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Consular Corner: October 2008

by Liam Schwartz

Ten Questions With:
Ellen Peterson, Vice Consul
U.S. Consulate General, Tijuana, Mexico

We're pleased to present the fourth in a series of interviews introducing the reader to the people who carry out the visa application process. This month's interview is with Ellen Peterson, a Vice Consul at the U.S. Consulate General in Tijuana, Mexico.

Ms. Peterson entered the Foreign Service in 2005 following a remarkable career in the public and private sectors. A fluent speaker of Spanish and Arabic, Ms. Peterson's pre-FS accomplishments included: service in the Peace Corps; consulting on international development for USAID and the World Bank; conducting market research in Latin America; analyzing industry trends for global corporations in fields such as pharmaceuticals and communications; and promoting standardized English language testing in Beirut, Lebanon. Ms. Peterson earned an Arabic language diploma in Cairo; an MBA from Fordham University; and a BA in International Relations from McGill University. Prior to her current posting in Tijuana, Ms. Peterson served as a Vice Consul at the U.S. Embassy in Doha, Qatar.

After reading this interview, I'm sure you'll agree: it's comforting to know that people of Ms. Peterson's caliber - and character - are running the visa application process.

Liam Schwartz: Was there a 'road-to-Damascus' moment in which you knew you were destined for the Foreign Service, or was becoming a diplomat something you'd always thought of?

Ellen Peterson: Well, yes and no. I took the entrance exam back in the 1980s when fairly fresh out of college and in the Peace Corps in Morocco but just missed the cut-off. That was the year they had the class action lawsuit of women whose exam scores didn't make the cut-off because they couldn't answer critical diplomatic questions such as who had won the World Series. I was invited to join up later in the 1990s when they won their lawsuit but by that point I was already working in D.C. in USAID contracting and wanted nothing more than to get into the private sector. I did work in consulting and market research in the NYC area for several years and went through several booms & busts, but missed international work and working for a bigger goal than the company's quarterly bottom line. In A-100 class, one of our trainers joked that "the Foreign Service is a great career for people with a short attention span!" and I thought "Hallelujah, I'm home."

LS: Is the current economic crisis changing the way you approach nonimmigrant work visa applications?

EP: In addition to tourist, student, religious, entertainment/athletic, H1B and L visas here in Tijuana, I do TNs. We always try to figure out if the person is bona fide, solvent, stably employed or rooted socio-economically and of course look to see if they've ever been arrested in the U.S. or stopped at the border for anything. Since Tijuana and San Diego almost function as one metropolitan corridor in many ways, there are lots of complications that sometimes arise. Certainly we're concerned about the economy because lots of industries such as tourism, furniture production, electronics, etc. that depend on disposable income have either collapsed or are in free-fall.

LS: Tijuana has got to be a very tough posting. On the streets outside of the Consulate General, you have what the State Department calls a "war" between violent criminal organizations struggling for control of the narcotics trade. Shootouts and murders occur on a daily basis; last year, dozens of U.S. citizens were kidnapped and/or murdered in Tijuana. With all the mayhem outside, how is it possible for visa officers to keep their balance, and stay focused on the job?

EP: The border reminds me a lot of what it must have been like in gangland Chicago in the 1940s or what sections of some U.S. cities are living through currently. Some consular employees here and in Ciudad Juarez have been sitting at traffic intersections when people in adjacent cars shoot over or around them at cars in other lanes! Others have been present in the 'trusted traveler' crosser line to the U.S. when Customs & Border Patrol came out guns drawn to arrest a driver in the next car. It's true I'm not getting a lot of U.S. visitors here at post, which is a shame because I really love Tijuana! It's a young, culturally vibrant city that is a fascinating microcosm of Mexico and I think it suffers from the inevitable comparison to wonderful San Diego right next door. I think that the importance of the Borderland areas is underscored by the fact that key issues such as global migration patterns, grassroots economic development, immigrant absorption into the U.S., the divide between economic haves and have-nots are all vivid and highlighted right here in Baja Norte. That's what make this post really important.

LS: According to official statistics, you and your colleagues are expected to conduct some 20 interviews per hour, 6 hours per day. In practice, is this about right, and how does the rest of your work day shape up?

