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Consular Corner: January 2009

by Liam Schwartz

Ten Questions With: Valerie J. Chittenden
Consul, US Embassy Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic

We're pleased to present the latest in our series of interviews introducing the reader to the people who run and manage the visa application process. Previously, we have presented interviews with consular officers in Europe, the Middle East, China and Mexico; this month, we are honored to present an interview with Valerie J. Chittenden of the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic.

Ms. Chittenden is the sole consular officer in Bishkek, responsible for all consular functions at post. Her prior postings included: American Citizens Chief (18 months) and Non-Immigrant Visa Chief (6 months) at U.S. Consulate General Dubai; and Vice Consul at U.S. Embassy Moscow. Ms. Chittenden holds a Bachelor's degree in Modern Language and Linguistics from the University of Maryland Baltimore County; and a Master's Degree in International Affairs from the American University.

A native of Baltimore, Ms. Chittenden began studying Russian at 14 while in high school. Her first trip abroad was as part of a U.S. Department of State high school exchange program in Leningrad, Russia. Following university, Ms. Chittenden worked for a year at a public school in St. Petersburg, Russia, where she taught English, American culture and American history. Ms. Chittenden was later accepted into a co-op program that introduced her to the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs - with whom she has worked ever since.

Liam Schwartz: You currently represent our country in the Kyrgyz Republic, which the State Department describes as a place in which medical services are extremely limited, violent crime against foreigners is high, and "many of the goods and services taken for granted in other countries are not yet widely available." Additionally, you are the sole consular officer in Bishkek, meaning that there are no American consular team members available for immediate support and feedback. How do the physical and other hardships of this kind of posting affect one's ability to perform the duties of U.S. Consul?

Valerie J. Chittenden: Serving as the only consular officer in one's post is definitely a challenge - but an interesting one that brings different levels of responsibility that most don't see until later in their careers. The hardships at posts like this one have different effects on different people. One can easily feel pulled in competing directions when trying to deal with an emergency case while keeping up with "normal" work. If one is not careful, one can become burnt out. The phrase "24/7" takes on new meaning when you are on call 24/7. Your phone will ring at the most inconvenient time and you have no one else to back you up. Most officers do not have this problem. Given the nature of the local conditions and infrastructure, cases that may not be so critical in larger posts require greater assistance, longer hours and more attention than in a developed country. It's important to really balance your life as much as possible. You must ask for assistance - even if it just a fresh pair of eyes and ears while you air your problem. In Kyrgyzstan, we are 11+ hours from Washington and 4+ hours from our nearest Regional Consular Officer. However thanks to modern technology, I am able to talk to consular officers at neighboring posts for advice while waiting for my Regional Consular Officer or Washington to come on-line. We receive great support from Washington but it's important to talk to other officers in the field - not just to compare war stories and trends but just to keep that sense of isolation at bay.

LS: In an earlier life, you taught schoolchildren in St. Petersburg. In what ways did this experience inform your later work as a Vice Consul at the U.S. Embassy in Russia?

VJC: I was a school teacher from 1996- 1997 - so Russia was already "open" to the West and Americans were not as exotic as they were in the Soviet Days. That being said, my experience had a lasting effect to this day on my work as a consular officer. You can never underestimate how foreign exchanges can change an entire person's life or point of view - especially for young people. There really are few, if any, replacements for actual travel to another culture to learn about a life different from your own. We don't often think about the memories we leave behind - for good or for bad. After Sept 11th, I received a very touching letter from one of my students hoping that I and my family were okay. She had been in 4th grade in 1996 and I hadn't seen or spoken to any of her classmates in seven years. I will admit that I had look through my notes to remember her - but she remembered me after seven years. Consular officers can't forget that while we see thousands of people, they only see one of us. And they will remember us for good or for ill. And lastly that experience helped me in realizing how lucky I am as an American citizen and how difficult the lives of others can be. If someone accuses me of "not understanding" their lives and concerns; I can reply that having lived on $50 a month with no hot water and other hardships, I DO know how fortunate I am and can empathize.

LS: You yourself are the daughter of an immigrant to the U.S.; do you feel this background has given you an advantage in understanding the "Big Picture" of NIV and IV work?

VJC: My family's history has taught me that life CAN be random and change on a dime. The decisions ones makes in life can often lead you to a place (literally) you were not originally expecting. It's important to remember that when looking at applicants, the unusual or odd are not always bad or a fraud indicator. My mother is American and my father is English. They met on a blind date, married and were supposed to move to South Africa in the 1970's. They didn't and here I am now in Kyrgyzstan. As I mentioned above, our impressions on applicants are lasting. My father still remembers having coffee with the immigrant visa officer in 1971 London - before the days of bullet-proof glass and security barriers.

