How to Improve America’s Image in the World

In a recent article in Slate, Fred Kaplan summarizes readers’ ideas of how to improve America’s image in the world:

Many readers [point out] the rudeness and paranoia on display at U.S. embassies and customs desks. Americans living in Europe say that some of their friends, even those who studied in American universities, refuse to come here anymore because they’ve been treated so horribly at the airports.

Eric Henry, a doctoral student at Cornell who has spent much time in Shenyang, China, recalls that the U.S. Consulate used to open its libraries, film screenings, and Fourth of July celebrations. Now, he says, the consulate is a “razor-wired compound”; an American friend of his was recently arrested for taking pictures of the front gate. “Expats and Chinese who used to visit the consulate quite regularly now only grouse about the things that used to go on there,” he writes.

Aren’t diplomatic personnel trained to be diplomatic? Of course. In my opinion, the problem isn’t so much rude or paranoid visa officers but instead budgetary, legal, and security concerns that compete with customer-friendliness:

  • BUDGET: On one hand, there’s huge demand for U.S. visas. On the other, there’s a shortage of consular personnel and insufficient facilities. It can take a month or more to book an appointment. Visa sections can be overcrowded. So, harried visa officers need to make decisions based on very brief interviews.
  • LAW: For most temporary visas, U.S. law requires the officer to presume that the applicant is guilty of intending to the U.S. permanently until the applicant proves otherwise. In fact, a significant percentage of the applicants give false information and use fraudulent documents. Still, how would you like a government official to tell you that you’re presumed guilty and that you get only a one-minute interview to prove your innocence?
  • SECURITY: Does it strike you as a fun experience to go through a metal detector, be fingerprinted, be interrogated, and be photographed? All mandatory for visa applicants. I’m not saying that these budgetary, legal, and security concerns aren’t valid. I’m just saying that the visa officers shouldn’t shoulder all the blame for the lack of customer-friendliness in consulates. It’s not enough for Condoleezza Rice to remind the officers to smile and say, “have a nice day.” Not to mention that the 20 to 25% of applicants who are denied temporary visas will probably not recommend the experience to their friends. Seriously, I would be interested in learning more about the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ efforts to improve customer-friendliness if anybody can point me in the right direction.

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