Category Archives: Functional Bureaus

Renunciation of U.S. Citizenship About to Get More Expensive: From $450 to $2,350

– Domani Spero

 

Updated 8:36 am PST, Aug 28, 2014:  The Federal Register has now published  this interim final rule online. This interim final rule becomes effective September 6, 2014. Written comments must be received on or before October 21, 2014. A note on “interim final rule” from the Federal Register: “When an agency finds that it has good cause to issue a final rule without first publishing a proposed rule, it often characterizes the rule as an “interim final rule,” or “interim rule.” This type of rule becomes effective immediately upon publication. In most cases, the agency stipulates that it will alter the interim rule if warranted by public comments. If the agency decides not to make changes to the interim rule, it generally will publish a brief final rule in the Federal Register confirming that decision.” See more here (pdf).

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Yesterday, we got the following via the Burn Bag:

“CA [Consular Affairs] will publish a proposed rule on Thursday in the Federal Register raising the fee for renunciation of citizenship from $450 to $2,350. This will not be popular. Fee based on annual fee study and lack of common sense.”

Today, the Federal register posted online the pre-publication interim final rule for the changes in the Schedule of Fees for consular services (see full interim rule embedded below).  The percentage  increase in the renunciation fee is 422%. With an estimated 2,378 annual renunciation of citizenship cases, this increase would net the USG an estimated $4,518,200.  Using the projected FY 2014 workload, Consular Afffairs’ estimated change in annual fees collected for affected consular services is $64,003,862. Below is an extract from the interim final rule which will be published on August 28:

The interim final rule makes changes to the Schedule of Fees for Consular Services of the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. The Department sets and collects its fees based on the concept of full cost recovery. The Department completed its most recent review of current consular fees and will implement several changes to the Schedule of Fees based on the new fees calculated by the Cost of Service Model (CoSM).
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The CoSM demonstrated that documenting a U.S. citizen’s renunciation of citizenship is extremely costly, requiring American consular officers overseas to spend substantial amounts of time to accept, process, and adjudicate cases. For example, consular officers must confirm that the potential renunciant fully understands the consequences of renunciation, including losing the right to reside in the United States without documentation as an alien. Other steps include verifying that the renunciant is a U.S. citizen, conducting a minimum of two intensive interviews with the potential renunciant, and reviewing at least three consular systems before administering the oath of renunciation. The final approval of the loss of nationality must be done by law within the Directorate of Overseas Citizens Services in Washington, D.C., after which the case is returned to the consular officer overseas for final delivery of the Certificate of Loss of Nationality to the renunciant. These steps further add to the time and labor that must be involved in the process. Accordingly, the Department is increasing the fee for processing such requests from $450 to $2,350. As noted in the interim final rule dated June 28, 2010 (77 FR 36522), the fee of $450 was set substantially below the cost to the U.S. government of providing this service (less than one quarter of the cost). Since that time, demand for the service has increased dramatically, consuming far more consular officer time and resources, as reflected in the 2012 Overseas Time Survey and increased workload data. Because the Department believes there is no public benefit or other reason for setting this fee below cost, the Department is increasing this fee to reflect the full cost of providing the service. Therefore the increased fee reflects both the increased cost of the provision of service as well as the determination to now charge the full cost.

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 10.45.00 AM

The Department intends to implement this interim final rule, and initiate collection of the fees set forth herein, effective 15 days after publication of this rule in the Federal Register.
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Administrative Procedure Act |  The Department is publishing this rule as an interim final rule, with a 60-day provision for post promulgation comments and with an effective date less than 30 days from the date of publication, based on the “good cause” exceptions set forth at 5 U.S.C. 553(b)(3)(B) and 553(d)(3). Delaying implementation of this rule would be contrary to the public interest because the fees in this rule fund consular services that are critical to national security, including screening visa applicants.

Anybody know where we can find a copy of CA’s Cost of Service Model (CoSM) study?

Apparently, dual citizens in Canada trying to shed their U.S. citizenship have created a  backlog at the U.S. consulate in Toronto that stretches into the third week of January 2015.

In any case, Americans who will be upset by this change in renunciation of citizenship fee can  contact Congress to complain about this. Their elected representatives, presumably will be super-helpful to the soon-to-be non-voters.

We should note that interim final rule also lowers the consular time fee of $231 to $135 per hour, per employee:

The Department previously charged a consular time fee of $231 per hour, per employee. This fee is charged when indicated on the Schedule of Fees or when services are performed away from the office or outside regular business hours. The CoSM estimated that the hourly consular time charge is now lower. Accordingly, the Department is lowering this fee to $135 per hour.