LS: As chief of the NIV unit at the U.S. Consulate General in Dubai, you oversaw the development of the post's anti-fraud unit. What are the most important attributes of an effective anti-fraud unit?

VJC: An anti-fraud unit is key to the successful operation of every consular section. A successful anti-fraud unit needs good leadership, good staff and the knowledge and the ability to use all the potential tools available to detect and investigate fraud. The Bureau of Consular Affairs has done tremendous work in the last several years in making use of new information technology and putting these tools into the hands of officers. The sheer amount of information sharing amongst posts, much less other US government agencies, regarding consular fraud is truly dizzying. However all the databases in the world are useless if you do not have a good team who know how to creatively use them. Your team has to know your system inside and out in order to see its weaknesses and loopholes. This includes both local conditions and our own immigration law and procedures. Your team has to be creative. Individuals or groups engaged in fraud are always finding new means to cheat the system. A good anti-fraud team cannot be complacent. While some posts have quantitatively less fraud than others, there is always going to be some fraud everywhere. Most importantly, a good anti-fraud team has to be unwavering in their integrity - for both American and local employees. The temptations are many as proven by past indictments and arrests, but we have to remember that we have been entrusted in a unique way with the safety and security of the U.S. and cannot violate that trust.

LS: What are your thoughts about the value of attorney presence at visa interviews?

VJC: I think it depends on the interviews and the post. Some posts do not allow attorneys to be present at interviews. For simple non-immigrant visa interviews, the applicant should be able to speak for themselves. If they have sufficient ties to their home country and meet other eligibility requirements, it will be obvious. As I have reminded numerous applicants, the law requires that you present a completed application form, a photograph, valid passport and application fee. I have issued to people with just those. I can understand for more complicated, petition-based visas why an applicant may wish their attorney to be present. However if a petition is recommended for revocation, the attorney will have the chance to respond to the revocation in writing.

LS: You've had a love affair with the Russian language ever since age 14. Which Russian Romantic author has most influenced you?

VJC: The classic Russian answer would be Pushkin but I would say that I am a Gogol fan. Whether it be the absurd story "The Nose," or the biting novel "Dead Souls," I really enjoyed his work.

LS: Over the past decade, Russian Internet marriage agencies have rapidly expanded and proven of great appeal to American men looking to find spouses. What challenges did this twist in the age-old marriage custom of the mail-order bride pose to you, in your previous assignment adjudicating K-1 visa applications in Moscow?

VJC: Issuing a fiancé visa to half of a couple who have no common language, are usually 10-15 years different in age, and who have only seen each other in person for two days could appear to be an impossibility. But the law is clear, and as I was reminded many times, who are we to say what is love. The internet has only accelerated an age-old practice and made it more widely available. One should remember for every case where you are convinced someone is in it for the money/immigrant visa, there are also cases of couples who do try to make it work. I will never forget the interview when I asked a woman why she was going to her fiancé who did not appear to be young, handsome or even successful. Her answer was heart-breaking. All she wanted was someone who wouldn't beat her, who wouldn't drink their monthly salary away and who would be kind to her child. I wished her the best of luck on her new life in America.

LS: Consular officers attract pressure to overturn visa refusals from refused applicants, the relatives of refused applicants, members of Congress representing the relatives of refused applicants, immigration attorneys, consular managers, colleagues in other Embassy departments, foreign government representatives, foreign industrial and social figures, and the roll call goes on and on... What guidance on dealing with these pressures do you have for newly minted Foreign Service officers about to embark on their first posting on a visa line?

VJC: I joined the State Department early in 2001 but began my work as a consular officer in 2002. I would say that since Sept. 11th, there has been a shift. Consular Affairs has always respected the decisions made by its officers - we wouldn't have our consular commissions if we didn't. However I would say that there is less pressure from other embassy employees to overcome refusals. The adjudicating officer is the one ultimately responsible for an individual case and I believe that that fact is respected now more than ever. That being said, it is important to remember that we are human and thus can err. My advice to new officers is that it is ultimately their signature on the application and their name in the computer. Therefore if they feel truly uncomfortable they should remember that they cannot be forced to overcome a refusal. They should be able to talk to their immediate supervisor for help and guidance. One of the best bosses I ever had was during my first tour. He publically stated that he would never force us to issue something he would not issue himself.

LS: What counsel do you have for these same new officers on how best to establish a constructive working relationship with immigration attorneys?

VJC: It is important to remember immigration attorneys are professionals like us - and that both sides are human. As other interviewees in your column have noted, respect is a two way street and the golden rule is always a good thing to follow. New officers should be mindful that if there is fraud or irregularities in a case, that an applicant's attorney is not automatically a co-conspirator. The attorney could be in the dark on their client's true past/present behavior is only trying to do the job for which they were paid - representing their client.

