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The Silence of the American Embassy

Earlier this summer I had a question about the validity of AAH’s passport for traveling to the US, because as most people know the US is now making it extra difficult for people to pass through its borders, imposing strict requirements for the types of passports needed, etc.

So I logged onto the Embassy website, www.usa.is, and perused through everything there, but still didn’t find the answer to my question. So I picked up the phone and dialled their number, only to discover that they weren’t open that day – it was the fourth of July. Fair enough. Instead I put my enquiry in an email, using the address for the consular section I found on the website, and sent it off.

By the end of the following week I still hadn’t received a response, so I picked up the phone again. This time they were open, and I was greeted with an automated answering system. After diligently wading through about five different prompts, and being repeatedly reminded to check their website which – supposedly – contained all the information I needed, I arrived at a taped message telling me that telephone hours were between two and four on weekdays only. It was 11 am.

Not content with waiting any longer for an answer, I simply called Icelandic immigration, which issues our passports, and asked them. I had the answer to my question within sixty seconds – and promptly put the Embassy’s lack of responsiveness out of my mind.

Then last month it so happened that I had another question that required an answer from the American Embassy. Again I waded through their website and found information similar to what I needed, but which still needed some clarification. Not in the mood to sit through their myriad automated telephone promts one more time, I put my query in an email and sent it off to the consular section.

A week passed, and there was no response.

On my perusal through their website, I had come across this friendly little clause: We know that the world of passports, visas, and emergency services can be confusing, even intimidating. The Consular staff is here to help make sense of it and to ensure our clients receive knowledgeable, efficient service. We welcome your feedback and suggestions.

Marvellous! Delighted by the knowledge that the Embassy welcomed my feedback and suggestions, and convinced of their sincerity, I sent a polite enquiry to their Executive Office with a cc to the consular section, asking if they could please tell me what their policy was in responding to emails, since I had sent one enquiry to the consular section at the beginning of July, and another about a week earlier, and I had not had a response to either.

Nothing.

So now I have now sent three emails – no, four, actually – to the American Embassy in the space of two months, and it has been silent as the grave. Not one of my enquiries has received a response.

It’s infuriating – but unsurprising. All of my dealings with the American Embassy as one of the little people have been in a similar vein. I say ‘as one of the little people’ because I have also had dealings with them as a member of the ‘elitist’ diplomatic community, have attended cocktail parties there on a couple of occasions, and I know that this is an entirely different experience. While a certain select few are invited to hob-knob with the Embassy’s staff and their preferred guests, drinking wine and eating canapes, the Jane and John Does of this world appear to be treated with something vaguely like contempt.

EPI’s daughter felt the sting of this last summer when applying for a visa to work as an au pair in the States. Having waded through the same telephone answering prompts as I did, she pressed what she thought was the button for the consular section but for some reason got the switchboard. Somewhat astonished, she said to the woman on the other end, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought the consulate section had telehpone hours now,” at which the receptionist snapped, “Well, I’m talking to you now, aren’t I?” Charming.

A number of years ago, just after I had moved to Iceland, I decided to apply for a job advertised at the Embassy. The filling out of the application was a colossal task – it required an excruciating amount of detail about my travels and activities over the previous decade, as well as references etcetera – all of which I dutifully provided to the best of my ability. It took ages to fill out – and in the end I received no response. No letter of confirmation that they had received my application, no we’re sorry but the position has been filled. Nothing.*

A friend of our family, who happens to be one of the most promising concert pianists Iceland has produced and who is currently working on his MFA at Juilliard, recently went to the Embassy to renew his visa [he’s been at Juilliard for several years, having done his undergraduate degree there also]. He arrived three minutes early for his appointment, and was told to wait outside. On the sidewalk. The renewal required him to fill out a form that sounded even more detailed than my job application [note bene my application was before 9/11] – all about his travels and activities over the previous decade, etcetera.

The question that springs to my mind is … who reads and verifies all that information? Surely there are thousands of people around the world applying for visas to the US every day, writing down an endless amount of details – do they have people checking all those details? Does anyone even read them? Or is this just a way to intimidate and scare people – the hard-copy version of being made to wait outside on the sidewalk, or not being granted the courtesy of having your emails answered?

The bizarre thing is, I think most Americans – at least those I know – disapprove of the type of intimidation and contempt for regular citizens propagated by their foreign service and their government. At the end of the day it’s sad that the majority has to suffer the consequences of a policy that can only breed animosity and resentment. Because unfortunately that’s what it does.

WET, OVERCAST, SLIGHTLY FOGGY
That’s what the weather looks like from my window. There’s hardly a breeze blowing, and I think it’s quite mild, and I’m about to get my Gore-tex on and head for the seashore for some fresh air. Temps 12°C [54F] and sunrise was at
6:23 am, sunset due for 8:27 pm.

* In view of this, perhaps it’s not surprising that they seem to have trouble filling vacant positions. Earlier this year ads ran repeatedly in the paper for a security and a protocol officer [… I think] – embarrassingly often, in fact. Evidently people are thinking twice about applying for these jobs.

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  • J October 21, 2008, 12:40 pm

    Sorry you had that kind of experience with the US Embassy. The ‘phone hours’ are the same here in Germany – 2pm -4pm. Quite annoying because everyone calls then and one has to wait forever.

  • SAB January 25, 2009, 8:59 pm

    As a regular U.S. citizen I can assure you that our entire government functions in exactly the same manner, including the distinction between us regular people and those who are somehow preferred through connections or wealth. Trying to get help or information from government agencies is an agonizing process filled with e-mails, phone calls and letters that are never answered or acknowledged.

    Perhaps more frustrating, is that our government is so strident about our “democracy” and how other countries should operate just like us and then remain silent when some populations attempt just that. I’m thinking of the organge revolution in Ukraine and your own demonstrations of this week. Which, by the way have not been reported AT ALL in major newspapers or news television programs. It’s shocking to me but that’s another story…

    We have an almost absolute inability to influence or speak with our government and yet those outside the U.S. seem to believe we actually influence and make some difference beyond electing a new president (and even that is sometimes is fixed, e.g., Bush/Gore election). Anyway, I’m hopeful for your new elections and think that the success of your demonstrating population to avoid escalating conflicts with the police, who are frequently just trying to keep their jobs while used as shields for the corrupt, are an admirable role model for democracy in action.