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September 2002

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Through the courtesy of the president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), that organization presents its position on a pending move in the U. S. Congress to relieve the Foreign Service of its historic responsibility to issue visas abroad to noncitizens wishing to travel to the United States.

This journal wishes to associate itself with AFSA’s stand on the matter.—Ed.

American Foreign Service Association
2101 E Street NW Washington, DC 20037
(202) 338-045 FAX (202) 338-6820
E-mail afsa@afsa.org

Congress questions State's visa responsibility:

"It is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.... For the State Department, visas are considered first and foremost a device to curry favor with foreign governments."
Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner

Here is the response of AFSA:

As we mark the first anniversary of last year's terrorist attacks on the United States, the role of America's Foreign Service is more critical than ever. U.S. diplomats continue, as before those tragic events, to serve with distinction around the globe, effectively promoting our country's interests abroad. They often serve in perilous or hardship posts, with the same dedication and enthusiasm that one would expect of those in more congenial surroundings.

The U.S. Foreign Service—rightly called America's first line of defense—truly sets the gold standard among federal employees. Members of the Foreign Service are second to none in terms of love of country, ability, and resourcefulness. Unfortunately, it has become fashionable in some circles to denigrate the essential role filled by our diplomatic corps both at home and abroad. It has been downright depressing lately to pick up the newspaper and read op-ed pieces by ill-informed but authoritative-sounding columnists attacking the Foreign Service for its perceived shortcomings. On Capitol Hill this past summer, some lawmakers loudly complained that visa officers were not personally interviewing all applicants while many of those same legislators voted during the 1990s for "do more with less" budgets for the State Department.

They can't have it both ways.

Whether they are singing to a government-bashing choir back home or simply uninformed of the vital function performed by a strong Foreign Service, some lawmakers called for removing key functions from the State Department at a time when the need for experienced, quality personnel worldwide is actually increasing. Foreign Service professionals, active and retired, may well find it both bewildering and infuriating to realize that some senators and congressmen still don't "get it."

AFSA has made it a priority to ensure that Congress does "get it." As you know, a well-funded Foreign Service is not a luxury but an essential weapon in America's arsenal as it wages a war on terrorism with no end in sight. The Foreign Service professionals who serve in 250 posts worldwide must be provided the tools they need to perform their jobs. At a time when unrest and civil wars threaten lives and the stability of governments, it is especially important that the human, physical, and technological assets of U.S. diplomatic missions everywhere be capable of withstanding the challenges they face each day.

Through congressional affairs activities underwritten by AFSA's Legislative Action Fund, we have already had some success in securing legislative changes on behalf of the Foreign Service and in supporting increases in funding for diplomatic readiness. These changes represent important progress, but they are far from enough.

Our message to the Congress is that it has been decades, if ever, since the State Department has been given sufficient funding to fulfill the tasks required of it. Earlier this summer, at a House hearing on consular affairs and homeland security, the Department was sharply criticized for perceived shortcomings in the visa approval process. Before 9/11, nobody, including Congress, seemed to care that the sheer number of visa applicants necessitated the use of a visa revalidation process, a process now disparaged as a dangerous shortcut. I reminded the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Service, Census and Agency Organization in a June 27 letter that sufficient resources have never been allocated to permit personal interviews of every visa applicant. Indeed, the number of interviewing officers would need to be doubled, from about 660 today to over 1,300—and that doesn't even take into account the even larger numbers of local foreign national support staff needed to work in our visa sections. I said the Foreign Service can do the job, but that we first need the resources to do so.

Despite the fact that some influential lawmakers would like to shift visa adjudication responsibilities to the proposed new Department of Homeland Security, it appears at this writing that responsibility for this function will remain with the State Department, as has been strongly urged by the White House, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and AFSA.

We will continue to watch this issue closely until the legislation passes, most likely in late September.

John K. Naland—AFSA President


Source: AFSANET, a free service of the American Foreign Service Association. To become a member of AFSA, visit http://www.afsa.org/members/tic.

September 20, 2002


John K. Naland, AFSA President

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