To the Contrary Foreign Service Video and discussion

    Watch May 18, 2012 on PBS. See more from To The Contrary.

    To The Contrary: A Discussion of Issues from Diverse Perspectives


    MS. ERBE: All right. Behind the headlines. When a Chinese activist sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing last month, high level diplomacy was front page news. But most diplomatic efforts go on behind the scenes carried out by Foreign Service officers.

    To the Contrary traveled to China and to the U.S. training facility there to show you how these women and men serve their country.

    (Begin video segment.)

    AMBASSADOR GARY LOCKE: We depend on the Foreign Service officers and they’re the heart and soul of any embassy. And they really represent the face of America and are really our true ambassadors.


    MS. ERBE: Mission China. Recently, in the news, when a Chinese activist sought asylum, but visit the U.S. embassy in Beijing on any typical workday and it’s bustling for different reasons. Nearly every day, 2,000 Chinese citizens pass through the doors seeking visas to the U.S.

    MS. AMBER BASKETTE [Consul General, Beijing]: We had a million applications last year. We expect to have probably closer to 1.3 million this year. But it’s a vast untapped population in terms of folks who might be interested in going to study in the United States, might be going to vacation in the United States, might be going to do business in the United States.

    AMB. LOCKE: And on average, they spend over $6,000 per visit, renting rooms in a hotel, going to shopping malls and buying things, eating in restaurants, taking taxi cabs. They’re spending money in America. And so they’re creating jobs.

    MS. ERBE: Worldwide, the State Department issued 7.8 million non-immigrant visas in 2011. The greatest demand was from Brazil and China. American consular officers are charged with deciding whether those visas are awarded and to whom. Those officers train at the Foreign Service Institute outside Washington, D.C.

    MS. JANICE JACOBS [Assistant Secretary of State, Consular Affairs]: Consular work is up close and personal diplomacy, the empathetic voice for a distraught American, the professional dignified visa interview, the transparency as we uphold our laws. This is all public diplomacy.

    MS. JILL ESPOSITO [Director, Consular Training, Foreign Service Institute]: Consular work is one of the key elements of the mission of the Foreign Service and consular officers who are posted overseas in U.S. embassies and consulates have the principal requirement of protecting U.S. citizens overseas. They provide routine services, such as passport renewals, but more importantly, we provide emergency services to American citizens in distress.

    We also help contribute to border security through the processing of visas.

    MS. ERBE: Jill Esposito has been with the Foreign Service for more than two decades, in countries such as Peru, Iraq, Bermuda, and Thailand.

    MS. ESPOSITO: What you’re doing is having a direct impact on people’s lives. That’s consular work. You’re serving your country. You are part of an embassy, but you are also helping people in a very direct way.

    MS. ERBE: She had counselor training, where officers look strategically at processing visas, attend language classes, and even role play in a mock prison.

    UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you know any of the circumstances of his arrest?

    UNIDEFNTIFIED MALE: Oh, he’s a drug smuggler.

    UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Would it be possible for me to see him?

    UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Of course. That is why you’re here.


    MS. ERBE: Melissa VonHinken and Julie Kim are in training. They’re both headed to China for their next tour of duty. Julie will work on the visa line.

    MS. JULIE KIM: And we want to make sure that the documents that they’ve provided us beforehand match up with the story they tell us at the window. And we’re supposed to look at their body language and any other cues to tell if they’re lying or not.

    MS. ERBE: Melissa will work in American citizen services.

    MS. MELISSA VONHINKEN: If someone loses their passport, I would like to help them get home. Again, if someone has a baby overseas, I’d like to make sure that that child, who has at least one parent who’s a U.S. citizen, can keep their U.S. citizenship.

    UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Will act as your daughter’s American birth certificate.

    MS. VONHINKEN: If there is someone in jail that needs to be visited, I will want to let them know that their country has not forgotten about them.

    UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Notify the warden to contact the embassy or you have my contact information there –

    MS. ALETA OKEDIJI: We’ve had a few intellectual property cases. China treats what we would consider civil disputes as criminal disputes. So you have an American citizen who’s sitting in detention. They don’t know exactly what the charges are against them. They don’t know what they can expect and they’re cut off from their family. They’re cut off from access to lawyers sometimes. And the only person they do have access to is consular – is a consular officer.

    MS. BASKETTE: I always say to friends if you are an American who travels well, you may never meet me. If you don’t lose your passport, if you don’t get in trouble, you may never come to an embassy. But we’re there to help when things go wrong and we’re there to help make sure that legitimate travelers get to the United States.

    MS. ERBE: In past years, it could take up to two months to get a visa in China. Now, it can take just a week.

    MR. CHUCK BENNETT [Minister Consular, China]: We’ve seen a huge growth in the number of people who want to travel to the United States and we’ve seen a growth in the number of Americans coming to China, also. We have been increasing our staff. We’ve been increasing the sizes of our facilities. And we are trying to find other efficiency gains, so that we can process this huge workload growth.

    MS. KRISTIN HAGERSTROM [Chief Consulate Operations, Shanghai]: These are the numbers for the day. And this shows us that in the morning, we’ll have almost 1,000 people coming and in the afternoon, a little bit less, almost about 900. We picked up 750 drop boxes over the weekend, which are renewals. So that takes us 2,500 cases for the day, 12 offices today, each of them doing 155 cases. Shanghai is considered by the Bureau of Consular Affairs to be the most efficient visa operation in the world.