See the full interim final rule below. The document posted below is a pre-publication copy. It is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on 08/28/2014 and available online at http://federalregister.gov/a/2014-20516, and on FDsys.gov

 

 

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Filed under Americans Abroad, Congress, Consular Work, Functional Bureaus, Visas

Dept of Correction for the Record Fail — Diversity Statistics Still in Jaws of SBU Chupacabra!

– Domani Spero

 

Last week, we blogged about the State Department’s missing diversity stats from the FS promotion results (see Foreign Service 2013 Promotion Results — Gender, Ethnicity, Race Stats Still Behind the Great Firewall).  Previously, WhirledView’s Patricia Kushlis blogged about the State Department’s abysmal Hispanic record and gender inequality at the State Department (see  Unfulfilled Promises, Ignored Mandates: State’s Abysmal Hispanic Record and  State’s Female-Proof Glass Ceiling: Breaking into the Good Old Boys Diplomatic Club is Still Hard to Do).

Yesterday, WhirledView posted a new question: What’s the big secret with the State Department’s diversity statistics and why?  Patricia also  shared a fan mail from the State Department’s Bureau of Human Resources.

Via WhirledView:

From: State/HR – Greenberg
To: WhirledView-Kushlis

Regarding: “Going back to 2000, the only year that State published promotion figures based on gender and ethnicity was in 2012, when they appeared in the June 2012 issue of State Magazine.  Those statistics disappeared from State Magazine in 2013 and 2014. “

The 2013 promotion statistics are available on page 32 of the June 2014 online issue of State Magazine at http://digitaledition.state.gov/publication/ and the 2013 Foreign Service promotion statistics will also be published in the July-August 2014 print and digital issue of State Magazine.

The 2014 promotion statistics are simply not out yet.  The promotion boards have just convened.

Brenda Greenberg
HR Public Affairs
202-647-4282

 

<RANT>Why … why… why … in heaven’s name are you wasting your time and other people’s time with this kind of mush?!</RANT>

The italicized portion above is a paragraph in Patricia’s blog post on State’s abysmal record on Hispanic hiring available here.   It is clear that Patricia is  referring to the published promotion figures based on gender and ethnicity. Which are, by the way, while mentioned on State magazine, are actually not included in the published edition. So the HR spox wrote to point out that the stats is you know, available on page 32!

Nope, the promotion figures based on gender and ethnicity are not available on page 32. Here is what State, June 2014 says:

Screen Shot 2014-08-25

Neither the original State mag publication of the promotion stats in June nor the corrected version in July/August 2014 include the gender, ethnicity and race statistics. They are available at http://intranet.hr.state.sbu/offices/rma/Pages/DiversityStats.aspx.  Let’s click on it, just for fun:

Screen Shot 2014-08-25

Ay, caramba! They’re still in the jaws of the SBU Chupacabra (pdf) ?!!

Look — SBU or “sensitive but unclassified” information must not be posted on any public Internet website, discussed in a publicly available chat room or any other public forum on the Internet. You folks know that, right?  Disposition of SBU documents is also important; it includes shredding or burning, or by other methods consistent with law or regulation like chewing and swallowing (Note: Perfectly okay to do this with beer 😉).

Hey, if a State Department HR official can cite a non-existent public report, we, too, can cite a non-existent citation on the FAM that goes well with beer. Because why not?

Also this via WhirledView:

“Why HR even needs its own Public Affairs Office is beyond me but that’s another question for another day er post.  Rumor has it that a piece of the incumbent’s job is to  block relevant WV posts and likely Diplopundit ones too keeping them from Bureau higher ups and staff supposedly under the ignorance is bliss category.” 

Oh, no — no need to block us, we are quite entertaining at times.

Subscription is easy and painless and we occasionally deliver sweet and sour news and opinion!

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Filed under Foreign Service, FSOs, Functional Bureaus, Rants, Realities of the FS, Staffing the FS, State Department

Consular Affairs Bureau Seeks to Expand Visa Waiver and Interview Waiver Programs

– Domani Spero

 

The State Department’s Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Janice Jacobs retired last April (see Asst Secretary for Consular Affairs Janice Jacobs to Retire Effective April 3).  As far as we know, no successor has been nominated to date.  Pardon me? You want ……..? And you want Overseas Citizens Services DAS Jim Pettit?  Excuse me, Mr. Pettit was already nominated as Ambassador to the Republic of Moldova.  Who else?  You want ……. ? Well, maybe State should have a list of nominees and have all CA employees vote for their next boss per the bureau’s Leadership Tenets. Because wouldn’t that be a screamingly fantastic experiment?

