Emergency Messages During Government Shutdown

A tsunami hit the coastal areas around the Sunda Strait in Indonesia (between the islands of Java and Sumatra) on December 22, 2018. It affected the Pandeglang, South Lampung, and Serang districts (as well as the resort area of Anyer). As of this writing, the tsunami death toll is now 373, with 128 missing and 1,459 injured.

The location of the tsunami is about 108 kilometers from the capital city of Jakarta. The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta (with constituent posts in Surabaya, Medan, and a Consular Agency in Bali) issued a Message to U.S. Citizens: U.S. Embassy Jakarta – Tsunami on the West Coast of Banten and Lampung on Sun, 23 Dec 2018.

The Embassy Alert to U.S. citizens provides the following actions to take and contact information for those requiring assistance:

Actions to Take:

  • Carefully consider travel plans and avoid nonessential travel to tsunami affected areas.
  • Review the Travel Advisory for Indonesia
  • Review information about what to do in the event of a tsunami.
  • Notify friends and family of your well-being.
  • Review information from the Government of Indonesia’s agency for disaster managementhere (Indonesian language only) and here.
  • For regular updates, follow the U.S. Consulate General in Surabaya on Twitter and Facebook and the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta at Twitter and Facebook.

Assistance:  

The Alert message is currently on travel.state.gov and the embassy’s website, but it is not pushed on to social media due to the government shutdown. The State Department’s deputy spox says that they “are not aware of any U.S. citizens directly affected, but stand ready to assist as needed.”

The Alert message suggests that for regular updates people should “follow the U.S. Consulate General in Surabaya on Twitter and Facebook and the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta at Twitter and Facebook.” But those feed are no longer updated regularly due to the lapse in appropriation.

Our Foreign Service posts in Jakarta say “visit @StateDept for updates.” We note of only two official tweets to-date: one tweet from @TravelGov calling the tsunami a “Weather Alert” (though tsunami can be caused by weather when the atmospheric pressure changes very rapidly, this tsunami is believed to have been triggered by an underwater landslide caused by the eruption of the nearby Anak Krakatau volcano), and one tweet from the State Department through the deputy spox. While the multiple deaths and injuries in the Indonesia tsunami did not appear to include American citizens, disasters and calamities (besides the one unfolding in Washington, D.C.) could happen anytime.

See US Embassy Jakarta’s tweet:

One of the last few tweets sent by US Consulate Surabaya was about the tsunami before it announced that its Twitter feed will not be updated due to the lapse in appropriation.

The former strategic planner for the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (R) cited a policy cable from 2013, adopted formally as guidance in the Foreign Affairs Handbook which explicitly states that overseas missions using social media “should continue to do so in a crisis.” https://fam.state.gov/FAM/10FAH01/10FAH010060.html …. He rightfully noted that we are at an era when gov’t communication via social media is expected, particularly from a US embassy during a crisis affecting its host country. We agree that the use of social media to facilitate emergency communications with the public must be a prime consideration, rather than an afterthought. Posts’s feeds were the first place we looked up when we saw the tsunami alert online. We are sure we’re not the only one looking for information.

Just as we were about to post this, Reuters is reporting that Italy’s Mount Etna, Europe’s highest and most active volcano, erupted on December 24, and causing the closure of Catania airport on Sicily’s eastern coast. The social media accounts of US Embassy in Rome and its constituent posts in Florence and Naples have not been updated since the government shutdown took effect on December 22. Consulate Milan appears to be updating with holiday tweets as of nine hours ago. There does not appear to be any update from @StateDept concerning the Etna eruption.

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Visa for Yemeni mother with dying son: Why does it take a public outcry?

Via state.gov, Daily (not-daily, now dubbed Department) Press Briefing with Deputy Spox Palladino:

QUESTION: I want to ask you just briefly – and I know you won’t be able to say a lot – but about this woman, this Yemeni woman who was trying to get here to see her dying son out on the west coast. I understand visa records are confidential, but my question about this is: Why does it always seem to take a public outcry for you guys to do what a lot of people think is the right thing, the humanitarian thing to do?

