Ex-FSO Bethany Milton’s NYT Op-Ed on Why She Left the State Department


Below is the latest public resignation from the U.S. Foreign Service by Bethany Milton who joined the FS in 2008. She most recently served as Consular Chief at the U.S. Embassy in Kigali, Rwanda.

Via NYT:

When President Trump allowed a crowd to chant “Send her back!” about a sitting member of Congress — espousing an ideology in which naturalized American citizens, at least those who don’t fit a certain profile, are held to different and dangerous standards — he wasn’t thinking about me. He’s rarely thinking about me, the white American-born daughter of two American-born citizens.

But he is often thinking and talking about at least some of the tens of thousands of people I’ve helped immigrate to the United States — legally and permissibly — over my 11 years as a consular officer in the Foreign Service. From 2014 to 2016, I oversaw immigrant visa processing at the U.S. Consulate General in Mumbai, India. Every day, my team and I saw dozens of families destined to move to the United States as green card holders: older parents going to spend their final years surrounded by grandchildren, spouses matched up through online matrimonial sites, parents with kids in tow who had been waiting patiently since the early 1990s for their chance to join a sibling.

I also oversaw immigrant visa operations in Kigali, Rwanda, from 2018 to 2019, helping Rwandans and Congolese reunite with family members in the United States. Their stories often had a darker tone: marriages brokered in refugee camps, siblings separated by war, children born of rape. But the one thing that united almost every visa applicant I ever saw was the belief that life was going to be better in America. What a rude surprise, then, for them to face elected national leadership that targets them in such gruesome ways.

When a diplomat joins the State Department, she sits through two presentations toward the end of her weekslong orientation class. One is an afternoon session about the State Department’s storied dissent channel, which lets employees speak out internally about foreign policy decisions free from the fear of retaliation. How to use it, when to use it, what it means. The other is a much shorter presentation, one that lasts all of 15 seconds: “The day you can no longer publicly support your administration’s policies is the day you need to resign.”


In January 2017, when I was working in the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ headquarters, I wrote a draft dissent memo about the so-called travel ban and sent it to a handful of colleagues, many of whom forwarded it to others and some of whom promptly leaked it to the press. I felt compelled to use the dissent channel to speak out about what I saw as a hastily developed and ultimately ineffective policy, one that stood in opposition to core American values. Over the days that followed, well over a thousand State Department employees contacted me asking to also sign. Despite a threat from White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to “either get with the program” or go, I never faced any retaliation. Life soon returned to what counts as “normal” in the Trump State Department.

Having duly lodged my dissent, I then watched the administration lurch even further these past two years toward a worldview characterized by bigotry, fear and small-minded chauvinism. Eventually, you circle back to that second, shorter presentation: What of the administration’s policies is there left to defend to foreign audiences, other than a promise that we’re a democracy and that there are future elections to come?

In “The Line Becomes a River,” Francisco Cantú reflects on his four years working as a Border Patrol agent, highlighting that the naïveté of the young and idealistic causes us “to overestimate ourselves and underestimate institutions of power, allowing us to believe that we might work to change them from within, that by witnessing the violence they perpetrate, we might learn to subvert it without participating it in ourselves.” Does dissent relieve you from moral culpability? Do the countless good things you do in your job outweigh telling a 14-year-old victim of sexual violence that her path to refugee status, wide open on Jan. 19, 2017, is now closed?

I publicly supported this administration longer than some and for less time than others, and there are no easy answers to these questions. Every individual has his or her own commitments, own beliefs and own red lines; there is no inherent shame or honor in choosing to work for this administration or not, so long as it is a conscious choice. Some of the most noble work is being done by those who have chosen to stay in the State Department, advocating sensible policies or simply keeping the important bureaucracy of our lead foreign affairs agency running.

But when President Trump’s supporters chanted, “Send her back!,” I took that as a charge for me as well. I asked the Trump administration to send me back from my overseas posting, shipping home the family, foreign language textbooks and various tchotchkes from “shithole countries” that I’ve collected in my years as a United States diplomat. I am joining a growing list of Foreign Service officers who refuse to serve this administration any longer.

No one knows exactly how many employees have left the State Department because of this administration’s policies and mismanagement; for every high-profile or well-publicized resignation, there are other officers who quietly decided it was time to retire, go back to school or find a new line of work. A private Facebook group for Foreign Service officers contemplating a career change has moved in the past year from a place for hushed and agonized conversations to a bustling job board with new members joining daily. Analysts have lamented the loss of senior State Department officials, many of whom were pushed out the door in the first few months of the administration. But no one seems to be paying much attention to the growing exodus of entry-level and midlevel officers, who take with us ground-level expertise that is difficult to replace.

As a Foreign Service officer, your job is to support the administration. Without exception. Despite my personal views, I spent more than two years working to carry out the administration’s immigration and foreign policy priorities. I continued to do so until the very minute I handed in my badge and headed to the airport.

But on Friday, I cleared immigration and officially returned to life as a private citizen. And today I have a new challenge: putting my time and energy into helping elect new leadership that serves the true interests of all Americans, regardless of where they were born.


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