In any case, CA’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Michele Bond has been the Acting A/S since April 2014.  This past June, at a hearing at the Senate Subcommittee on Tourism, Competitiveness and Innovation on  The State of U.S. Travel and Tourism Industry, Ms. Bond discussed how the bureau is meeting increasing demand for visas worldwide, particularly in  Brazil, India, Mexico and China (see prepared statement). Stressing that the State Department’s  “top priority in visa adjudication is always national security,” the prepared statement provides a look at where the bureau is seeking to expand.   Specifically, it seeks legislative authority to expand the Interview Waiver Program and wanted to see an expanded  Visa Waiver Program to include additional countries to the 37 current participants.  The  Interview Waiver Program (visa applications without personal appearances) is potentially controversial given its history, and probably the reason the bureau is seeking legislative authority from Congress.

Below are excerpts from the prepared statement:

Consular Adjudicators

In 2013, Brazilian visitors contributed $10.5 billion to the U.S. economy, a 13 percent increase from the prior year.  During the same period, Chinese visitors contributed $9.8 billion, an 11 percent increase from the prior year, or $5,400 per visitor.  To address this important opportunity to contribute to our country’s economy, 167 officers perform consular work in Mission China.  Consular Affairs created over 50 new officer positions in China in fiscal year 2012 alone.  In the same year, we increased consular staffing in Mission Brazil by 40 percent within six months, and eventually increased staffing by more than 100 percent.  We met the President’s Executive Order target of 40 percent capacity increase in Brazil in June 2012 and in China in November 2012, both ahead of schedule.
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In 2011, we realized our traditional hiring mechanisms wouldn’t allow us to deploy officers quickly enough to meet exploding visa demand in Brazil and China. We weren’t recruiting enough Portuguese- and Mandarin-speaking officers and could not wait for new entry-level officers to learn these essential languages.  In response, the Department created a rapid hiring pilot program to ramp up staffing at critical needs posts.  These adjudicators met a high bar for qualifications and underwent a rigorous screening process to assess their skills and background for these positions.  The first class of these adjudicators, appointed for one-year periods and limited to a maximum of five consecutive years, began in January 2012.  That year, we brought on a total of 24 Mandarin-speakers and 19 Portuguese-speakers, all of whom arrived at posts by mid-July.  In fiscal year 2013, we expanded the program to recruit Spanish-speakers.  To date, we have hired and deployed 59 adjudicators under this program to China, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic, representing an added capacity of 900,000 visa adjudications per year.

Interview Waiver Program

We are utilizing technology and advanced fraud detection techniques to help us expand the pool of applicants for whom interviews can be waived under the Interview Waiver Program.  This allows us to focus resources on higher-risk visa applicants while facilitating travel for low-risk applicants.

We are working with our colleagues across the government to expand this successful program, which became permanent in January 2014.  In fiscal year 2013, we waived over 380,000 interviews, and a recent study showed that tourist and business visitor visa holders whose interviews were waived, all of whom were subject to the full scope of security checks, posed no greater risk for an overstay than those who were interviewed.  We are interested in explicit legislative authority to supplement the existing Interview Waiver Program by adding additional low-risk applicant groups such as citizens of Visa Waiver Program members applying for other types of visas such as student or work visas; continuing students moving to a higher level of education; non-U.S. citizen Global Entry and NEXUS trusted traveler program members; and holders of visas in other categories, such as students and workers, who wish to travel for tourism or business.  The Department is interested in working with Congress on legislation specifically authorizing the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security to enhance our interview waiver programs.

Visa Waiver Program

[W]e are working with our U.S. government colleagues to expand the Visa Waiver Program, consistent with U.S. law, as was recently done with the addition of Chile to the program earlier this year.  With this designation, Chile now joins 37 other participants and is currently the only participant from Latin America.  The Department supports the proposed amendments contained in the Senate-passed Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, because we believe they would restructure the Visa Waiver Program in a manner that would strengthen law enforcement cooperation, while maintaining the program’s robust counterterrorism and criminal information sharing initiatives and promoting commerce and tourism in the United States.

No to Premium Visa Processing

However, we do not recommend offering premium visa processing.  We believe many visa applicants would be willing to pay any “premium processing fee” in the false belief that payment of a higher fee will ensure visa issuance, thus making any such program less efficient and compromising the integrity of the visa process.  The best approach to achieve greater efficiencies is the continued prioritization of student, medical, and urgent business travel applications, which is already in effect at consular posts worldwide.  We will also pursue increased visa validity where reciprocal agreement can be obtained with interagency support.

The full statement is available here.

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Filed under Congress, Consular Work, Foreign Service, FSOs, Functional Bureaus, Hearings, Interagency Cooperation, Security, Staffing the FS, State Department, Visas

FSO-Author Writes About Publishing in the Foreign Service; Update to 3 FAM 4170 Coming Soon?