EP: My colleagues and I here in Borderland agree that the numbers that may work down in the interior definitely don't work here. Applicants here have had much more chance to travel legally or otherwise to the U.S. and lots of old hits pop up, from overstays to DWIs to petty theft, drugs, and all the rest of it. That takes time to properly document and to determine honestly whether a youthful indiscretion 10 years ago, for example, deserves a waiver request. Second, our applicants don't need plane fare to Disney in order to be a true tourist; lots of people just want to hit garage sales on the U.S. side or buy shampoo for their hair salons or parts for their auto repair shops. These people take more questions in order to fairly evaluate their ties, solvency, and intentions. That takes time - time from lunch, time from other projects we need for professional development, and time just to refresh/re-charge.

LS: Are there times when you look out at the people waiting to be interviewed, and just know in your gut who deserves a visa, and who does not?

EP: I'm sure that some long-time (or brand new) interviewers do that, and they may even be correct in their assumptions. But there are too many times when my initial impression is overturned after I start talking to someone. A person who presents themselves as a professional may turn out to be a "wanna be" professional with insufficient ties; alternatively, a person who appears not to have much solvency may end up to be completely rooted with long ties, strong financials, or even other international travel. If you don't sometimes end up surprised in this job, you're not really trying. On the other hand, if you're not vigilant, sometimes any old story can lead you down the garden path. My motto is: "If they can't beat you, they'll sure try to confuse the hell out of you!"

LS: What has to happen for you to lose (or almost lose) your temper on the visa line?

EP: Baloney, fatigue, repeated denials of past arrests when our data shows otherwise, and then more of the same. This is like running a marathon and you need a lot of stamina. The problems come when people show up either too scared to give a proper answer (i.e., "What do you do?" "I work." "OK, where do you work?""At a company" and so on) OR it's clear they're trying to be your best friend in 30 seconds. Mexicans are genuinely sociable and helpful people, but sometimes you feel like you're getting snowed at the window by the entire waiting room. That's when stamina needs to take over, because the time-off-the-line part for recharging just isn't available.

LS: How daunting is it for visa officers at the Consulate General in Tijuana, knowing that your NIV workload is expected to increase well over 200% (representing hundreds of thousands of new applications) during the next two years?

EP: The Consulate is trying to put programs in place now that will address that. We're processing repeat visas somewhat differently and we're setting up a program for business travelers. We've also got a net increase of half a dozen officers over the next year that can hopefully forestall some of this tsunami of renewals. A new consular facility is under construction and we're keeping our fingers crossed that some incoming family members may be willing and able to staff some of the dedicated jobs so that some of the administrative burden is taken off our shoulders. Hopefully, the timing of all this will somewhat coincide the human waves coming at us! As for me, I'll be gone by Jan. 2010!

LS: You previously served as a U.S. visa officer in Doha, Qatar. Women's rights and freedoms in Qatari society remain limited, despite some recent welcome reform. Did you find that as a woman officer, there were special challenges in serving in a society in which the status of women is so different than that in the U.S.?

EP: No, I think that most of us women who have lived in Arab societies realize that we are bestowed "honorary male" status as Western females in the Muslim world. There are lots of women in such gender-segregated societies who rule the roost. Male hesitation for dealing professionally with a woman is usually allayed when you're direct and helpful and don't do anything that could be construed as flirtatious behavior - even if they're clearly testing and flirting with you. That doesn't mean that you can't use humor or friendliness when dealing with men in the Arab world but there are limits and society is much more formal than ours. You want to avoid misinterpretation of your behavior and be aware that there's lots of boundary-testing going on in the Arab world, maybe especially because it has such outwardly clear social rules but is undergoing rapid change below the surface. In certain ways, Arab women have it a lot easier than American women and we often fail to take into account the gender-based challenges in our society and in State Department, for that matter!

LS: If you could sit in a room with a group of immigration attorneys about to represent nonimmigrant visa applicants for the very first time, what "Golden Rules" would you suggest for them?

