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Working in a visa mill

Updated: 2 days ago

Mumbai has one of the biggest U.S. consular sections in the world and is referred to as a “visa mill” among officers. So far, I’ve completed about seven months in the non-immigrant visa section, which is where we are expected to complete 120 visa interviews per day in about 4 hours. That’s 30 interviews per hour, or two minutes per interview.


Why isn’t this driving me crazy yet?! Officers cope with the workload in different ways—some people really dislike it and focus on other projects that feel more rewarding and career enhancing whenever they have time. Others see it as an interesting challenge and do even more than 120 interviews, thereby compensating for colleagues with less enthusiasm or speed. Ultimately, I guess it’s true that a person can get used to almost anything.


Part of the reason all diplomats manage to put up with adjudicating so many visas, even if it takes time to get used to it, has to do with motivation—keeping your energy level up and approaching the work with a desire to do it well. Another part is practice and technique. Also, there are a number of circumstances that lighten the load, like training days, side-projects, changing roles and responsibilities, work travel, and days off.


Technique & practice


The officers that came before me developed an impressive amount of tools to make visa adjudication easier. For example, we barely have to type case notes anymore or click buttons because it’s automated with AutoHotKeys. Our software applications have been updated so we can check the most relevant information about an applicant in the blink of an eye. Research-based reports tell us what to look out for and what to let go. Sometimes I know an applicant is qualified after looking at their application for five seconds and asking only one question. It’s the applicants that aren’t clearly qualified that take more time.


Repetition also helps getting faster. Although there are always surprise cases, I soon realized there’s a finite amount of reasons why people want to travel to the US. Large swaths of applicants are easily issuable because they check all the boxes and there are no red flags. Students, crew members, software engineers, parents of US citizens—they all tend to say the same things. We know exactly what to look out for and as a result, we can easily issue or deny most applicants in a minute or two.


Also, when a family of five shows up at your “window” it counts as five interviews, even though it really only feels like one, so that saves a lot of time.


Days off


We get a decent amount of time off from work. In addition to the annual leave we accrue each pay period (four, six or eight hours) we get all the federal US holiday off plus 10 local holidays. This means almost half of the weeks are actually 4-day work weeks and translates to a minimum of 33 days off per year for beginners and 40 days per year after three years of service, which is eight weeks worth.


Visa mill = variety


It might sound counter-intuitive that we do anything besides adjudicating visas in a “visa mill” but in fact there are a ton of opportunities to branch out into different types of work. We’re a big mission and with so many officers there’s a lot of thought put into professional development, process improvement, increasing diversity and equality (DEIA) and social events. In Mumbai, we even organize sports competitions, perform arts together, and dress up for special holidays. I get more action and variety now compared to when I worked in the small Berlin consular section where we were often short-staffed and the team was less culturally diverse.


Change in work responsibilities


It always feels like time flies because we rotate to different portfolios and different units in the consular section once or twice a year. For example, in Mumbai I’ve just spent 10 months in the immigrant visa section, where we only average about 20-25 interviews per day and the time pressure is less. We still work hard, but not at a neck-breaking pace, because it involves more paperwork and the outcomes are almost always positive. Immigrant visas are rarely refused unless there is a glaring problem with the application.


There are also jobs in the consular section that don’t involve visa adjudication, like managing external correspondence and fraud prevention. Managers typically don’t adjudicate (much) and some junior officers adjudicate only part-time and act as visa line managers the rest of the time.


Work travel


We travel for work, too. We do outreach events across our consular district, which sometimes means multiple-day trips. We attend conferences and training workshops in other cities and countries. We visit jailed Americans, do welfare checks on children sometimes, and accompany principals on work trips as note-takers and control officers. As I'm writing this, I'm at a two-week TDY in Kolkata.


A job is a job


I believe that, ultimately, every job more or less comes down to the same thing. There are boring and challenging days, and there’s lots of repetition. You can learn new things constantly or you can get stuck in a rut, it’s your choice. The point is: do you generally feel good about what you do? If so, nevermind the tedious details of your work.


If the job is okay, the only remaining question is: does it allow me to live the lifestyle I want? Being a foreign service officer allows me to live all over the world, take care of my kids, and save money. I’ve heard plenty of private sector people scoff at our government salaries but hey: do they get free housing? I don’t think so. It’s pretty lucrative, especially if your spouse also finds a way to have an income. The retirement package is beyond what you can anywhere else.


The picture below is taken during work hours, shooting a promotional video with our public outreach team.



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