– Domani Spero

 

The June 2014 issue of the Foreign Service Journal includes an article, Publishing in the Foreign Service by FSO Yaniv Barzilai, who is serving in Baku on his first overseas posting. He is the author of 102 Days of War—How Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda & the Taliban Survived 2001 (Potomac Books, 2013).  Below is an excerpt from that article with a prescription for the improvement of the pre-publication clearance process in the State Department.

There is plenty of room for improvement in the pre-publication clearance process. First and foremost, State must do a better job of adhering to the regulations it has set forth in the Foreign Affairs Manual. Anything short of that standard is unfair to everyone involved. 

Second, the department should establish clear guidelines on how it distributes material internally and across the interagency community. That threshold should have nothing to do with terms as vague as “equities.” Instead, offices and agencies should have the opportunity to clear on material only if that material is the result of “privileged information”: information that employees acquire during the discharge of their duties that is not otherwise available.

Third, State needs to ensure that former employees receive treatment comparable to current employees. A significant gap exists between the attention given to current employees by PA and that former employees receive from A/GIS/IPS/PP/LA. 

As that lengthy acronym suggests, former employees are relegated to an obscure office in the Bureau of Administration when they seek pre-publication clearance. In contrast, the PA leadership is often engaged and provides consistent oversight of the review process for current employees. This bifurcation not only creates unnecessary bureaucratic layers and redundancies, but places additional burdens on former employees trying to do the right thing by clearing their manuscripts. This discrepancy should be rectified.

These short-term fixes would go a long way toward improving the pre-publication clearance process for employees. In the long term, however, the State Department should consider establishing a publication review board modeled on the CIA’s Publication Review Board. 

A State Department PRB would codify a transparent, objective and fair process that minimizes the need for interagency clearance, ensures proper and consistent determinations on what material should be classified, and reduces the strain on the State Department at large, and its employees in particular.

Ultimately, State needs to strike a better balance between protecting information and encouraging activities in the public domain. The pre-publication review process remains too arbitrary, lengthy and disjointed for most government professionals to share their unique experiences and expertise with the American public.

Read in full here.

We totally agree that a publication review board is needed for State. Instead of parcelling out the work to different parts of the bureaucracy, a review board would best serve the agency.  We have some related posts on this topic on the Peter Van Buren case as well as the following items:

The rules and regulations for publishing in the Foreign Service can be found in the infamous Foreign Affairs Manual 3 FAM 4170 (pdf).  Last June, AFSA told its members that for more than a year it has been negotiating a revision to the current Foreign Affairs Manual regulations governing public speaking and writing (3 FAM 4170).

“As mentioned in our 2013 Annual Report, our focus has been to accommodate the rise of social media and protect the employee’s ability to publish. We have emphasized the importance of a State Department response to clearance requests within a defined period of time (30 days or less). For those items requiring interagency review, our goal is to increase transparency, communication and oversight.  We look forward to finalizing the negotiations on the FAM chapter soon—stay tuned for its release.”

This long awaited update to 3 FAM 4170 has been in draft mode since 2012 (see State Dept to Rewrite Media Engagement Rules for Employees in Wake of Van Buren Affair. We’ll have to wait and see if 3 FAM 4172.1-7  also known as the Peter Van Buren clause survives the new version.

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Filed under AFSA, Book Notes, Foreign Service, FSOs, Functional Bureaus, Interagency Cooperation, Learning, Lessons, Peter Van Buren, Public Service, Realities of the FS, State Department

Churn News — Conflict & Stabilization Bureau’s Top Official to Step Down

– Domani Spero

 

Secretary Kerry was still on his around the world trip when his office released the following August 13 statement on Rick Barton’s resignation as Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO).

After five years in the Administration, the last three as Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), Ambassador Rick Barton has announced his resignation, effective September 30.

Assistant Secretary Barton has provided bold leadership in establishing a new bureau to prevent and respond to conflict and crises worldwide, laying the groundwork for civilian-led efforts to break cycles of violence. Under Rick’s stewardship, CSO took on some of the toughest cases from Syria and Somalia to Honduras, Burma, Kenya and Nigeria. CSO delivered practical solutions through sound management that used the taxpayers’ money efficiently.

Rick will leave behind a legacy of impact and innovation, harnessing data-driven analysis and leveraging partnerships with local groups to tackle the root causes of destabilizing violence. His focus, creativity and optimism have made him a most welcome presence on my team as we work with our allies to resolve seemingly intractable conflicts.

I thank Rick for his vision and leadership, and I look forward to continued partnership with the stabilization team he has built at State.