EP: Well, obviously immigration attorneys are trying to get visas for their clients and we are standing in their way! Right there, you have a built-in conflict which may on occasion be insurmountable since we are trying to enforce many rules. But I would say that brevity, honesty, and mutual respect are good foundations for anyone - whether for consular officers, congressional interns, or immigration attorneys! Also, even though there is no formal "appeals" process per se, applicants always have the right to re-apply and make clear any new information that may not have been uncovered the first time.

LS: If you could sit in a room with a group of new visa officers about to interview nonimmigrant visa applicants for the very first time, what "Golden Rules" would you suggest for them?

EP: Try to learn as much as you can about the country you're living in and about consular rules. Both will serve you well and try not to skimp on either. Cultivate your curiosity, fortify your bureaucratic mettle for extreme detail, and if you're not naturally outgoing try to raise your comfort level with having so much "face time" with so many people. Sometimes introverts make the best interviewers!

New Colossus

Back in 1962, the Llorens family arrived in the U.S. as refugees from Cuba. Hugo Llorens, then 7 years old, is now our incoming Ambassador to Honduras. In talking about his background during the Senate confirmation hearing, Ambassador Llorens said:

"We arrived with a suitcase in hand and a buffalo nickel in our pocket, but knew we were richly blessed by America's freedoms. We worked hard and had an unquenchable faith in America as the land where dreams come true."

Not a bad deal: America opens its doors to poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and gets U.S. Ambassadors in return. What a great model for ensuring that Americans always remain a people of talent and accomplishment.

On Being a Junior Officer

The late Elizabeth Ann Swift worked her way up through the ranks, from Junior Officer to positions including Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Overseas Citizens Services, and Consul General in London. Here's how Ms. Swift recounted her early experiences on the visa line in Manila:

"Q: How did you feel when you first got hit with very important decisions you were making on other peoples' lives?

A: Hated it. It wasn't so much the decision making that bother me but the fact that the Filipinos regarded a consular officer as something slightly lower than God. Certainly we were better than the ambassador and anyone else in the embassy. I mean people would come in and be very humble and self-effacing to me, and I was a 22 year old straight out of college. I had no illusions that I was anything particularly wonderful and great. And here there often were very important people, within Filipino society - senators and that sort of thing - were sort of looking up to me…Often we would have mayors from towns outside coming in to want visas for themselves, and being terrified of me as a junior officer, and I found that appalling.",+Elizabeth+Ann))

Rejoicing in Manila

One of the consular officers currently stationed in Manila was able to provide a B-2 visa applicant with proof that "once-denied" does not mean "always denied":

"October 6,2008…. i was interviewed at the US Embassy Manila…. the purpose of the trip…. to visit my mother this Christmas…… I was approved by the US Consul!! Praise the LORD!!

October 8,2008….. my US ViSA was delivered by DELBROS….. 10 YEARS MULTIPLE ENTRIES !!! Praise God!!!

I can still remember…..still fresh on my mind…..

Two years ago when my father died, we applied for a US Visa but we were denied because we were late for the interview….. would u like to ask what happened?…. uhhh,,,… i just forgot to bring my passport…. so we need to call up my nephew in Bulacan,.. to bring the passport i left in my house.

Our schedule for interview was 7:30 a.m. but we came in the US Embassy building 10:30a.m….. i was so stupid…we we're not able to see our father's wake…. that was the hardest part… i was really hurt…. from then on, i am always praying… "God, please…. don't ever let the same thing happen again in the future"….i am always crying to God and pleading….

But here's the good thing… after two years.. i was offered by my brother in New Jersey…. a trip to USA!…. that was great!…. i hurriedly prepare my documents for interview before he changed his mind?!…. started from joke… sorry brother… now its a dream come true for me!!!

Oh God… i just want to bring u back all the glory and thanksgiving for all your blessings…. yes… after all the trials and temptations… u r still giving me encouragements to go on….and now you are pouring your blessings upon me and my family….. TO GOD BE THE GLORY!"

Denied but Determined Down Under

Although denied a visa, one applicant in Sydney is determined not to "give up and crawl under a rock":

"Twelve months is a bloody long time. But that's how long I have to wait to re-enter the US after I was refused a visa in January this year.

Last Tuesday night I landed in Sydney after a three hour flight from my home in Cairns. I rose early for my appointment and even dressed up for the occasion.