MR PALLADINO: What I’d say, Matt, is – I mean, I’ve read these reports, and it is a very sad case, and our thoughts go out to this family in this time, this trying time. But I would also add we – that we are governed by the Immigration and Nationality Act, and visa records are confidential. For the latest, they could share information as they see fit, and that’s not something that we’re going to be able to do here from the State Department.

QUESTION: No, I’m not asking you – I’m not – we know what the – that the decision has been made and that she has gotten a waiver, at least according to the family’s lawyers. My question is: Why does it always seem to be – and this is not just this administration. This goes back previous administrations as well, is that in cases like this, it always seems that you guys don’t do what most people think would be the right and humane and humanitarian thing to do until there’s a public outcry about it. What is it about the visa process that makes it so harsh when it comes to situations like this?

MR PALLADINO: These are decided on a case-by-case basis, and we are committed to following United States administration law and ensuring the integrity and security of our country’s borders, and at the same time making every effort to facilitate legitimate travel to the United States. These are not easy questions. These are – we’ve got a lot of Foreign Service officers deployed all over the world that are making these decisions on a daily basis, and they’re trying very hard to do the right thing at all times. 

US Embassy Kinshasa on Ordered Departure For Non-Emergency Staff/Family Members #DRC

On December 14, the State Department issued a Level 3 Travel Advisory for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) urging American travelers to reconsider travel there due to “crime and civil unrest.” The advisory also announced that the Embassy’s non-emergency personnel and their family members were on mandatory evacuation order. 

We’re not sure if the staff/family members will be safehavened in the region or if they were ordered to return to the U.S. We will update if we know more. If you’re in the FS community and in the DC area, you may check with AAFSW; they may need help.  The group runs an Evacuee Support Network that offers assistance to Foreign Service employees and family members evacuated from posts overseas through a dedicated network of volunteers in the Washington, DC area.

Reconsider travel to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) due to crime and civil unrest.  Some areas have increased risk.  Read the entire Travel Advisory.

Do not travel to:

  • Eastern DRC and the three Kasai provinces due to armed conflict.

Violent crime, such as armed robbery, armed home invasion, sexual assault, and physical assault, is common.  Assailants may pose as police or security agents.  Local police lack the resources to respond effectively to serious crime.

Many cities throughout the country experience demonstrations, some of which have been violent.  The government has responded with heavy-handed tactics that have resulted in civilian casualties and arrests.

On December 14, 2018, the Department ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. government employees and family members.

The U.S. government has limited ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens outside of Kinshasa due to extremely limited infrastructure and poor security conditions, notably in eastern DRC and Kasais.

More here: https://cd.usembassy.gov/news-events/

An Embassy Security Alert dated December 16 “strongly urges U.S. citizens to depart the country and take advantage of departing commercial flights.”  The Embassy’s once more emphasized that its ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in the DRC is severely limited, particularly outside of Kinshasa.  It also notes that “elections are scheduled to take place on December 23 and could trigger large-scale demonstrations which could further limit the services of consular staff even in Kinshasa.”

State/OIG: Sustained Failure of Leadership at the National Passport Center

The National Passport Center is located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. NPC opened in 1992 and this past November, it processed its 100 millionth passport application. Below excerpted from State/OIG’s report,  Targeted Review of Leadership and Management at the National Passport Center:

Backgrounder: NPC, the largest of 29 passport-processing agencies and twice the size of the next largest, issued 7.4 million passports in FY 2017, or 38 percent of all passports issued by the U.S. Government from October 2016 to September 2017. Located in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the center was created in 1992, and it grew from 60 employees at its founding to approximately 900 following a 2007 surge in passport demand.

At the time of the inspection, NPC’s staff consisted of a GS-15 Director, 6 GS-14 Assistant Directors, 16 GS-13 Adjudication Managers, and 57 GS-12 Supervisory Passport Specialists who supervised approximately 350 Passport Specialists. Additional staff included Customer Service and Fraud
Prevention employees, Passport Operations Officers, and over 400 contractors who were responsible for passport production and other support services. NPC operates two flexible shifts, which together cover 22 hours per day Monday through Friday. In addition, depending on workload, NPC scheduled overtime shifts on Saturday and Sunday.