More information on the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations is available on Twitter and Facebook. For more background on the State Department’s work on civilian security, democracy, and human rights, follow @civsecatstate or visit www.state.gov/j.

 

Wow, who writes this stuff?

Mr. Barton was actually confirmed on March 29, 2012 as Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations. He assumed office on April 3, 2012. Previous to assuming his CSO position, he was with ECOSOC (See Officially In: Frederick Barton to UN ECOSOC).

His official bio says that in 2013, he received a Distinguished Honor Award from the Department “in recognition of your groundbreaking work to create the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, promote peacebuilding and empower women, youth and other change agents seeking peaceful change in their communities and societies.”

In March 2014, the Office of Inspector General released its blistering inspection report (pdf) of the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. The report gave us a sad and we blogged about it here. (See QDDR II Walks Into a Bar and Asks, What Happened to the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations?).  The 2014 OIG report famously noted CSO’s top management philosophy of “churn” to prevent people from staying in CSO for more than 3 years.

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Filed under Assistant Secretary, Functional Bureaus, Govt Reports/Documents, Huh? News, John F. Kerry, Leadership and Management, Reorganization, Resignations, State Department

Burn Bag: CA Bureau’s Biggest Problems — Washington Post and Diplopundit, Really?

Via Burn Bag:

“CA management feels the biggest problem facing CA are leaks to the Washington Post (old news) and comments on Diplopundit (new excuse).  So much for actually addressing real problems.”

No Way. Really?

Via reactiongifs.com

Via reactiongifs.com

 

 

 

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Filed under Consular Work, Functional Bureaus, Leadership and Management, Realities of the FS, State Department

State Dept/CBP Reportedly Announced Fix for Certain Applicants Ensnared By Visa Glitch

– Domani Spero

 

The State Department’s Consular Consolidated Database has been having performance issues since July 19th. We have written about it in this blog (see State Dept Answers FAQ on Ongoing Visa and Passport Database Performance Issues and  State Dept’s Critical National Security Database Crashes, Melts Global Travelers’ Patience).

Last week, Greenberg Traurig posted on The National Law Review that the State Department and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have reportedly announced a fix for certain visa applicants affected by the technical glitch.

“DOS and CBP will, on a case-by-case basis, waive nonimmigrant visa (H-1B, L-1, O-1, etc.) requirements for admission into the United States. In particular, applicants whose U.S. travel involves an “emergency” (i.e., humanitarian travel and life-and-death situations) or impacts U.S. national interests may request consideration for special travel permission.”

The post further states that if “emergency” travel is approved, the embassy or consulate will issue a transportation letter for presentation to common carriers to allow boarding of international U.S.-bound flights. (See DOS and CBP Announce Fix for Certain Visa Applicants Who Are Experiencing Consular Delays Due to Recent Technical Challenges).

This information is nowhere to be found on the State Department’s website or on the Visa Section of travel.state.gov nor the FB page of the Bureau of Consular Affairs. No such announcement is made available from the CBP website.

An  August 10 update from U.S.-China Visa Law Blog includes the following details:

A nonimmigrant visa applicant whose U.S. travel is urgent because it either involves an “emergency” or impacts U.S. national interests, may request consideration for special travel permission to the United States if their visa issuance is delayed as a result CCD systems problems. “Emergencies” in this instance include urgent humanitarian travel and life-and-death situations. Upcoming business engagements and U.S. employment needs are “not typically considered humanitarian emergencies and likely will not be considered as such in most cases.”

If approved jointly by the State Department and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the consular post that accepted the visa application will release the traveler’s passport and will issue a transportation letter, which can be presented to the airlines to allow boarding of international U.S.-bound flights. Upon arrival to a U.S. port of entry and presentation of the transportation letter, CBP will waive the nonimmigrant visa requirement for admission.

Read more:  An Computer Crash Hobbles U.S. Visa, Passport Operations in China (Aug. 10 Update).

It is, of course, just a coincidence that the two sources noting the transportation letter fix are both law firms working on immigration, right? 😉  CA bureau’s FB page does not have an August 8 or August 10 update that includes this information. If there was an announcement, are we to understand that it was done on limited distribution with the State/CBP telling lawyers about this but not releasing this guidance to the general public?

We must confess that we’ve made a mistake of asking for clarification about this from the press office of the Bureau of Consular Affairs.  It turns out that some  folks there are unable to answer “yes” or “no” questions and are only able to provide cut and paste “on background” information for recycled details already publicly available.

Don’t get us wrong. It certainly is impressive cut and paste skills, but we won’t help them recycle the canned info and add to the glut.

