use more personnel. A first time applicant for a tourist visa in Manila, for example, faces a wait of 50 days to have an interview. In Mexico City, the wait is 74 days. (Bored readers can click here to see what the waiting period for a visa is in their favorite country.)

Clearly, posts like this need more bodies to handle their visa loads. In order to accommodate the additional personnel, posts would need to upgrade their infrastructure, create more space, hire more guards to handle the increased inflow of people, and possibly hire more local staff. All of this is difficult, but not impossible. The main question, however, is where to get the additional US-based adjudicators.

One answer is to hire more FSOs. These would do the bulk of the interviewing jobs, which tend to be at the entry levels, for a year or two and then evaporate into the State Department personnel system, many of them never to do consular work again. The problem is that many of these new hires would have been brought on essentially to cover the increased need for visa adjudicators. Once they leave their visa jobs, these people would in all likelihood want to do other kinds of work, creating the possibility that there might not be enough jobs to go around – hardly an ideal staffing plan for any government agency, and a waste of taxpayer money to boot.

Another possibility is to hire visa adjudication specialists, similar to the financial management, information technology, and general services specialists that the Department already employs. These specialists would, as their name implies, specialize in handling visa cases, and could be sent around the world as needed to fill staffing gaps.

A third option is to send the Consular Affairs Bureau, and all personnel associated with it, to the Department of Homeland Security as well as bringing in consular specialists. This almost happened in the aftermath of 9/11, but the State Department ultimately prevailed in keeping the consular function under its wing. There is a precedent for this: the Commerce Department took over a portion of the Foreign Service (in 1980, I believe), which is now called the US Foreign and Commercial Service (FCS). FCS personnel are considered Foreign Service Officers just like their cousins in State, the US Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) and USAID.

My opinion is that the best solution would be to bring in consular specialists. Ultimately, I think that State is a better custodian of the Consular Affairs Bureau (CA) than DHS would be. Although it needed a strong kick in the rear, State has made great and effective strides in fixing the various problems of visa issuance, as I pointed out in my last post. DHS is truly a behemoth, and the visa function could easily get lost there amongst all the other issues the agency must confront. Furthermore, Congress seems pretty happy to fund State and CA, while DHS appears to be struggling for funds. Bringing in visa adjudication specialists, as State has already done in other fields, would not overburden the generalists' personnel system, and would provide a mobile, specialized group of people to take on a critical task.

Well, folks, it is getting late, and I think I'm going to call it a night. I will (hopefully) conclude my ramblings tomorrow, with a look at what happens once a foreign visitor actually enters the United States. Keep your eyes peeled. As always, I look forward to your comments.

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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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