Work Environment and CA/PPT Leadership: Senior leaders in CA’s Office of Passport Services (CA/PPT) were aware of concerns regarding NPC’s work environment since at least 2013, when several NPC employees made allegations against NPC leadership. The employees alleged harassment, “bullying,” a lack of trust in leadership, favoritism, abusive behavior to employees, improper hiring procedures, and an overall lack of transparency in the operations of the organization. In response to the allegations, CA/PPT instructed the Director of the Northeast Regional Office, who oversees NPC and other passport agencies, to conduct an internal review of NPC, which he did in January and February 2014. […] To address the internal review’s findings, CA/PPT ordered extensive executive coaching and training for NPC’s Director and senior leaders. The training lasted approximately 2 years and ended in 2016.

How not to solve the problem: OIG also determined that CA/PPT and NPC senior leaders were disengaged and, based on OIG interviews, generally aware of concerns regarding harassment, abuse, and misconduct. During OIG’s review, CA/PPT senior leaders told OIG that they blamed some of the issues at NPC on the fact that employees have known each other for a long time, dismissing the allegations as grudges held from high school and referring to employees as “crusty New Englanders.” CA/PPT’s senior leaders moreover acknowledged inappropriate behavior at NPC, but hoped that “being really busy would solve the problem.”

Being really busy is their hopeful solution? Good lord, who are these people? Are they available to work their magic wand as WH chiefs of staff?

It works! OIG Hotline Complaints: Between February and May 2018, OIG received a series of hotline complaints alleging misconduct, harassment, retaliation, and unfair hiring practices at NPC. […] Hundreds of NPC employees reported to OIG that retaliation, harassment, and “bullying” pervaded the work environment at NPC. OIG found that the reported behavior was widespread and was either condoned or perpetrated by nearly all levels of NPC leadership. Seventeen percent (91) of NPC employees who responded to OIG’s survey reported that they had experienced or observed discrimination and harassment. Of the 156 NPC employees OIG interviewed, 54 (35 percent) stated that they had experienced or observed retaliation, 80 (51 percent) stated that they had experienced or observed harassment, and 61 (39 percent) stated that they had experienced or observed discrimination.

Employees reported to OIG multiple instances of perceived or possible retaliation by Assistant Directors, Adjudication Managers, and other Supervisory Passport Specialists in denying awards, promotions, and special assignments.

Multiple employees reported incidents of sexual and gender-based harassment to OIG, which in some cases, had been ongoing, widely known, and accepted as part of the center’s culture.

Holy Guacamole Alert! NPC’s already problematic workplace environment was exacerbated by the fact that communication was ineffective at all levels within NPC. […] One example of poor communication was the lack of a formal and effective process for explaining and interpreting new guidance with Passport Specialists. When CA/PPT Office of Adjudication (CA/PPT/A) issued new or updated adjudication-specific guidance, its implementation instructions to passport agencies stated that Adjudication Managers must meet with Passport Specialists to discuss the guidance, answer questions, and ensure everyone understands how to implement the new guidance.10 However, NPC’s Adjudication Managers consistently and affirmatively refused to meet with Passport Specialists. 

You read that part above and you think that’s just bonkers. If they’re not meeting regularly to discuss new passport guidance, how would they know if the guidance they have is already outdated?

Security Procedures: In the course of examining the leadership and communication issues described previously, OIG also learned that NPC did not comply with all required Department security procedures. Specifically […] NPC did not follow facility access control measures that govern employee entry and exit, creating an opportunity for individuals without approved access to enter the building.

Admonishment from CA/PPT senior leader and NPC managers: OIG also notes that, after its site visit, a CA/PPT senior leader visited NPC. According to an information memo CA prepared for the Deputy Secretary following the visit, the CA/PPT senior leader communicated  to NPC employees that the Department does not tolerate retaliation. However, OIG subsequently received complaints that CA/PPT senior leaders and NPC managers admonished staff for complaining to and speaking with OIG.

We should note that the OIG report does not include the names of the senior leaders at CA/PPT or the managers at NPC but they’re on LinkedIn, is that right? Please don’t make them lead the Consular Leadership Day festivities next year, hookay?