As my number was called, after having passed through the rigorous security checks, including an elevator to another floor controlled by armed officials, I approached the window only to be told I was not able to re-apply until twelve months had passed since being refused, making it possible in February next year!

As I walked out of the US Consulate in Sydney last week all I could do was smile. I thanked each staff member as I exited and left the downtown office building spilling out onto the crowded work-day street. I breathed in the Sydney air and walked through the mass of people, all the while smiling jovially at everyone that dared look up from their feet. I felt terrific. (I wonder why? Can you guess?)

I had no idea what I was going to do next, but I did know what I wasn't going to do.. First of all I wasn't flying to Hawaii at the end the month for the youth gathering I was planning to attend. And I sure as certain wasn't heading to Vegas in December to support my friend in the Miss Universe contest.

But most importantly I wasn't going to sit down. I wasn't going to give up. I was not going to crawl up under a rock and feel sorry for poor little old me. No way. I am going to do something bigger than anyone else in this world had ever dreamed of. I am going to be me!

So as I walked down the street a few people caught my eye. It wasn't the ones in suits particularly, nor the women in pretty dresses especially, it wasn't even the punk kid wannabe's, or anyone else "different" for that matter.

The people that caught my eye last Wednesday, as I smiled and left the Consulate, were the ones that looked me in the eyes. They knew something that I couldn't ever try to convince anyone of. They knew I was friendly. They knew I was alright. They knew I was there to love them just as they are, without judgment.

The US refused me entry because they judge me for who I was, and not on who I am. I once hurt many people, physically, emotionally, and with my actions. At 19 years of age I was convicted of criminal activities. I became one of the bad-guys. Now, eight years later, I still pay dearly for my actions, for my life.

I will remain in Australia at this time, living with my brother and sister. From now I work diligently to use my life for the betterment of all.

May all barriers to my success be placed high so that all may see, I will never give up and never be beaten. Only one man can stop me now, and he is tired from writing this email on this tiny iPhone keyboard, so he is no threat to me..

Everything happens for a reason. Smile. Who are you to decide what that reason should be. Accept the situation as it is and work from now to create the experiences you wish to have.

And don't look down. Always meet every man with a smile on your face and a sparkle in your eyes. It's up to you to enjoy yourself. No situation changes this simple fact.

"Those Damn Congressional Letters"

Have you ever wondered about the value of turning to your local Congressional representative for assistance on a difficult visa case?

According to Elizabeth Ann Swift:

"I've always found as a consular officer, particularly supervising consular officer, that the strength of our system as far as protection of Americans, issuing visas, and this type of thing, is those damn Congressional letters, and Congressional inquiries. Without those we would tend to be rather mindless bureaucrats. With those you've got to think it through, and justify, and change. They're annoying, but they make the system work…",+Elizabeth+Ann))

From the Consulates

Montreal and Vancouver:

Reminder: as of October 22, 2008, all applicants applying for nonimmigrant visas in Montreal and Vancouver must use the new DS-160 application form. For more information, please consult the following websites:

U.S. Consulate General Montreal:

U.S. Consulate General Vancouver:

Form DS-160 can be accessed at the following link:

Are You Smarter Than A Junior Consular Officer?

In follow-up to the ILW.COM teleconference on E visas held earlier this month, the October consular quiz is dedicated to E visa issues. Don't be scared off: many of the questions are simple "True or False." Parenthetically, if you've ever wondered how large corporations approach the visa application process, tune in to November's teleconference with in-house counsel from Disney, Nike and McKinsey.

1) True or false: funds which are obtained from U.S. sources cannot be used by a foreign national in support of an E-2 visa application.

2) True or false: an applicant may be entitled to E-1 classification even if the international trade provides only enough income to support himself and his family.

3) True or false: an applicant may be entitled to E-2 classification even if the investment provides only enough income to support herself and her family.

4) True or false: an approved Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker is to be considered by consular officers as prima facie evidence that the requirements for E classification have been met.

5) What is the name of the precedent decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals which is the subject of an entire FAM Note, in part because it emphasizes established rules?

