Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Janice L. Jacobs
Remarks to the Washington Consular Corps
Bank of America Building, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009, 12:00 p.m.
Thank you Mr. Kislev for the introduction and my appreciation to you, Ms. Moss, and all the members of the consular corps for the invitation to speak today. It is a pleasure to be here and talk a bit about the future of consular work, our current policy focus, and the exciting changes we’re seeing in the Bureau of Consular Affairs.
For 41 years, the Washington Consular Corps has served as a valuable forum for consular officials at more than 100 embassies to share their ideas and experiences. It’s great to be among colleagues today who understand the significance of the work we do. I love consular work because it is both tangible and significant. A consular officer can look back on each day and know exactly what he or she accomplished. We touch people’s lives and deal with issues that matter to people in personal ways. We serve our citizens during their most critical moments – births, deaths, disasters, arrests, medical emergencies, study abroad and immigration, to name a few. We make a difference. And though our work is not always easy, I cannot imagine a life more satisfying or fulfilling.
In June, I will celebrate my one-year anniversary as Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs. It is an exciting time to be in this position, in this Bureau, and in this administration. Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton have signaled America’s commitment to protect our national security and advance our interests through diplomacy. To fulfill this commitment, we are expecting an increase in the number of new Foreign Service Officers hired over the next few years. I look forward to welcoming many new officers who will support our consular corps.
Already there are some 11,000 U.S. officers, local staff, contractors and others in Consular Affairs. They are located in more than 300 places around the world, including our 20 domestic passport facilities and two regional visa processing centers in the United States. I am proud of the work they do, every day, to support our citizens, our Mission and our relationship with other nations. Despite a time-consuming domestic agenda, foreign policy and consular issues are still front-and-center in our national dialog, with Secretary Clinton taking active interest in many consular cases. This interest reinforces one of my top priorities as Assistant Secretary – to cooperate with our friends and colleagues on the many points at which our interests intersect.
International cooperation on adoptions and parental abductions is one of these issues. As consular officers we are each on the front lines of protecting the world’s most vulnerable citizens. It is our obligation to ensure legal, fair, and compassionate treatment in cases dealing with children. Much of the framework for dealing with these cases is provided by the Hague Intercountry Adoption Convention and the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. I urge signatories of these conventions to abide by their obligations and those who are not yet members to consider accession to the Convention. I think it is important, too, that we reach out to those who choose not to sign these conventions, to establish with them fair, lawful and inclusive ways to address adoption and parental abduction issues.
While on the topic of treaty obligations, I’d also like to reiterate that the United States takes its Vienna obligations regarding consular notification and access very seriously. The Department continues to work with federal, state, and local law enforcement and other government authorities to promote compliance with the Convention’s consular notification and access requirements. Still, with nearly 18,000 distinct jurisdictions in the United States, and more than 800,000 sworn law enforcement personnel, preventing violations is an ongoing challenge. If you are not properly notified of the arrest of a citizen, please contact our office of consular notification immediately. We will do all we can to facilitate access and information and to ensure the oversight is not repeated. Of course, consular notification is just one of the many bilateral issues we deal with every day. The one that draws the most attention, however, is probably visas and the effect the visa process can have on our relationship with other countries.
I want to assure you that, as Assistant Secretary, I am constantly encouraging my employees and colleagues to thoroughly review our visa policies and security measures. Since 9/11, we have worked diligently to increase our ability to effectively protect U.S. national security, while at the same time increasing the transparency, predictability and efficiency of the visa process. In 2008, we issued more than 6.6 million nonimmigrant visas − a 2.5 percent increase from 2007. That includes an all-time high of more than 700,000 student and exchange visitor visas. To increase our capacity, we’ve moved to online appointments, developed electronic visa applications promoting efficient data-entry, and increased the number of applicants each mission can interview daily. We give priority appointments to student applicants and urgent business travelers to encourage and support international business and education.
While 97 percent of those who qualify for a visa receive it within a few days of the interview or application completion, a small number of visa applicants face delays caused by the need for additional administrative processing. I recognize how frustrating these processing delays can be. I can assure you that we continue to work to reduce these wait times through a combination of human resources and administrative solutions. We also make every effort to actively promote early visa applications in an effort to reduce the impact of any processing delays. If your citizens inquire, please encourage them to apply early for visa travel to the United States. In return we will do all we can to speed their requests.
Last year approximately 47 million foreign visitors – whether here for tourism, work or study – accounted for $131 billion in spending and other economic activity in the United States. In addition, international students contribute an additional $15.5 billion each year to 4,000 academic institutions and their surrounding communities. More important than the money, however, is the fact that the understanding fostered by visits and face-to-face interactions is invaluable for ensuring our national security well into the future. I also I want you to know that I have heard some of your concerns regarding diplomatic visas for members of household. I want to assure you that will do our best to work with your individual situations within the constraints of our laws. I also want to let you know that we continue to discuss this issue within the administration and recognize your interest in this topic. We hope to one day reach a mutually beneficial resolution and welcome your stories and concerns.
These open and respectful exchange of ideas is the cornerstone on which successful diplomatic relations are built. These relationships become particularly important during times of emergency or crisis. Emerging technologies broaden our means of keeping citizens and the traveling public informed of possible threats to their safety, and to swiftly assist them during times of crisis. The State Department relies heavily on our website – travel.state.gov – to provide the most up-to-date information about every country in the world. We’ve also expanded our use of SMS overseas and have begun disseminating travel information via Twitter and Facebook. All this is in addition to our Internet Based Registration System and Overseas Security Advisory Council groups, which allow us to construct traditional phone and email trees for our warden network. I’m very curious to hear how your organizations are using technology for overseas public outreach and how we may be able to cooperate to better share information, especially in times of crisis.
Recently, we have worked very closely with the Department of Homeland Security and the Governments of Canada and Mexico on a tremendous public outreach initiative ahead of implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. WHTI, as it is known, will affect millions of traveling Americans by requiring most U.S. citizens entering the United States at sea or land ports of entry to have a passport, passport card, or other approved travel document. I want to thank those of you who have supported our WHTI efforts. We expect the June 1 implementation date to pass relatively smoothly and believe these efforts are integral to ensuring safe, secure, and efficient passage of Americans to and from the United States.
In closing, I expect you will see a reinvigorated Bureau of Consular Affairs corps over the next few years, with new faces and enthusiasm. I plan to build on our strong record of innovation and forward thinking to address the challenges we have ahead, and I look forward to continue to work closely with you as we carry out our shared missions to help our citizens, protect our borders and create a more secure, more prosperous, world for all of us.
Thank you all for your time and attention. I will now take questions.