A day in the life of a diplomat
I’ve been in Berlin for over two months. I haven’t been anywhere outside of the city limits, thanks to COVID, and I’ve adjudicated about a thousand visas, which sounds like a lot but is much fewer than normal, also due to COVID. I have a decent understanding of what consular work is like so now I can finally write “A day in the life of the U.S. Vice Consul: Berlin edition.”
8:00 AM — Biking to work
I arrive on my bike at the U.S. Consulate, located in a beautiful green area in the suburbs of Berlin. I always ride my bike because it gives me freedom (except to wear a skirt) and I live nearby so it’s no effort at all. I let myself in through a series of immensely heavy doors—entering a U.S. overseas mission is no joke.
I’ve already seen a small crowd standing in front of the visitor gate. Some of these folks will show up at my window for a visa interview 20 minutes from now, while others are U.S. citizens coming to renew a passport, to register a new baby, or perhaps to renounce their citizenship—although that usually only happens right after general elections, when some people get so angry they’re willing to pay a hefty fee to disassociate themselves from the new administration.
8:30 AM — Non-stop interviewing
By now I’ve had a cup of coffee, logged into the PC at my window, and scanned the list of today’s appointments. My more experienced colleagues don’t look at it but I don’t like surprises. I want to know if I should quickly brush up on requirements for certain visa classes. I also check if there are third-country nationals applying for whom our rules are different than for Germans.
While the consular section’s local staff does the intake of the applicants I start interviewing one person after the next. Because of the Visa Waiver Program program Germans traveling to the U.S. for tourism or business don’t need visas, but that still leaves tons of students, journalists, scholars, retirees, athletes, pilots, sailors, engineers, investors, au pairs, executives, and artists to interview.
Most of the interviews take place in English because, let’s be honest, the average German applicant’s English is better than my German. Also, a good chunk of the applicants come from other countries and English is the only language we share. But it’s not like my German study doesn’t come in useful—there are definitely applicants that don’t speak English and much of the correspondence and documentation I see is in German too.
Interviewing involves asking good questions and making good decisions quickly, which isn’t always easy. The U.S. immigration law is a behemoth of rules, exceptions, and ineligibilities. We’re not expected to know it by heart but, then again, it’s better if you do. And what really puts the pressure on is the time constraint. There is only time to speak to each applicant for a few minutes.
Luckily, I don’t have to deny visas very often. Every day I see applicants who take a little bit of extra work but it doesn’t always lead to a firm “no” because they usually qualify for the visa. This is very different from what I’ve heard and experienced in other countries—it’s a luxury I probably won’t fully appreciate until I don’t have it anymore.
11:30 AM — Office meeting
I’m done interviewing. Interviewing makes me extremely hungry so as soon as it’s over I log off and run to the snack drawer in my desk. I rethink the mornings cases and talk to my colleagues about how everything went, if we have any afternoon appointments, requests for expedited pick-ups, etc.
1:00 PM— Back office
Following a lunch with my husband at the nearest sushi/noodles/falafel joint (if I’m lucky) or with microwaved leftovers (if I’m unlucky) I head back to my desk for some back office work that involves checking databases, requesting additional documentation from applicants, and looking into various sections of the immigration law in the State Department’s elaborate “manual.” I email and chat with colleagues at other posts and desk officers in Washington regarding questions, special requests, trends, system errors, etc.
3:00 PM — Special projects (COVID)
Currently I have little time for special projects, like doing consular outreach to encourage travel to the United States without violating our rules, although in a place like Germany it doesn’t feel particularly urgent. The Germans are pretty well informed and the ties between our countries are already strong due to a long colorful history, a high level of economic interdependence, and a general sense that we may not always love each other but we certainly need each other.
In Germany there’s not the obvious challenge or adventure when it comes to consular work I‘ve experienced in other places, like in Nigeria or Pakistan, but that’s okay. At least I get to live in Germany for two years and frankly, COVID is making the work challenging enough at the moment.
Most of my afternoons are swallowed up by tedious new administrative tasks created to stop the spread of COVID-19 and control more tightly who is traveling to the U.S. right now. The number of emails reaching the consulates in Germany has doubled—from visa holders, from Congress, and from others who have urgent questions regarding travel. We have to assess on a case-by-case basis who, precisely, qualifies under our laws anymore, which leads to outlandish discussions about how, for example, foreign stuntmen are good for the U.S. economy and where, precisely, to draw the line between travel for humanitarian purposes and saving a little bit of money.
5:00 PM — Empty office
I’ve had my fill of passports, emails, immigration laws, and malfunctioning software for the day. Sometimes it’s tempting to stick around to solve one more case, or to read a cable from my colleagues in the political section, but by now the office is deserted and I feel like I should go home. Everyone in my office comes in early and leaves on time every day. So far, I’ve never stayed past 5:30, which is excellent for work-life balance.
On my way out I see the number of interviews for the next day displayed on a whiteboard with the help of cheerful refrigerator magnates. It’s says 32, which is a far cry from the 150 we apparently used to do before the pandemic. Strange times.