During my first Friday at work, the network went down. No internet means that Visa Section operations at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City (in its entirety, more or less) come to a halt.
You may have heard that Harry Potter got stuck in Canada this summer and arrived a day late to Comic-Con. That's because for ten days Consular activities--primarily, the issuance of passports and visas--worldwide were interrupted by a system glitch. To put this in perspective: only 38 of 195 countries recognized by the U.S. Department of State do not need visas to travel to the United States for tourism or business under 90 days. Those 38 countries do not include China, India, Brazil, or Mexico--four of the largest Consular sections in the world.
Each day, there is a new protest at the Ángel de la Independencia which causes the Regional Security Office to send a warning email to all Embassy employees. Each day there is a new challenge--power outages, downed networks, nonfunctional computer systems. Each day there is a new acronym to learn--CAS, ACS, 214B, 6C1, CBP, EFM, G, and at least twenty more. While there are not catastrophes every day, ultimately, no day is the same at State.
At 7:15 a.m. each weekday morning, I walk five minutes to the bus stop from the apartment I am sharing with a Foreign Service Officer (FSO). I report to my desk, which is smack dab in the middle of the Visa Section, promptly at 8 a.m. On one side of me sit locally employed staff (LES) and on the other sit a group of first- and second-tour (FAST) Consular Officers. Most days you can find me at my desk punching away at my keyboard. My primary job as a Visa Section intern is research. Since the Consular Officers are busy interviewing, then approving or denying visa cases, the Visa Section doesn't have the staff to research and write State Department cables to update Washington about visa statistics and reports at the Embassy in Mexico City.
I have been focusing the majority of my energy this summer on researching Mexican tourism to the United States. My research has led me from information on local U.S. city and state tourism to resources from the Mexican Secretary of Tourism (SECTUR). Local data from processed visa applications has allowed me to analyze an average tourist visa (B1/B2/BBBCC) applicant--their gender, age, monthly income, and hometown, among other categories. Even though my internship has not yet ended, I have already been able to recognize the value of the liberal arts education I have received at W&L thus far. Thanks to the C-School, which requires every major to take INTR201, I am one of the only interns at the Embassy with an effective control of Microsoft Excel. (A note to future C-School majors: I'm not kidding, take INTR seriously.)
My desk is close enough to the windows of the Non-Immigrant Visa (NIV) Pavilion that I can occasionally eavesdrop on visa interviews, but not close enough that the chitchat is distracting. One of the managers of the Visa Section also sits about fifteen feet away from me. One of my favorite morning-time hobbies is to listen in on her discussions with Consular Officers who come to her with questions about peculiar (or just plain crazy) visa cases.
For the most part, Consular work entails issuing visas and helping Americans when they end up in some sort of trouble (or jail) abroad. It is known as the least glamorous work in the Foreign Service, but I've found that visa interviews are one of the most fascinating aspects of the job. I don't think there's a better way to understand a foreign country than to talk to the people that live there--and that is exactly what visa interviews are.
Where do you want to travel? Why? When are you traveling? Have you ever traveled outside of Mexico? With whom are you traveling? Who is paying for your trip? What does that person do for a living? What do you do for a living? Are you married or single? Do you have any kids? Do you have family in the United States? Have you ever had any trouble with the law or immigration?
On my second day at the Embassy, I was the solicitante del día (Applicant of the Day). I waited in the lines and received a visa interview like all the other visa applicants. And it was slightly terrifying. On my third day at the Embassy, I observed visa interviews from behind the window. Applicants trying to shove any potentially relevant forms or envelopes through the tiny slot to prove that they are solvent, respectable Mexican citizens (for safety purposes, Consular Officers are instructed not to accept additional forms from applicants unless they ask for them). It costs $160USD ($2103MXN) for a visa interview--not the visa. To a poor family who are simply trying to visit their sick family member in the States, that's an entire month's income.
Consular Officers are faced with tough decisions every day. Section 214(b) of the United States Immigration and Nationality Act requires that Consular Officers must assume that every visa applicant intends to leave his or her home country and immigrate to the United States. Every day there are a lot of borderline applicants: a well-off young woman who is married to a legal permanent resident (LPR) of the U.S. who wishes to travel to see him; an old woman who owns few assets in Mexico who wishes to visit Disneyland with her children. It's a job that takes an objective eye while being able to refuse applicants in a compassionate way.
My experience in Mexico has been unlike any other experience I've had at W&L. Although I am just an intern in a large organization, I received the same responsibility that is placed on any other FSO: representing the United States of America abroad. I have worked with English speakers and Spanish speakers, with coworkers my age and ones that are twice my age. Along the way, I got to know a little bit about each section of the Embassy through our Intern Programming. I even met a W&L alum at the Embassy.
When I first came to Mexico, I had an estadounidense point of view that led me to believe Mexico City was plagued with drug violence and machismo men--a problematic and terrifying environment for a young woman. My time at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City allowed me to experience life in Mexico City and ultimately come to the conclusion that it's as safe as any large U.S. city. Observing visa interviews and touring the many museums has also exposed me to the diversity of Mexico's rich cultural and historical roots. My experience in Mexico has only confirmed my love of and interest in Latin America (it was probably the tacos del pastor that did the trick) and solidified my desire for an international piece in whatever career I choose to pursue.