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May 30th, 2014:

Adjudicating Visas

My job at the Consulate is to adjudicate visa applications. When someone wants to come to the U.S., they have to apply for a visa, and come to the consulate for an interview. The current immigration law, which governs foreign visitors to the U.S., requires that every applicant be interviewed by a consular officer before being granted a visa. For this tour, I am a consular officer.

There are (literally) millions of people who apply for visas every year. That means that consular officers have a very heavy case load. It isn’t unusual for an officer to conduct 100 interviews every day. You can do the math: consular officers interview for five hours a day. If we interview non-stop, back-to-back (which, in fact, is how we do it), we have to do 20 interviews every hour, which means we only have three minutes for each interview.

In those three minutes, we have to take the applicant’s fingerprints, review the their application and travel history, determine their purpose of travel, and decide if their situation qualifies them for a visa. At the same time, we have to take notes in the computerized visa system, and keep a record of the interview and the applicant’s information.

Oh, and the interviews are conducted through a security window, and they are conducted in Chinese.

The process is incredibly complicated, and daunting to a new consular officer (like me). The process has to be complete; we can’t skip steps. If we issue  a visa to a person who is on a watch list or who has been excluded from entry to the U.S. because of criminal activity or abuse of a prior visa, we can get in trouble. If we issue a visa to a known terrorist, we can get fired and go to jail.

It would be a lot easier if people always told the truth. Unfortunately, many people lie. Some of my colleagues would go as far as to say that most people lie during the interview. The area that I am posted to has one of the highest concentrations of fraudulent applications in the world. So in addition to using the computer system, following the legally-proscribed interview process, and conducting interviews in a crowded booth in a foreign language, I also have to look for signs of fraud, such as inflated claims of income, fraudulent documents, bogus student status , and made-up employment.

I have been “on the line” for a week now. My supervisor is easing me into the job, having me work in two-hour shifts. I’m getting faster, but I am still averaging six minutes per interview, far slower than the goal of three minutes. My coworkers are understanding of my situation, though, because they have all been in my position, and they are supportive. They say that I will get faster as I gain experience and familiarity with the system. I am taking my time, making sure that I am following all the procedures. Quality over quantity.

This job can only be learned by doing it. It’s sort of like learning to swim or to drive. You can only learn to swim by getting in the water. The only way to learn to drive is to get behind the wheel. As the saying goes, “practice makes perfect.” What’s interesting is that as I have been doing the job, it is quickly getting less confusing. I may never be perfect, but the learning curve isn’t as bad as it seemed when I was in training.


Where three countries meet

Our trip to the borderland last weekend took us to the end of the line, on the borders separating China, Russia, and North Korea.

This is the general area where we were:


And here’s a zoomed-in picture:


As you can see, even Google Maps has difficulty distinguishing the borders. On the ground, though, it was much clearer. Barbed-wire fences clearly marked the borders.

The Tumen River separates China and North Korea. On the Chinese side of the river, a barbed-wire fence keeps refugees from crossing the river.


On the other side, a Concertina wire fence separates China and Russia.


At one point, we were driving on a road where we could see the barbed-wire fences on both sides of the road. We were driving along a thin strip of China, between Russia and North Korea.

An old post marks the border that was agreed upon between Russia and China in the 1860s, but it’s on the other side of the fence, so it clearly doesn’t mark the current border.


A sign along the river reads “Illegal crossing of the border will be met with severe legal prosecution,” in Chinese and Korean.


From a lookout tower, you can see Russia on the left, China in the middle, and North Korea on the right, across the river. Three countries meet on this little strip of land.


The bridge across the river is for trains that run between Russia and North Korea.


We saw a train approaching from the Russian side, moving toward North Korea. We all got excited and though that we would see the train leave Russia and enter North Korea. But then it stopped just before the bridge. We think it got help up in customs and immigration.



Proof that I was there: that’s North Korea in the background.

In another place along the river, there is a foot bridge connecting China and North Korea. Apparently, the border is in the middle of the bridge. You can walk halfway across the bridge, but not all the way across.


“National Border”

You have to buy a ticket to go on the bridge. Buy when I went to the ticket office to buy a ticket, the person in the booth (who was wearing a military uniform), sternly told me “Foreigners are not allowed!”

So we had to settle for taking pictures of the bridge instead.


There is a group of Chinese tourists on the bridge, just at the mid-point. The end of the yellow lamp posts marks the end of the Chinese side of the bridge.

I have had a morbid fascination with North Korea for a many years. After this trip, I think it’s out of my system and I can move on.

As if one foreign language wasn’t enough

Just north of where I am living is the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, an area near North Korea and Russia, where a large number of ethnic Koreans live. Street signs are in Chinese and Korean, and a lot of store signs include Russian as well.


Can you tell which is the Chinese, which is the Korean, and which is the Russian?