6) Which of the following is NOT an E-1 or E-2 treaty country?
(a) Argentina
(b) Canada
(c) China
(d) India
(e) South Korea

7) The primary focus of the consular officer in determining whether international trade is "substantial" should be:
(a) Monetary value of the trade transactions.
(b) Proportion of domestic to international trade.
(c) Volume of trade.

8) True or false: an ordinarily skilled worker can qualify as an essential employee for E visa purposes.

9) According to the FAM, which of the following may be taken is an indication that an E visa applicant does not intend to depart the U.S. upon termination of status?
(a) The applicant places her foreign residence up for sale.
(b) The applicant transfers all of her household effects to the U.S.
(c) The applicant is the beneficiary of an immigrant visa petition.
(d) All of the above.
(e) None of the above.

10) True or false: previous employment with the E visa firm is an essential factor in determining the "essentiality" of a non-managerial employee.

11) Which of the following may not be considered as comprising an E-2 investment?
(a) Lease of premises.
(b) Loans secured by assets of the enterprise.
(c) Equipment rental.
(d) Equipment purchase.
(e) Patent rights.

12) With what spirit in mind are consular officers urged to adjudicate E visa cases?

NOTE: Answers to this quiz follow the Top Ten Visa Wait Times list.

Top Ten Visa Wait Times at U.S. Consular Posts, October 2008

This month's list shows a trend in world-wide visa wait times which is nothing less than dramatic. Havana and Caracas aside, only one consular post presents wait times of more than two months. Barely five months ago, all of the top ten wait times exceeded 60 days.

# Country US Consular Post Visa Wait Time Increase/Decrease from September 2008 Last Month Top 10 Position
1 Cuba US Interests Section Havana 825 days +56 days 1
2 Venezuela Caracas 200 days 0 days 2
3 Haiti Port au Prince 70 days New listing 4
4 Brazil Sao Paulo 56 days -31 days 6
5 Columbia Bogota 49 days -39 days 5
6 (tie) Brazil Rio de Janeiro 44 days -10 days 10
6 (tie) Switzerland Bern 44 days New listing New listing
7 Dominican Republic Santo Domingo 43 days -19 days 8
8 (tie) Canada Ottawa 42 days New listing New listing
8 (tie) Canada Toronto 42 days New listing New listing
9 (tie) Canada Calgary 40 days New listing New listing
9 (tie) Jamaica Kingston 40 days New listing New listing
10 Canada Vancouver 38 days New listing New listing

Updated to October 7, 2008 and based on published Department of State data. The "visa wait time" is the estimated time in which individuals need to wait to obtain a nonimmigrant visa interview appointment at a given consular post.

Top Wait Times by Region:

The Americas (excluding Cuba) Venezuela/Caracas (200 days)

Europe and Eurasia Switzerland/Bern (44 days)

Middle East and North Africa UAE/Dubai (35 days)

Africa Abuja and Nairobi (35 days)

East Asia and Pacific China/Beijing (23 days)

Central and South Asia Mumbai and New Delhi (14 days)

Answers to "Are You Smarter Than A Junior Consular Officer?"

1) False. 9 FAM 41.51 N8.1-1
2) True. 9 FAM 41.51 N6(b)
3) False. 9 FAM 41.51 N11
4) False. 62 FR 48149
5) Matters of Walsh and Pollard, 9 FAM 41.51 N13
6) d.
7) c. 9 FAM 41.51 N6
8) True. 9 FAM 41.51 N14.3-3(b)
9) e. 9 FAM 41.51 N15
10) False. 9 FAM 41.51 N14.3-4
11) b. 9 FAM 41.51 N8.1-2
12) The basis for E classification lies in treaties aimed at enhancing or facilitating economic and commercial interaction between the U.S. and the treaty country.
9 FAM 41. 51 N1

Quote of the Corner

"There's nothing a Foreign Service Officer likes better than chaos."

Elizabeth Ann Swift, on why she went on an assignment to Teheran, shortly before the takeover of the U.S. embassy in 1979. Ambassador Swift became one of 52 U.S. diplomats held hostage for 444 days.

All rights reserved to the author.

About The Author

Liam Schwartz is a principal in Liam Schwartz & Associates, a corporate relocation law firm. He can be reached at:

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.