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State Department’s Embassy “Design Excellence” Initiative: Year in Review (Video)

– Domani Spero

 

The State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations has just released a ‘Year in Review 2013-2014′ video, primarily highlighting the new embassies built under its “design excellence”initiative. You will note that some of the projects in this video have been completed while others like the New London Embassy, and those buildings in artist’s renderings are still undergoing construction or in the early phases of the projects  and won’t be completed for a few more years.

The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) “sets worldwide priorities for the design, construction, acquisition, maintenance, use, and sale of real properties and the use of sales proceeds” for the State Department. The bureau has recently caught congressional attention with its New London Embassy project and its “design excellence” initiative. See Congress to State Dept: We Want All Your Stuff on New London Embassy Except Paperclips and New Embassy Construction Hearing: Witnesses Not Invited, and What About the Blast-Proof Glass?

We understand that the bureau is still working on providing Congress with the documents requested during the latest congressional hearing. Congress won’t be back in session until September 8, and then, it will only conduct business for a couple of weeks before it runs out again.  Nonetheless, we are hearing that there may be personnel shuffles at the bureau in the offing.  We’ll update when we know more.

 

Related items:

-05/31/11   Compliance Follow-up Review of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (ISP-C-11-26)  [2452 Kb]  Posted June 8, 2011

-08/30/08   Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (ISP-I-08-34) Aug 2008  [1846 Kb]

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Filed under Congress, Construction, Contractors, Foreign Service, Functional Bureaus, New Embassy Compound, Social Media, State Department, U.S. Missions, Video of the Week

State Dept Answers FAQ on Ongoing Visa and Passport Database Performance Issues

– Domani Spero

 

Yesterday, we posted about the troubled Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) (see State Dept’s Critical National Security Database Crashes, Melts Global Travelers’ Patience).  During the Daily Press Briefing, yesterday, the State Department officially stated that it believed the root cause of the problem was “a combination of software optimization and hardware compatibility issues.” According to the deputy spokesperson, the servers are getting back online but that they are coming back in a queue and that fixes are not being done on a country-by-country basis. And by the way, it’s not just the peak summer travel season, there’s also the Africa Summit in D.C. next week.

“Obviously, there’s actually a huge crush right now because of the Africa Leaders Summit, so obviously that’s a huge priority for us to make sure everybody gets their visas for the Africa Leaders Summit. We do believe that a vast majority of the travelers who have applied for visas for the summit have been issued.”

CA’s FB folks have been regularly answering questions from angry complaints posted on its Facebook page and have announced that they will continue to monitor and respond to consular clients at 9:00 EDT tomorrow, Thursday, July 31.

Late yesterday, the Bureau of Consular Affairs also posted a new Frequently Asked Questions on Facebook and on its website (not easily accessible from the main visa page) concerning the CCD performance issues and the steps taken to address those issues. Perhaps the most surprising is that its back-up capability and redundancy built into the CCD were both affected killed by the upgrade that hobbled the system.  Something to look forward to by end of calendar year — CA is upgrading the CCD to a newer version of the Oracle commercial database software and that plan includes establishing two fully redundant systems. We are republishing the FAQ in full below.

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 12.07.05 AM

Information Regarding Ongoing Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) Performance Issues and Steps Taken| JULY 30, 2014

The Department of State continues to work to restore our visa system to full functionality.

We anticipate it will take weeks to resume full visa processing capacity.

We continue to prioritize immigrant visas, including adoption cases.  So far, we have been able to issue most cases with few delays.

Nearly all passports are currently being issued within our customer service standards, despite the system problems.

We are able to issue passports for emergency travel.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q:  What caused the system performance issues?  Hardware, software, or both?  Details?

On July 20, to improve overall system performance and address previous intermittent performance issues, we updated software as recommended. Our database began experiencing significant performance issues shortly after this maintenance was performed.

A root cause has not been identified at this time.  Current efforts are focused on bringing the system back to normal operations.  Once that has been accomplished, resources will be applied to determine the root cause.

Q:  What steps did we take to mitigate the performance issues?

Since July 20, our team has worked to restore operations to full capacity.  On July 23, the Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) was brought back online with limited capacity.

The Department of State is working with Oracle and Microsoft to implement system changes aimed at optimizing performance and addressing ongoing performance issues.

We are incrementally increasing the number of processed cases as our systems will allow.

Q:  Has the Bureau of Consular Affairs experienced these types of outages in the past?

CA has experienced minor outages in the past, but never of this magnitude.  We have a plan in place to mitigate these occurrences in the future.

Q:  Is the software to blame?  Are contractors at fault?  Why was this allowed to happen?

We have been working to improve our services through upgrades while maintaining existing operations worldwide.  However, we are limited by outdated software and hardware.

Q:  Why did those steps not work?  What’s the next step?

