Behind the Scenes With U.S. Consular Officers in China

Posted by Janice L. Jacobs
July 20, 2012
Chinese Students Wait For Visa Applications Outside U.S. Embassy in Beijing

For anyone who has ever wondered what a Foreign Service Officer does, this PBS video is a must-see.

On May 18, PBS' To The Contrary program aired a story about Foreign Service officers working behind the scenes in China to protect U.S. citizens and promote legitimate travel to the United States. PBS not only got the story right, they told it well.

The piece was a thoughtful and accurate depiction, showing the professionalism and patriotism of our officers working overseas to fulfill the State Department's mission. At a time when our consular operations have received criticism from some sectors for being too cumbersome, time-consuming, and costly, the piece provided a welcome counterpoint.

The genesis of the piece occurred in August 2011, when I received a visit from the producer for PBS' To the Contrary to discuss story ideas to showcase the human side of the State Department. The producer wanted to know what the State Department did beyond high-profile diplomatic efforts and, frankly, why the American public should care. It wasn't a hard sell. I think my account of what our officers do on a daily basis to keep Americans safe -- abroad and at home -- and to promote our economy through secure and efficient visa processing was compelling. And it's just the kind of substantial work to which the public could and should relate. As I said to PBS, this is "up close and personal diplomacy."

Over the next several months, the Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA), the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), and U.S. Mission China opened their doors to the PBS crew to help tell the story. For an in-depth portrait of a typical officer, PBS went to FSI, where they filmed new and seasoned officers to get a feel for who these folks are, where they come from and how they are "made." It's one thing to talk about skilled diplomats and their training. It's another to see officers learning Mandarin in a classroom, and later, an officer conversing fluently with a visa applicant in China. The mock jail scene illustrated our number one priority: Americans. "Consular officers who are posted overseas in U.S. embassies and consulates have the principal requirement of protecting U.S. citizens overseas," said Jill Esposito, who serves as FSI's director of consular training.

PBS then went to China, where the big story was the visa surge: China and Brazil have experienced record growth in visa demand with their emerging economies, and their travelers represent major tourism dollars for the United States. Some news coverage has been critical of U.S. consular operations, claiming long visa wait times, both for interviews and to receive their visas, discourage millions of potential visitors who could spur the U.S. economy. The reality, however, is different.

In what should be considered as nothing short of a success story, the missions in China and Brazil have managed the tremendous increases in demand in a short time by increasing staff and hours, expanding facilities, and streamlining the process. They do this, like posts all over the world, without compromising security. "Yes, we might go fast, but we are still accurate and that is the primary concern...we cannot cut corners on our decisions," said Kristen Hagerstrom, consular chief in Shanghai, where an average of 1,000 applicants walk through the doors each day.

Today, wait times are down to less than a week in China and Brazil. The State Department is committed to facilitating travel to the United State as part of broader "Jobs Diplomacy" goals, and recognized that visas are important tools to help accelerate American's economic renewal.

The U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke, said, "Foreign Service officers are the heart and soul of any Embassy...they are our true ambassadors." It's gratifying to have their work portrayed accurately by the media, and it's particularly gratifying to see officers who work hard get the recognition they serve. Consular officers often have the best stories -- and the PBS piece is a pretty good one.

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