LS: Ambassador Jean Mary Wilkowski remarked some 25 years ago that "men and women bring different gifts to diplomacy; for women, it is instinct and intuition in analyzing people and their reactions". Do you believe this statement holds true for women officers in carrying out the visa function today?

VJC: I don't think that this statement holds true in this day and age. We are trained to be analytical and rational while applying immigration law. We are trained to be compassionate (if we weren't already) to those in need. I know that some cultures try to play gender differences to their advantage in visa interviews - "Aren't you a mother?" "How can you be such a cruel woman?" or "Where is the handsome young man consul who was here last week?" We are taught to be above that. When we enter the Foreign Service, we all take the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator. As an ESFJ I am NOT intuitive in analyzing people and their reactions. Does that make me unnatural? I don't think so. I think that I and all of my Foreign Service colleagues bring a lot to the table for the benefit of our profession and our country.

Charge d'affairs Clarified

The consular quiz appearing in the December 2008 Consular Corner referred to the term Charge d'affairs as the title held by the person in charge of the business of an embassy when there is no ambassador commissioned to the host country. A kindhearted Minister-Counselor has graciously brought to my attention that there are actually two types of charges. I'm pleased to share this knowledge with all of you:

"A charge d'affairs a.i. (ad interim) is an officer who takes over in the temporary absence of the chief of mission. A charge d'affairs e. p. (en pied or alternatively a pied) is someone who is permanently accredited but usually at a lower level. This might be the case if an Ambassador has regional responsibilities, and the senior officer at one of the diplomatic missions that the Ambassador is responsible for but does not reside in would be a charge d'affairs e.p. or a.p. An example would be the U.S. Embassy in Apia, Samoa."

Tough Luck Visa Stories

From a Visa Officer in Guatemala (just in case anyone out there in the immigration law community thinks that visa officers don't agonize over some of their decisions):

"I had a woman come up to my window and tell me that she was a single mother of two, and that the factory she had worked at had recently closed down, and that she just wanted a tourist visa so she could go to the US, where she could find work and feed her kids. In respecting my commitments to defend US policy in all venues, including this one, I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to contemplate the implications for the human spirit of correctly applying the laws prohibiting giving "tourist" visas to people who state their intent to work once they arrive in the United States."

In this same vein, a junior foreign service officer offered the following comments by email:

"Ironically, what helps me keep perspective during a day full of young applicants' intent on working on B1/B2s - is remembering that my great grandfather came up over the border in search of a better life. And no, I don't believe he was err….. legal….. and believe me, I'm grateful he came!"

And this emailed insight, from a senior foreign service officer:

"Officers constantly are barraged with tough luck stories, some of which might even be true, but it tends to foster that outer shell you speak of in another article. Not that pathos is completely lacking in affecting officers, but it needs something else to reach the level that permits the consular officer to take legal action on behalf of the applicant."

A Consular Year

From a visa officer at the U.S. Embassy in Chile:
"It's the 8th annual Year-by-Number (2008 Edition)
1932 photos taken this year
4 countries visited
9 States & provinces visited in the U.S. & Canada
11 Chilean regions visited (out of 15)
10,021 kilometers driven in our car
11,567 visas adjudicated
1,836 times I denied a visa application
32 days of leave taken
21 US & Chilean holidays
5 Americans who died in the district (that I am aware of).
367 Christmas cookies baked
13 earthquakes felt
10 airplane flights
11 Congressional visitors
2 former ambassadors came to visit
4.6 months of accumulated sick leave
2 months of accumulated vacation leave
57 blog entries this year

Here's wishing you and yours a happy and prosperous 2009!"

While You Were on the Visa Line

We introduce a new feature this month, for the benefit of those consular officers who may have missed the latest U.S. immigration law updates while toiling long days on the visa line. We begin with what many in the immigration law community perceive as a sensational administrative re-engineering of the statutory requirements for L-1B eligibility.

L-1B Chill

As the result of a recently published Administrative Appeals Office ("AAO") decision, the eligibility standards utilized by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services ("CIS") in adjudicating L-1B petitions have been significantly restricted.

The AAO decision upheld a denial by the California Service Center of a request by a leading IT/Business Services multinational to transfer a SAP ERP Consultant from India to the U.S. in L-1B status.