We have not determined why the problems occurred.  We are working with our contractor and the software vendor to address the problems.

We are bringing additional servers online to increase capacity and response time.

Q: Why wasn’t there a back-up server?

There was back-up capability and redundancy built into the system.  However, the upgrade affected not only our current processing capability, but also our ability to use our redundant system.

Q: What steps are being taken prevent this from happening again?

CA has a plan in place to upgrade the CCD to a newer version of the Oracle commercial database software by the end of the calendar year.  We are working to ensure the existing system will remain fully functional until the new database is up and running and thoroughly tested.  The plan includes establishing two fully redundant systems.

Q:  If CA is fee funded, why can’t it build a robust database that doesn’t fail?

The database has grown dramatically, in both quantity of data and functionality, and vastly improved border security.  In addition to checking names against databases, we review fingerprints and perform facial recognition.

We are working towards modernization of our software, hardware, and infrastructure.  Demand for our services outpaced our modernization efforts.

Consular Affairs has, and has had, a redundant system.  However, the upgrade affected not only our current processing capability, but also our ability to use our redundant system.  This is one of the issues we are urgently addressing now.

Q:  What do I need to know if I’m a passport applicant?

Almost all passports are currently being issued within our customer service standards, despite the system problems.

We are able to issue passports for emergency travel.

Q:  What do I need to know if I’m a visa applicant?

Visa applicants they can expect delays as we process pending cases.  We remain able to quickly process emergency cases to completion.

We are working urgently to correct the problem to avoid further inconveniencing travelers.

We are posting updates to the visa page of travel.state.gov, and our embassies and consulates overseas are communicating with visa applicants.

In addition to communicating through our websites, e-mail, and letters, we are also reaching out to applicants via Facebook and other social media sites, such as Weibo, to relay the latest information.

Q:  Why hasn’t the Department been more forthcoming until now?

We have experienced CCD outages in the past, but they have never disrupted our ability to perform consular tasks at this magnitude.

We informed the public as soon as it was apparent there was not a quick fix to bring the CCD back to normal operating capacity, and are briefing Congressional staffers regularly.

Q:  What is the outlook for Non-immigrant visas?  When do we estimate the backlog will be processed?

That will depend on a number of factors.  Current efforts are focused on bringing the system back to normal operations.

We must also continue processing new requests.  We are committed to reducing the number of pending visa cases as quickly as possible, but we want applicants to know that we will continue to be operating at less than optimal efficiency until the system is restored to full functionality.

Q:  Is the Department going to reimburse applicants who missed flights/canceled weddings/missed funerals?

We sincerely regret any delays, inconvenience, or expense that applicants have may have incurred due to the CCD performance issues.

While it might be of little solace to those who have experienced hardship, we are always very careful to tell travelers NOT to make travel plans until they have a visa in hand.  Even when the CCD is operating normally, there may be delays in printing visas.

The Department does not have the authority to reimburse applicants for personal travel, nor do we include these costs when calculating our fees.  The Department cannot refund visa fees except in the specific circumstances set out in our regulations.

Q:  What impact will this have on SIVs?

We have the highest respect for the men and women who take enormous risks in supporting our military and civilian personnel.  We are committed to helping those who have helped us.  While issuances of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to Afghans and Iraqis have been impacted, as have visa issuances around the world, SIV processing continues and remains a high priority.

Q: How is this impacting student visas?  They are scheduled to start the fall semester soon.

We are committed to issuing visas to all qualified students and exchange visitors.  Issuance of student and exchange visitor visas has been impacted in the past few days, but visa processing continues.

We understand the importance to international students and exchange visitors, their families, and their U.S. host institutions of timely visa issuance in order to facilitate travel and to ensure all students and exchange visitors may begin their programs on time.

Q: What about situations where the student won’t arrive to school on time?

Students should contact their educational institution’s Designated School Official (F and M visas) or designated U.S. sponsor’s Responsible Officer (J visas) and discuss with them what arrangements they can provide for you to begin your program after the start date on your Form I-20 (F and M visas) or Form DS 2019 (J visas), should such a circumstance become necessary.

Q:  Will this have any impact on the Diversity Visa program in September?

While issuances of all immigrant visas, including diversity visas, have been impacted in the past few days, IV processing continues and remains a high priority.  The Department expects to have used all numbers for DV-2014 when the program year ends on September 30, 2014.

Q:  What impact do we anticipate this will have on the U.S. economy?

Tourism and students have a major impact on our economy.  Last year, it was estimated that international visitors spent $180.7 billion and supported 1.3 million American jobs.  International students contribute $24.7 billion to the U.S. economy through their expenditures on tuition and living expenses, according to the Department of Commerce.

