Sounding the Alarm on State Department Staffing

The president of the American Foreign Service Association, Ambassador Barbara Stephenson, has sounded the alarm over what she describes as an effort by the Trump administration to weaken the Department of State (DOS) by slashing staffing, leaving senior management positions unfilled, and freezing hiring for new entry level officers.  This will severely undermine State’s ability to represent America’s interests.  Is it any wonder, as Ambassador Stephenson points out, that in 2017 only about 8000 individuals took the challenging Foreign Service exam—less than half the number (more than 17,000) who took the same exam in 2016?

I served as a consular officer for many years myself. I know the strength and value of America’s Foreign Service. I recognize that  some may not be all that troubled by this assault on State.  After all, immigration attorneys, especially those who do a lot of consular processing work, have received consular decisions that seemed arbitrary, poorly founded on the law, or even spiteful.  However, what’s going on in Foggy Bottom should unsettle even those who have complaints with agency practices.

If we are honest with ourselves, we should respect and admire the work that visa officers and managers perform under difficult, and sometimes dangerous, high-stress conditions. We may not always agree with the visa decisions consuls reach, but most of us would prefer those decisions be made by highly talented, intelligent, and dedicated Foreign Service officers than by anyone else.

That’s because we know that the visa process is not simply a clerical one. It is one of the most important platforms we have to influence opinions and attitudes about the United States in other countries and advance our national interests. Congress mandated that DOS, not the Department of Homeland Security, manage the visa process because it has long been understood that the act of determining who gets to come to the U.S. touches on a wide range of issues: border security, certainly, but also human rights, economic policy and growth, cultural exchange, and sensitive bilateral and multilateral foreign policy concerns.  Every single U.S. administration in modern times has recognized the crucial role that a career diplomatic and consular service charged with administering our visa laws and regulations plays in projecting America’s soft power—until now.

That’s why Ambassador Stephenson’s column should set off all kinds of alarm bells for us. As she points out, the ability of DOS to carry out one of its core objectives—administering the visa process—is being fundamentally weakened by the administration’s effort to reduce the agency’s staff, importance, and influence.

The evisceration of the agency in the name of greater operational efficiency will not achieve that goal. In fact, when it comes to the visa function, it will have the opposite effect. Make no mistake about it, our clients will suffer from a diminished DOS.  This is already happening. Fewer new officers to adjudicate visas means longer waits for visa appointments; fewer skilled consular managers mean less oversight, and more cursory adjudications by vice consuls who may feel empowered to play a law enforcement role rather than the administrative and diplomatic one. Vacancies in top management positions in Foggy Bottom mean that visa policy discussions and decisions in Washington will be dominated by those in other agencies who believe that U.S. interests are not served by facilitating legitimate travel, but by restricting it.

As senior military officers have repeatedly said, effective diplomacy is every bit as essential to national security as a strong military. For example, if the administration decided to slash military spending by 30 percent, it would immediately be criticized for weakening the strength and power of the country, and there would be howls of outrage across the land and on Capitol Hill. Some members of Congress have called out the de facto attack on State, but it has not been enough to stop the process. We in AILA, who have front row seats on the consequences to commerce, cultural exchange, science and families of what is going on quietly in Foggy Bottom, cannot afford to remain silent.

Our colleagues at DOS are not the enemy. They are under attack along a broad front, and their diminishment will be devastating to us and to our clients. We need to defend the department’s statutory role in administering the visa process and lend support to those within Congress who understand that the balance between border security and facilitating legitimate travel is increasingly out of whack. We need to work together with universities, hospitals, corporations and churches to push back against efforts to hollow-out the agency, and lend support to media efforts that highlight the adverse impact the administration’s assault on DOS and its personnel is already having on our neighbors, business associates, religious community, family members, and friends. And lastly, we need to let our DOS colleagues know that, while we don’t always agree with them, we have their back when fighting against the ill-advised efforts of the administration to reduce their role and influence.

In the coming days, AILA will be sharing information with its members about how to engage on this front. I urge all of you to stay informed, keep this issue front and center, and take action. America will benefit.

by Stephen Pattison