The conclusions reached by the AAO decision include the following:

  1. Not all employees with specialized knowledge are eligible for classification as L-1B intra-company transferees. The employee must be a "key" person, whom the company considers a member of a "narrowly drawn" class of individuals and associates with the higher levels of its employment hierarchy. In the case at hand, the petitioning corporation had already filed petitions for more than 600 similar L-1B workers and it was not credible that this particular consultant was an "elevated" specialized knowledge employee of the corporation.
  2. In deciding whether an individual possesses specialized knowledge, it is appropriate to consider the importance of the proposed worker's knowledge. In the case at hand, the petitioner was attempting to bring an expert relating to SAP software - but knowledge of this software is so commonplace that it is the industry standard. Per the AAO: " The petitioner has not demonstrated that the beneficiary's knowledge is advanced knowledge relative to the industry at large or to the rest of its workforce."
  3. Specialized knowledge requires more than a "short period" of experience, "such as two or three years."
The third above conclusion is particularly tough on L-1B petitioners, and to many immigration law practitioners, seems like an administrative re-write of the eligibility standards for L-1B status. To recall, Section 101(a)(15)(L) requires the prospective L-1B specialized knowledge worker to have been employed continuously for one year by the related foreign entity.

Will there be a lasting chilling effect on CIS processing of L-1B petitions in light of this AAO decision? Stay tuned for details. For those who are interested, the AAO decision can be found here:

Are You Smarter Than A Junior Consular Officer?

1) Which senior Consular Affairs official previously worked as an assembly line worker for Magnavox in Champaign, Illinois?

2) Of the roughly 57,000 people employed by the State Department, how many are foreign nationals working overseas as support staff in U.S. embassies and consulates?
(a) Slightly more than 10,000
(b) Slightly more than 15,000
(c) Slightly more than 20,000
(d) Slightly more than 25,000
(e) Slightly more than 30,000

3) Name two types of immigrant visas which do not require a U.S. sponsor.

4) Under the new USCIS Final Rule for Religious Worker Visa Classifications, what is the maximum initial period of stay for R-1 nonimmigrants?

5) Of the 12,000 to 15,000 people who register annually for the Foreign Service written examination, about how many are hired?
(a) 450
(b) 1,000
(c) 2,500
(d) 5,000
(e) 7,500

6) The LIFE Act allows spouses and children of lawful permanent residents (LPR) to come to the United States on what category of nonimmigrant visa?

7) What is the minimum age for filing a immigration petition on behalf of a foreign spouse?

8) What is the minimum age for filing a immigration petition on behalf of a foreign sibling?

9) True of false: R-2 dependents may study in the United States while they are accompanying the R-1 principal.

10) When he was 9, the father of this future Pulitzer Prize winning playwright was appointed U.S. Consul General in China. The whole family traveled to post, but his mother quickly decided Hong Kong was no place for her and the children and took them back to the United States. Who was this playwright, who is perhaps best known for a play about the interactions between citizens of a town called Grover's Corners?

Top Ten Visa Wait Times at U.S. Consular Posts, January 2009

This month's Top Ten list includes two posts where wait times soared by 80 (eighty!) days: Dhahran from 20 to 100 days; and Maputo from 1 to 81 days. But on the other end of this manic-depressive list, wait times at the five posts in Brazil have plummeted to the point where no post in Brazil appears in the Top Ten for the first time since we began compiling this list in 2007.

# Country US Consular Post Visa Wait Time Increase/Decrease from December 2008 Last Month Top 10 Position
1 Cuba US Interests Section Havana 825 days 0 days 1
2 Venezuela Caracas 200 days - 6 days 2
3 Saudi Arabia Dhahran 100 days + 80 New listing
4 Mozambique Maputo 81 days + 80 days New listing
5 Saudi Arabia Riyadh 48 days 0 days 4
6 (tie) Syria Damascus 45 days + 19 days New listing
6 (tie) Mali Bamako 45 days + 26 days New listing
7 Canada Toronto 43 days + 1 day 5 (tie)
8 Canada Ottawa 0 days 5 (tie)
9 Canada Calgary 40 days 0 days 7 (tie)
10 China Beijing 39 days 18 days New listing

Updated to January 6, 2009 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)
Middle East and North Africa Saudi Arabia/Dhahran (100 days)
Africa Mozambique/Maputo (81 days)
East Asia and Pacific China/Beijing (39 days)
Europe and Eurasia Germany/Munich (30 days)
Central and South Asia India/Chennai (14 days)

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

1) Janice Jacobs, Assistant Secretary of State
2) (e)
3) (a) Diversity Visas; (b) Persons of extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics.
4) 30 months.
5) (a)
6) The V category
7) 18 (at least for practical purposes). While there is actually no minimum age required for filing, a petitioner must be at least 18 years of age in order to sign the required Form I-864 Affidavit of Support.
8) 21
9) True
10) Thornton Wilder

Quote of the Corner

"Foreign Service officers are sworn in and then we're usually sworn at." Outgoing Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch.

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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.