The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Visa officers aren’t racist — they’re just enforcing the law

The Harry S. Truman Building, headquarters for the State Department. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Christopher Richardson served for seven years as a consular officer and U.S. diplomat for the State Department. He is now an immigration attorney.

Was it racism? Was it Trump? After three prior visa refusals, “Roma” actor Jorge Antonio Guerrero was finally granted his visa, but many wondered: Why would a consular officer refuse someone like him in the first place? Similarly, when a Syrian refugee family seeking U.S. medical treatment for a teenage daughter was denied her visa — despite letters of support from U.S. senators — some wondered whether it was the Muslim ban or “extreme vetting.” As a former consular officer who adjudicated visas, I feel sure that the reason is neither President Trump nor racism: It’s the law.

I still remember the first time I refused a visa for someone seeking lifesaving assistance. The applicant, admitting that she did not have the money for medical treatment or any plan to leave the United States once she got there, nevertheless wanted a visa for chemotherapy. Having survived bone and lung cancer myself, I was beyond sympathetic. She had already been refused three times, she said, and I was her last chance. Yet I had to say no. She had been clear that, if given a visa, she did not intend to return to her home country. It was the first of many difficult decisions I made. I said no to families escaping violence and poverty. I said no to survivors of war. I said no to 90-year-old grandmothers and to 3-year-olds whose parents wanted to take them to Disney World. Across four countries and four continents, I said no to tens of thousands of people in the name of the laws of the United States.

For the vast majority of applicants, Section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act applies. Foreigners seeking to travel to the United States, whether for medical treatment, study, simple tourism or anything else, must obtain a visa. For most applicants, this involves an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate. For all of them, the challenge is to “overcome immigrant intent” during their visa interview. In other words, they must prove to the consular officer reviewing their case that they have a legitimate purpose of travel, will respect the laws of the United States and the terms of their visa, and return to their country of origin. If you read that to mean “guilty until proven innocent,” then you are correct.

Consular officers, in general, are drawn from the U.S. diplomatic corps. When they joined the Foreign Service, most had dreams of being George Kennan, but instead they end up on the “line,” where they are expected to interview as many as 120 people in a day seeking to enter the United States. During what amounts to a five-minute interview (and sometimes less), an officer must make a judgment call on the applicant’s story. Interviews are conducted through bulletproof glass, often in a language other than English. There is often no privacy as applicants answer personal questions about their plans, income, criminal history and family ties to their native country. Officers have no time to decompress between interviews.

None of us denied visas to movie actors or cancer patients because we were inherently cruel or political, or had axes to grind. Many individuals who come for visa interviews are sympathetic, but the facts of many of their cases indicated that if they got a visa, they almost certainly would never leave the United States. Congress has tasked consular officers specifically with determining which applicants have strong enough ties to their home country to compel their return.

Despite simply enforcing these laws, consular officers and U.S. embassies are often the first blamed when a visa is denied. Worse still, members of Congress, including those vehemently and publicly opposed to both the State Department and foreigners in general, inundate embassies with requests for sympathy for visa applicants connected to their own constituents. Yet, should a terrorist be allowed into the country, or a drunk driver, or a murderer, those same members of Congress would undoubtedly turn around and blame consular officers for having issued the visa.

When a high-profile denial occurs, there is always more to the story. Officers simply don’t refuse just to refuse. Yet, consular officers are not permitted, because of privacy regulations, to explain the legal or factual basis for their decision. In the case of Guerrero, who played Fermín in “Roma,” we know only what he told the Mexican magazine Quién: that he had applied for a visa three times in 2018 — first as a tourist, then to attend events related to the film’s numerous award nominations. After that interview appeared, Netflix worked with the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, and a visa was issued in time for him to get to the Oscars this Sunday.

Perhaps being a consular officer is far too much power for one individual. The State Department is a predominantly white institution, whose officers are tasked with making judgments about predominantly brown and poor applicants. That often made me uncomfortable, and I left the Foreign Service, in part, because of it. But for the officers who remain, there are many categories of visas, but sympathy visas and “feel good story” visas are not among them. Perhaps they should be, but that is for members of Congress to decide. Until then, consular officers must enforce the law as written.

Read more:

Andrew Hamilton: The State Department wants to limit Chinese student visas. Its plan goes too far.

Letter to the Editor: Saudi Arabia is playing games with visas — and so is the United States

David Bier: Trump might not have gotten his ‘Muslim ban.’ But he sure got his ‘extreme vetting.’

Letter to the Editor: Slim crab pickings thanks to the GOP clampdown on visas