US Embassy Kinshasa Remains Closed to the Public For Sixth Day Over Terror Threat #DRC

 

On December 2, the US Embassy Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo announced that it will be closed to the public again due to a terrorist threat against USG facilities in the capital city. Below is part of the announcement:

The U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa is working closely with the Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo to address a terrorist threat against USG facilities in Kinshasa.  The U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa will be closed to the public on Monday, December 3.

 Actions to Take:

·        Maintain a heightened level of vigilance and practice good situational awareness.

·         Monitor local media for updates.

·         Keep a low profile and notify friends and family of your safety.

·         Review the country page  and remain alert for potentially dangerous situations.

US Embassy Kinshasha previously “received credible and specific information of a possible terrorist threat against U.S. Government facilities in Kinshasa” on November 24, 2018. It initially closed to the public with only minimal staffing on Monday, November 26, 2018.

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Snapshot: Student and Exchange Visitor Visas-Issuances/Refusals (2012-2017)

Via GAO | August 2018:

There are three categories of nonimmigrant visas for prospective students and exchange visitors. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement administers the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, under which schools are certified for enrollment of foreign students (i.e., F and M visa holders) pursuing academic, vocational, or other nonacademic studies. The Department of State’s Exchange Visitor Program manages the issuance of J visas to exchange visitors with programs for foreign nationals such as teachers, certain scholars, au pairs, camp counselors, and professorial programs. Foreign nationals on F, M, or J visas in the United States are monitored through U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System.

  • F Student in an academic or language training program and their dependents.
  • J Exchange visitor and their dependents.
  • M Vocational student or other nonacademic student and their dependents.

Top 5 nationalities (FY 2017): Chinese 19%, Indian 10%, Korean 4%,  Vietnamese 4%,  Brazilian, 3%

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Snapshot: NIV Adjudications For Student and Exchange Visitor Visas, FY2012-2017

Via GAO:

NIV adjudications for student and exchange visitor visas decreased by about 2 percent from fiscal years 2012 through 2017 (1.01 million to 993,000) overall, but experienced a peak in fiscal year 2015 of 1.2 million.

State officials partly attributed the overall changes in student and exchange visitor visa adjudications to the extension of the validity period of such visas for Chinese nationals, which represented the largest single country of nationality for student and exchange visitor visas in fiscal year 2017 (19 percent). In November 2014, the United States extended the validity period of the F visa for academic students from 1 year to 5 years. State officials noted that similar to tourist and business visitor visas, there was an initial surge in Chinese F-visa applicants due to the new 5-year F-visa validity period that began in fiscal year 2015, but the number dropped subsequently because Chinese students with such 5-year visas no longer needed to apply as frequently for F visas. State data for this time period indicate that the number of visa adjudications for F visas for Chinese nationals increased from about 267,000 in fiscal year 2014 to 301,000 in fiscal year 2015, followed by a decline of 172,000 in fiscal year 2016 and 134,000 in fiscal year 2017.

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Oh, don’t forget to give this a read. WH considered ban for Chinese students? They make up 19% of all student visas issued in FY2017.

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Snapshot: Nonimmigrant Visa (NIV) Refusals/Issuances FY2012-2017

Via GAO:

The percentage of NIVs refused—known as the refusal rate—increased from fiscal years 2012 through 2016, and was about the same in fiscal year 2017 as the previous year. As shown in figure 8, the NIV refusal rate rose from about 14 percent in fiscal year 2012 to about 22 percent in fiscal year 2016, and remained about the same in fiscal year 2017; averaging about 18 percent over the time period. As a result, the total number of NIVs issued peaked in fiscal year 2015 at about 10.89 million, before falling in fiscal years 2016 and 2017 to 10.38 million and 9.68 million, respectively.

 

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US Embassy Santo Domingo: Man Pleads Guilty to One Count of Bribery of a Public Official

On September 14, USDOJ announced that Luis Santos of New Jersey pleaded guilty to bribing a State Department employee.  Santos admitted to paying $2,381 to a U.S. Consular Adjudicator at the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo.

