There are many different kinds of jobs that Foreign Service Officers do every day, all over the world. Some of us spend our days having high level conversations with representatives from host country governments. Others run educational programs, or go on TV or radio to share American culture and values. Some work hard to understand what is happening in foreign economies, and how it might impact life back home. Others manage the buildings that the rest of us live and work in, and make sure everything runs smoothly. And there are others who come to the rescue when an American is hospitalized or arrested, or in some kind of trouble.
I’m not doing any of those things just yet. Right now I am serving in another kind of position that most of us officers start out in. I am a visa adjudicator, which means that I help determine who is or isn’t eligible to come to the United States on any given day. When Donald Trump and friends argue about immigration reform and who should or shouldn’t be let in they are talking about what my friends and I do at the office every day.
Let me give you some context: 10,399,850 people received visas to come to the U.S. in 2014. Lots of them were tourists, getting their fill of Disney World and the Statue of Liberty. Many of them were traveling on business, helping our economy to keep humming along. A lot of them were college students. Some were just coming to see family. They all need visas to come, and they all have to be interviewed by someone like me in order to get them. In just about every country in the world there are officers just like me sitting down and talking to person after person after person about why they want to come to the U.S.
467,370 of the people who got visas weren’t coming for a visit. They were packing their bags and getting on a plane in order to leave most of what is familiar to them and start a new life in America. Immigrants. Those eager, energetic risk takers who have been coming to our country ever since before we even were a country. If you are an American then the roots of your family tree flow through some of these brave souls.
I work in the immigrant visa section, so I spend most of every day talking to people who want to make the U.S. their home. Ciudad Juarez is the only place in Mexico that gives out immigrant visas, so hundreds of people come from every corner of the country every single day to be interviewed by me and my colleagues. Each of us sits in our windows, sort of like bank tellers or DMV clerks, and conduct our interviews one at a time until the last applicant has gone home.
If you were to follow me around for a day, you would see me sitting at my window, shuffling through big folders of paper (most of them are about an inch thick…some much thicker) and asking an awful lot of questions in Spanish of the person on the other side of the glass. Do they have a qualifying relationship with someone in the U.S. that will allow them to emigrate? Do they have enough money to avoid becoming a public charge? Are they a deportee? Terrorist? Drug dealer? Are they really married to the person they are telling me they are married to? Do they love each other, or did they get married just for the visa? Do they happen to have a copy of their husband’s divorce certificate from his second marriage?
If everything checks out we give them the good news and send them on their way smiling. If not, we explain to them what the problem is and whether or not they can fix it. Sometimes it’s as simple as mailing us a copy of a document that’s missing. Sometimes they’ll have to wait a few years until the penalty for whatever they’ve done has passed. And sometimes we have to figure out a way to tell them that they are permanently ineligible for a visa.
My job is to look at their case and decide if they are eligible (according to the law) to receive a visa. It’s a complicated task that involves thinking about a lot of different variables, and almost all of it is done in Spanish. What makes it all the more interesting is that each case only gets a few minutes of my time. An easy case takes me about six or seven minutes to read the file, do the interview, and make the decision. A tougher one, maybe fifteen. The really crazy ones can hit the half hour mark.
It’s a challenging, fascinating, exhausting, humbling, engaging, and at times frustrating way to spend my days. I’ve been interviewing for about six weeks now, and I still get nervous every morning before that first applicant steps up to the glass, hoping that I do my job right on what is for them one of the most important days of their life.