    No matter what pressure there is to issue visas, our primary goal is border security. Yes, we might go fast, but we are still accurate, and that’s what’s really the paramount concern here, is being accurate in our visa adjudications. We cannot cut corners on how – on our decisions.

    MS. STACY WOOD [Foreign Service Officer, Shanghai]: You see everything on the visa line, so it’s a fascinating sort of mosaic of Chinese society in our waiting room.

    So how long has Wal-Mart been a client of your company?

    UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Around 10 years.

    MS. WOOD: Ten years, wow, okay.

    MS. JESSICA FARMER [Foreign Service Officer, Beijing]: Last week, I met a woman and she said, oh, can you process this faster? And I said, I don’t know. Our timing is our timing. And she just looks at me and said, you know, my husband passed away and I’m for my daughter and I really need to get to her graduation and just sort of being able to, at a human level, understand what that might be like and try to work with her to get her there on time, I think that’s really important.

    MS. HAGERSTROM: You come in and you’re fingerprinted, and then you go and you’re interviewed. And if you’re successfully interviewed, and over 90 percent of the people are successful, after – you heard the people saying tong ola (ph), tong ola, you’re passed, you’re passed.

    MS. ERBE: This group of Chinese businesswomen and men just learned their visas were approved. They’ll visit the U.S. to learn about the equipment their company bought from an American corporation. But they’ll also do some touring.

    UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I want to visit Las Vegas. 

    AMB. LOCKE: China, which is one of the world’s oldest civilizations, is perhaps one of the world’s newest countries. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty into a thriving middle class. It’s an exciting place, a lot of issues. And what we’re really trying to do is to advance U.S. interests.

    (End video segment.)

    MS. ERBE: And thank you for joining us, Assistant Secretary Janice Jacobs. Explain, please, why consular work is so important to the mission of the State Department.

    MS. JACOBS: The work that we do in consular is vital to the mission of the State Department. The first priority we have is to take care of Americans overseas, providing the full range of services, and that is really the top mission of the State Department, is taking care of our citizens overseas. In addition, we play a huge role in keeping America safe from those who might want to do us harm by – through the careful adjudication of both visas and passports. So what we do is very important and increasingly the visa work that we do that allows international visitors to come to the United States is really important for our own economic growth and for job creation. So we really do play a central role.

    MS. ERBE: Is it possible –and I’d like everybody’s thoughts on this – to issue visas quickly and carefully? I mean – literally, what do they go through and are the safeguards enough?

    MS. JACOBS: I believe they are. We have, ever since 9/11, of course, we have completely transformed our visa process, making it more secure. We have a lot of sharing of information between agencies. We have access to that information when people apply. Everyone is checked against a lookout system. We have a lot of vetting that takes place, both by the State Department and other agencies. So I do feel that between all of those measures and the fact that we talk to people that we need to see that we have created a very secure system.

    MS. ERBE: Does everybody on the panel feel safe?

    DEL. NORTON: I feel safe, but having traveled as a member of Congress to the Middle East, I have seen how difficult it is for some who have helped the United States to get visas. Many who helped us in Iraq, for example, are still trying, people in real danger, still trying to get into this country. I’ve never figured out. It seemed to me the most heartbreaking stories that people put themselves out in danger and still can’t get into this country.

    MS. ERBE: Why is that and how can – I mean, again, if they’re in Iraq, if they’re in some place where they’re – Afghanistan, which is a potential hotbed for terrorism, how do you check them and how do you make sure that the ones who helped us in the past get in, but not – no one with the potential for terrorism?

    MS. JACOBS: Well, that’s a very good question. Congress, of course, created programs that allows people from Iraq and Afghanistan who have helped us, offered good and loyal service to the U.S. government to come to the United States as immigrants, bring their families with them, and we have been processing a good number of those visas, but because there are some security concerns, we do have to make sure that we are very carefully vetting people, and sometimes that vetting process takes longer than we would like it to. But I think in the past couple of months, we have seen that program sort of reinvigorated and we see more people coming in now.

    MS. ERBE: Any thoughts, Alicia?

    MS. MENENDEZ: I was just inspired by the number of women who were in that package who were talking about service to our country. Sometimes it’s so easy to imagine that the only way to serve is in elected office. And then you see women, such as the video in this package. Do you make a special effort to recruit women or – you have a lot of women?

    MS. JACOBS: Well, the State Department, I think, over the years – and I’ve been with the State Department now for over 30 years, has made definite improvements in overall diversity, whether it’s gender diversity or otherwise. I came into the Foreign Service in 1980 –

    MS. ERBE: How about Secretary Clinton, is she – have you seen a lot since she has been secretary?

    MS. JACOBS: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. Secretary Clinton, of course, is very, very big on women’s issues. But I would say, from what I have seen when I came in the 1980, there was about – the Foreign Service had about 13 percent women. And today, we are around 39 percent. So we have made big strides and you know, there’s always room for improvement, but I think it really has improved over the years.

    MS. ERBE: Do you get the resources you need from Congress to do the job you’d like to do?

    MS. NEILY: Cause if not, we have someone you can lobby. (Laughter.)

    MS. JACOBS: Well, you know, if my boss were here, the under secretary for management, he would tell you that we always need more. I think we work very closely, though, with Congress in trying to get what we need. In consular work, a lot of what we do is fee funded and so the fees that we collect from visas and passports really help to support our operations. But overall, yes, we can always use what we ask for.