Bergen County, New Jersey, Man Admits Bribing State Department Employee

TRENTON, N.J. – A Bergen County, New Jersey, man today admitted giving a bribe to an employee of the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito announced.

Luis Santos, 37, of Teaneck, New Jersey, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Michael A. Shipp in Trenton federal court to an information charging him with one count of bribery of a public official.

According to documents filed in the case and statements made in court:

Santos paid $2,381 to a U.S. Consular Adjudicator in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, to favorably handle and review non-immigrant visas, which allowed individuals from the Dominican Republic to apply for entry into the United States.

The bribery charge carries a maximum potential penalty of 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 18, 2018.

U.S. Attorney Carpenito credited special agents of the U.S Department of State Diplomatic Security Service with the investigation leading to today’s guilty plea.

The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen D. Stringer of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Special Prosecutions Division in Newark.

Defense counsel: Thomas Ambrosio Esq., Lyndhurst, New Jersey

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Based on court filings (PDF), a cooperating witness (“CW”) was employed by the State Department as a U.S Consular Adjudicator in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

2. From on or about September 22, 2017 to on or about March 9, 2018, SANTOS contacted the CW via WhatsApp and solicited the CW to participate in a bribery and fraud scheme, whereby SANTOS would pay money to the CW in exchange for the CW favorably handling and adjudicating fraudulent NIVs.

3. Throughout in or about February 2018, SANTOS sent the CW, via WhatsApp messaging, the names and appointment confirmations for five NIV Applicants, all of whom had interviews scheduled with the U.S. Consulate in Santo Domingo in or about March 2018 ( collectively, the “March Applicants”). SANTOS offered to pay the CW $500 for each fraudulent NIV issued to one of the March Applicants.

4. On or about February 25, 2018, SANTOS and the CW met in Hoboken, New Jersey (the “Hoboken Meeting”). During that meeting, which was consensually recorded by law enforcement, SANTOS confirmed that the March Applicants would pay $1,000 each for their fraudulent NIVs, and that the money would be split three ways, with a portion going to the CW in exchange for the CW favorably reviewing and adjudicating the five NIVs.

5. Law enforcement arranged for the issuance of what appeared to be genuine visas for the March Applicants. Accordingly, when each of the March Applicants appeared for their respective interviews, they were informed that their applications had been approved.

6. On or about March 9, 2018, SANTOS caused a relative in the Dominican Republic to wire $2,380.95 ($2,500 less the transfer service processing fee) to the CW via a money transferring service in exchange for the approval of NIVs for the five March Applicants.

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US Embassy Costa Rica Sub-Contractor Gets 30 Months For Stealing USG Funds #VisaFees

This past July, we blogged about US Embassy Costa Rica’s sub-contractor who leaded guilty to the theft of visa fees (see What did we miss?).  On September 7, USDOJ announced that the contractor, Mauricio Andulo Hidalgo, age 43, of Costa Rica was sentenced to 30 months in prison for theft of government funds.

Via USDOJ:

Charleston, South Carolina —- United States Attorney Sherri A. Lydon announced today that Mauricio Andulo Hidalgo, age 43, of Costa Rica, was sentenced to a term of 30 months in prison by the United States District Court in Charleston for stealing from the United States Government.

Hidalgo previously pled guilty to Theft of Government Funds, a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 641.  United States District Judge Patrick Michael Duffy, of Charleston, imposed the sentence, which also includes three years of supervised release and mandatory restitution.

Evidence presented at a change of plea hearing established that Hidalgo used his position as President of SafetyPay-Central America to steal over $293,832 of government funds that were supposed to be transferred to a bank account maintained by the Department of State’s Global Financial Services Center in Charleston.  SafetyPay-Central America had been hired as a subcontractor to handle the processing of visa application fees for the United States Embassy in Costa Rica.  As part of the scheme, Hidalgo diverted the funds from a SafetyPay bank account in Costa Rica to another Costa Rican account under his sole control.

The case was investigated by special agent Katherine Kovacek of the Department of State/Office of Inspector General, which is led by Inspector General Steve A. Linick.  Assistant United States Attorneys Marshall “Matt” Austin and Nathan Williams both of the Charleston Office prosecuted the case.

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