By Allissa Wickham
Going through a visa interview can be a nerve-wracking process, especially if a foreign citizen knows that a company is counting on her to come to the U.S., or relatives are eagerly awaiting her arrival. Law360 offers seven tips to make sure your client feels prepared when she steps up to the consular officer’s window.
Many people might think the visa process ends when a petition is approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, but that’s far from the case. Visa hopefuls must still submit documents to the U.S. Department of State and appear for a visa interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate.
As one former consular officer put it, the interview setting isn’t exactly a “five-star experience,” given its similarity to a “big bank with teller windows that are separated with two inch bullet proof glass.” But just because the setting is stress-filled doesn’t mean your client has to be, thanks to these expert tips.
Paint a Picture of What the Interview Will Be Like
If your client has never set foot inside a U.S. embassy or consulate, it’s good idea to let them know what to expect, according to Loren Locke of Seyfarth Shaw LLP. This is key because when people hear the word “interview,” they tend to picture sitting at a desk and having a conversation, which often isn’t going to be the case, she said.
“Typically, you’re standing at a counter, talking to someone through a big thick piece of glass, and the whole waiting room is right there behind you,” Locke said. “There could be hundreds of people sitting there and looking at your back.”
Walking into the embassy can also be stressful, as it feels like going through a “super strict” airport security screening, according to Jeff Tunis, a former senior consular officer. Tunis recommended not bringing extra devices or items to the embassy, as applicants will likely have to give them up, before being sent to a waiting room, where they might have to wait for up to two hours.
“They should get a good breakfast, they should relax, [and] they should expect to have the wait,” Tunis said.
Attorneys might also want to warn applicants that consular officers aren’t trying to be rude — rather, they’re looking a multiple security screens, and trying to keep interviews on track, experts said. The interview itself only lasts about two to five minutes, and Tunis said at his last post in Jakarta, officers had to handle about 120 interviews each morning.
Newer officers might also be less inclined to make the experience friendly because they’re preoccupied with not providing visas to people who pose security threats, in light of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to Tunis.
Run Through Possible Interview Questions
After describing the interview process, it can be helpful to run through a few practice questions, said Locke, who usually preps visa applicants over the phone for their interviews.
“I usually start with a real softball, such as, ‘why did your company select you for this transfer?’” Locke said.
If a client downplays his abilities — which happens, because not all cultures encourage bragging as much as the U.S. — Locke will tell him that the interview isn’t about being polite, but about showing he meets the legal standard for admission. Clients usually give better responses after being prodded into talking about their achievements and why the company is pushing for them, she said.
“So, usually they take to heart, ‘Let’s try this, the American style answer,'” Locke said. “And on the second try they do much better.”
But coaching clients on exactly what words to say is ill-advised, because it “really freaks people out, and makes them nervous,” she said. Still, Locke encourages her clients not to get too technical when describing their jobs, because consular officers can’t be assumed to have specialized knowledge about their industry.
Bernard Wolfsdorf of Wolfsdorf Rosenthal LLP added that he tells applicants to be truthful with officers, because credibility is key to interview success — although, he also informs clients that admitting to things like drug use can lead to a finding of inadmissibility.
“A good lawyer does not tell a client to lie,” Wolfsdorf said. “It is absurdly stupid to do that, because at the end of the day, these consular officers are very good at spotting liars.”
Make Sure They Have Their Docs in a Row
Consular officers may not look closely at an applicant’s documents, but it’s still good to bring them, attorneys said. These include a passport, proof that the applicant paid her visa fee, an approval notice for work-based visas and a complete copy of the petition that’s already been approved by USCIS, Locke said. It’s also helpful to bring a one- or two-page resume that outlines the applicant’s story, according to Tunis.
Jose Perez, an attorney with Foster, added that it’s important to check an individual consulate or embassy’s website, because some posts require certain items or procedures.
“Each post will have a consular website, and it is obligatory to go to that consular Web page … to see what the U.S. consulate at that particular post is going to look at and require,” Perez said.
And if a client is asked for something that she doesn’t have? Instead of panicking, clients should offer to bring a copy later, or if the document doesn’t exist, offer to provide something similar, according to Locke. For instance, if an officer asks for a deed the client doesn’t have, an applicant could offer to show utility bills, in order to show proof of residence, she said.
Tackle any Potential Language Concerns
If a visa applicant has an accent that could be difficult for an officer to understand, it’s prudent to ask them to slow down while speaking, according to Locke. And if the applicant is struggling with English, and isn’t seeking a visa for a job where English fluency is required, it might be wise to have them ask for an interpreter, Tunis suggested.
“Not only will that clear up the communications, it will also slow the pace of the interview down,” he said, of requesting a translator. “[The officer] will start to see the applicant as a person, and not just as a 1.5-minute block of time that I have to dispose of and move on to the next one.”
Linda Mathews, another former consular officer with roughly 30 years of experience, also noted that prepping a client on vocabulary can be helpful in avoiding linguistic misunderstandings.
Have Applicants Dress for Success and Keep Answers Brief
Attorneys agreed it is important not to forget about the power of looking sharp. Locke tells clients to dress in business attire, and Wolfsdorf emphasized posture — standing respectfully and not putting one’s elbow’s on the consular officer’s window. He also noted that adopting some U.S. mannerisms can play in applicant’s favor.
“I encourage people that the American culture likes to see teeth as a sign of smiling,” he said, adding that a “dour attitude doesn’t work so well.”
When it comes to answering a question, it’s best to give a “meaty sentence,” and leave it at that, according to Locke.
“I recommend, listen carefully to the question, give a complete answer and then stand there in silence,” she said. “But … don’t make it a yes or no answer, because that makes you look kind of evasive, and that’s absolutely not what you want.”
Make Sure You’re Prepared for a Possible Denial
Of course, there’s always the possibility that a visa could be denied. Alec Wilczynski, who also served as a consular officer and now practices with Philip Levin and Associates, suggests having clients get their interviewer’s name, or at least a physical description, in case a complaint needs to be made.
Clients should also write down the questions they were asked and the answers they gave, and request a written denial letter if their case is rejected, according to Wilczynski.
“We do that so that when we have to complain later, which is constant, [we] have something to hang onto,” he said.
As who to complain to, it depends on each embassy or consulate, according to Mathews.
“[It] usually takes a little bit of research to find out who the supervisory consular officer is at the post,” she said. “Or which person up the chain of command might have, for example, the level of training to actual be able to react to what we’re writing them in a proper manner.”
Have Applicants Know Their Materials Cold
Finally, applicants should be very familiar with their materials — such as their online nonimmigrant visa application form, or DS-160 — but they shouldn’t sound like they’re just reciting memorized information, according to attorneys.
“You don’t want to be a robot who’s reciting passages you’ve memorized from your support letter, but you should be able to elaborate on any point in your DS-160 or any point in your supporting paperwork,” Locke said.
Having applicants discuss their jobs with friends or their spouses for an hour a day can be helpful, as can reviewing the company’s support letter while sitting in the consulate’s waiting room, she noted.
“You have complete control over how your present yourself,” said Locke. “And in the eleventh hour, that’s what you can be working on.”