We recognize the significant impact that international travel and tourism has on the U.S. economy, and are taking all possible steps to ensure that the economic impact is minimal.

People traveling under the Visa Waiver Program are not affected at all; nor are those whose previously-issued visas remain valid.

We routinely advise applicants needing new visas to make appointments well in advance of their planned travel, and not to book their travel until they have their printed visas in hand.

The original post is available here.  If CA is reading this, it would be helpful if a link to the FAQ is posted on the main visa page of travel.state.gov and in the News section.  We were only able to find the FAQ from a link provided in Facebook and not from browsing around the travel.state.gov website.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Consular Work, Contractors, Facebook, Foreign Service, Functional Bureaus, Social Media, Spectacular, State Department, Technology and Work, U.S. Missions, Visas

New Travel Warning for Yemen — Don’t Come; If In Country, Leave! But Some Can’t Leave

– Domani Spero

 

On July 21, the State Department updated its Travel Warning for Yemen urging Americans to defer travel to Yemen and for those living there to depart the country:

The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the high security threat level in Yemen due to terrorist activities and civil unrest.  The Department urges U.S. citizens to defer travel to Yemen and those U.S. citizens currently living in Yemen to depart. This supersedes the Travel Warning for Yemen issued on January 29, 2014.

The U.S. Embassy in Sana’a remains a restricted staffing post.  This limits the Embassy’s ability to assist U.S. citizens in an emergency and provide routine consular services. Embassy Officers are restricted in their movements and cannot travel outside of Sana’a. In addition, movements within Sana’a are severely constrained and may be further constrained by the fluid security situation.

The security threat level in Yemen is extremely high. The Embassy is subject to frequent unannounced closures.  In May 2014, the Embassy was closed for almost five weeks because of heightened security threats.

Demonstrations continue to take place in various parts of the country and may quickly escalate and turn violent. U.S. citizens are urged to avoid areas of demonstrations, and to exercise extreme caution if within the vicinity of a demonstration.

Terrorist organizations, including Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), continue to be active throughout Yemen. The U.S. government remains highly concerned about possible attacks on U.S. citizens (whether visiting or residing in Yemen), and U.S. facilities, businesses, and perceived U.S. and Western interests.

Read the full release here.

The very next day, Yemeni Americans were on the news.  US citizens in Yemen accused the  American embassy of confiscating their passports.  The State Department reportedly is withholding fraudulent passports, but rights groups say Yemeni Americans are being unfairly targeted.

 

Leaving the country without a regular passport would be difficult but perhaps not impossible.

Back in January, we blogged about this. (See US Embassy Yemen: Revocation of U.S. Passports, a Growing Trend?  At that time,a State Department official who spoke on background told us that citizens with revoked passports “may be provided with a limited validity passport for a direct return to the United States.” That is, based on the circumstances of the case. Earlier, we’ve prodded that CA/Embassy Sana’a provide guidance on how to file an appeal in revocation cases on its website.  To-date, there is nothing online in terms of guidance on appealing these cases.

Passport revocations are not the only thing that seem to be surging in Yemen.

Last month, Embassy Sana’a announced that U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Matthew H. Tueller, along with Embassy Sana’a Consular staff, hosted a “Super Saturday” event to register the births of children born in Yemen who are eligible for American citizenship.  Consular staff volunteers reportedly assisted more than 120 Americans and Yemeni-American dual nationals residing in Yemen complete Consular Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA) forms to document the U.S. citizenship of their children.

U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Matthew H. Tueller, along with Embassy Sana’a Consular staff, hosted a special weekend event to register the births of children born in Yemen who are eligible for American citizenship

U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Matthew H. Tueller, along with Embassy Sana’a Consular staff, hosted a special weekend event to register the births of children born in Yemen who are eligible for American citizenship. (photo via US Embassy Sana’a/FB)

In 2010, the State Department estimated the number of U.S. citizens in Yemen at  over 55,000. This past June, the US Embassy in Sana’a says that it serves more than 73,000 American citizens residing in Yemen. The embassy also expects to process  7,000 Consular Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA) for this year alone.  This at a high fraud post with limited staffing.

This is not the first time that the U.S. has told its nationals to leave Yemen.  And so far, there has been no talk of an evacuation.  The embassy is already on restricted staffing but should the embassy shutdown, the evacuation of Yemen’s American citizen population would be a logistical nightmare and could potentially dwarf the evacuation of nearly 15,000 American citizens from Lebanon in 2006.

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Filed under Americans Abroad, Consular Work, Evacuations, Foreign Service, Functional Bureaus, Govt Reports/Documents, Security, Staffing the FS, State Department, Trends, U.S. Missions