Friday, December 30, 2005

Holiday Lag Time or The Joys of Federal Employment

Instead of going home for Christmas, I opted to stay in DC. Just much easier, really -- between the time change, arranging flights, and the hassle of taking leave, staying put seemed a much happier and relaxing choice. Hawaii is an awfully long way away, and I have enough travelling ahead of me as it is.

The 'not taking leave' part was interesting. Since I wasn't vacating the DC area, I was allowed to keep receiving my salary just so long as I did work-related study at home ('self-study' as we call it). This consisted of watching Japanese news in the morning, reading the Washington Post everyday in its entirety, and cat-sitting for some fellow FSI classmates. I know, I know... go ahead and say it: your tax dollars at work. Honestly, if there had been work to do, I would have done it. Really.

Really.

In the spirit of self-study, I thought I should get out and see a bit more of D.C. I hadn't really been out in the City since Thanksgiving (when the U.S. Botanical Garden's vaunted Meat Plant was blooming -- very cool, smelled like a dead possum on hot asphalt). I wouldn't say I got very far -- just out to Georgetown, which is right across the Key Bridge. PostSecrets had put up a display of submissions, and my sister and a friend and I went. It turned out to be quite a pleasant way to pass an evening, and the walk to and from the venue was lovely. When it's warmer, I hope to go out there more often. But for now, sitting at home with a crochet project or a book is suiting me just fine... I have a feeling that when Portuguese starts, I won't be enjoying many relaxing moments.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Moral Turpitude and Alphabet Soup

Consular General Training ('ConGen') is the most beautifully efficient, well-run, clear-cut course I've ever had -- certainly at FSI, maybe even ever. After the inherently fuzzy nature of language classes ("you'll be done just as soon as you memorize every Japanese word and grammar rule..."), having well-established guidelines and priorities is a god send. Not to imply that consular rules are simple -- far from it. Citizenship and visa law can do your head in. However, the law exists as a closed set: it's boundaries are readily apparent and attainable. And the goal in ConGen is not memorization of information, but rather memorization of how to find that information. This is a crucial distinction.

The ConGen course is divided into 5 sections over 9 weeks: Citizenship and Passports; Immigration Visas (IV); Nonimmigration Visas (NIV); Interviewing Techniques; and American Citizen Services (ACS). Of these, all but the interviewing section ends with a 25 question, multiple choice, open book / notes / internet test. Sounds easy enough, but recall that the goal here is finding information, not memorizing it. The questions can be complicated and detailed, and it's not at all uncommon to take the full 3 hours allotted to complete each exam. This is also one of the only courses at FSI that one can fail. 80% and above on each exam is considered passing; a failure on any section means that you must repeat it (and pass the test!) before going to post -- hardly an auspicious way to start off your first tour. Similarly, this is also the only course in which absences, for any reason, are not permitted. Any lecture missed must be made up at a later date.

The most fun in ConGen is definitely the role playing. FSI is equipped with mock visa windows (complete with bullet-proof glass and microphones that don't work! I can't wait to conduct interviews in Japanese through the little slot beneath the window...), and we take turns being the officers and the applicants. Towards this end, the ConGen instructors have created an entire fake country with its own history and set of local laws. Most 'applicants' are from this country, and generally we enjoy hamming it up and doing our utmost to make trouble for the officers. The instructors claim that the applicants are based on real cases they themselves have dealt with. It's amazing, the lies you'll hear.

In real life, each visa application -- not issuance! -- costs the applicant a non-refundable $100, and I think our world-wide refusal rate is something like 80%. The time goal for each interview is roughly 2 to 3 minutes, though of course more complicated cases are allowed more time. It's daunting to think that my 2 minute decision will impact someone so greatly. I worry about refusing people who ought to be allowed; or worse yet, allowing people who ought to be refused. As Japan is a part of the visa waiver program, I'll be dealing with a lot of non-Japanese foreigners ('third country nationals' in FS speak). Between language barriers and my own inexperience, I'm bound to make mistakes. The thought is disheartening at times.

But still, you'll be happy to know that so far I've passed all the tests. And I'm even managing to control the ACLU-member part of me that balks everytime I have to take a set of fingerprints... Mine are on file, too, if that's any consolation to anyone.

p.s. - For an explanation of the title, please refer to Section 212(a)(2)(A) and Section 101(a)(15)[inclusive] of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act. The INA and I are now on fairly intimate terms...