Saturday, October 05, 2013

Familiarization Tour

When all Consular Officers leave for their first posting abroad, they are required to make a one day stop-over for "consultations" with DHS (Department of Homeland Security) at whichever major airport serves the region of the world where they're heading, usually Miami, Los Angeles, New York or Washington, DC.  Consultations involve the new officer observing DHS in action as they screen incoming visitors, take some into secondary questioning areas etc... They also get to watch USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services) interviews with new/potential immigrants to the US at a separate location. Because we drove to post, we didn't do these consultations, which was disappointing. However, due to our proximity to the border, we're able to do them after arrival and once we have a bit of experience. In this way, we have a better context for what we're seeing and can ask more educated questions. 

Better than just consultations, however, is the week-long tour my husband and I just completed. Involving visiting agencies and businesses on both sides of the border, it gave us a great familiarization with the setting and the processes that are ancillary to our work. In a group of about ten, we met with representatives from the Mexican equivalent of Child Protective Services, Social Security and Voter Registration. We did site visits to passport agencies in both Juarez and El Paso, toured the civil registry where Juarenses get their birth and marriage certificates, and learned how the office of vital statistics tracks births and deaths.  We headed north and met everyone at the El Paso Mexican Consulate, seeing how similar their structure and purposes are to ours. We learned that there are 50 Mexican Consulates spread throughout the U.S. and El Paso is one of the five largest, understandably.  We also visited a midwife clinic in El Paso, a place where many Mexican women choose to give birth, thus creating new U.S. citizen babies.  Living on the border, nearly every household has a mixture of citizenships among its family members: from the common Mexican-American combination, to the Mexican-Canadian mix frequently seen among the state of Chihuahua's Mennonite population, to the growing Mexican-Chinese population in Tijuana and Juarez.  Seeing this clinic gave us a good idea of how the process works to better understand it from our applicants.  

We also visited an immigration detention center where people are held while awaiting deportation and sat in on an afternoon of immigration court hearings. We observed about six cases, some were pre-deportation hearings and some were asylum hearings. In each asylum case, the young men claimed credible fear for their lives due to gangs in their home country (El Salvador and Mexico in these cases) whom they stated were threatening to harm them if they didn't comply with their illegal requests.  The judge clearly felt for these asylum seekers, but had to tell them that their cases did not fit the U.S. definition of asylum, and rather they were simply (if one should use that word) victims of crime. Later, while discussing what we'd observed in the courtroom, my Mexican coworker noted her agreement with the judge stating, "They're just living with what we all go through" and alluded to the fact that if that were to be considered asylum-worthy - the whole region would be lining up.  

As interesting as the immigration court visit was, I think my favorite part of the tour was the morning spent at the maquiladora (factory).  The maquiladoras are northern Mexico's lifeblood, particularly here in Juarez. We visited one of the factories of an American Fortune 100 company (think home security and thermostats) and learned all about the hiring, training, management structure, wages and general working environment of a "typical" maquiladora. Working in the non-immigrant (read: tourist) visa section, this gave us invaluable context for the majority of our applicant pool.  The average entry-level factory worker (think assembly line) here earns approximately $250 per month, and with skill and experience can move up to about $400 per month. The benefits, however, add substantially to their packet and include $80 per month in food coupons, free cafeteria, free in-house dentist and doctor, savings bonuses, free transportation to and from their neighborhoods to the factory and overtime for working Saturdays, which many take advantage of. Maquila life is truly a family affair, often with multiple generations working for the same company. We were shown a wall of photos of employees who were rewarded for bringing process improvements to the attention of their supervisors. Each idea was displayed with photographs and brief descriptions and granted a certain number of points. These points could later be turned in for cash by the employee. Among the line operators, our tour guide said that the split between genders ran 80% women and 20% men.  This wasn't too surprising as factories in all corners of the world have relied upon the dexterity and small hands of women workers to perform small-scale assembly work.  

I have to admit that some of our visits made less of an impact, and to absolutely no fault at all of our generous hosts. Perhaps on the next tour the hour-long lecture on the Mexican voting registration processes should not take place after lunch, in a darkened room, with wordy PowerPoint slides, in rapid-fire, professional-level Spanish. I think you can imagine what happened. 

All in all, it was a truly informative and interesting week spent getting some great context on all aspects of not only our Consular work, but Mexican life in general. Besides the endless blue skies, I found this tour to be just another perk to working in Juarez.


  1. I'm also considering a career as a Consular 'coned' FSO. Thank you for sharing your experience. I've read the blogs of several FSOs who really get burned out by the visa line. Have you experienced this yet? I'm also considering Public Diplomacy since my degree is in Public Relations. Can you share any insight into that career track as you've had the opportunity to volunteer in this area? I'm a mother and wonder if being a PD officer would allow me the time to drop off and pick up my son from school. I've read the PD officers have a lot of evening events outside of the workday. Thank you in advance for your time.

  2. Hello Kari,
    Thank you for reading and for your comment. I'll try to answer as best I can: After eight months on the visa line in the non-immigrant section of a medium-sized, well-managed, well-staffed, modern and not super high volume post - I am not burned out in the slightest. Please notice how many descriptors I added, however. Because my classmates in some Chinese posts, for example, who are adjudicating triple the numbers we are in Juarez will probably give you a different answer. Also, I never tire of hearing what people have to say and even when it's generally the same answer - I am interested. In Juarez we also are guaranteed to work in both NIV and IV sections (immigrant and non-immigrant), and we can apply for rotations in American Citizen Service, and other units to break up the routine. Not every post has these opportunities.
    Consular work is thought to be the most family-friendly schedule because we are generally out the door at 5:00 pm. As you mentioned, PD very often has after-hours events that I could imagine would make family juggling a lot more difficult. I suppose one could clock out at 5:00, get home for a bit and then go to the 6:30 event (for example), but I certainly wouldn't count on it as a regular thing and every post is going to vary so greatly it would be scary to count on something and than find reality is nothing like your hope.

    As a Consular-coned officer you will (by and large) work the first two tours on the line and then if you are doing well, the third tour could be a supervisory position with more time off the line taking care of other tasks and management duties. So don't feel that it would be twenty years at the window adjudicating.

    Have you seen the video clips on of what each cone does, or read any of the editions of Inside a U.S. Embassy? They give a great day-to-day idea of who does what.

    Good luck!