Monday, August 29, 2011

Making Assumptions: Visas

by Jane M. La Barbera, CAE, Managing Director, Association of American Law Schools

Making arrangements for visas for professors located around the world has been an eye opening and educational experience. In 2004 we had an international conference in the US and we had such trouble bringing non-US professors to the conference. We were frustrated with the difficulty of inviting these well-respected leaders to the US.

As the years continued, in every country where we held a conference we faced difficulty in bringing conference delegates from developing countries. I blamed the delegates, assuming that they waited until the last minute to obtain their visas. This caused a mad scramble of activity weeks and days before the meeting dates even though we had issued the letters of invitations many months before. Usually, the consulate asked for more information at the last minute and we had to have the host university issue all communications on their letterhead in their language to the consulate. At this point, airfares were much higher in cost and hotel rooms might not be available.

It was a conversation with a distinguished African professor that enlightened me about my perspective on visas. She said that obtaining visas was another privilege of which those from developed countries were easily given and we had no clue as to the experience of someone from a developing country. She explained that while she and many of her colleagues from developing countries would request the visa as soon as the months in advance conference invitation was received, the consulates often did not act on these visa requests until the very last minute. Conference delegates would have to rush to obtain and complete all visa documents in order as soon as the invitation arrived, then constantly contact the consulate to see if the visa had been processed and they would be told over and over that it was being processed, if they received an answer at all.

In addition, many countries do not have consulates or embassies in every country or there might be one location in a very large country. We paid for a Senegal delegate to fly and stay in the US to obtain the visa from the Argentinian consulate (where the conference was to be held), rather than have them fly to a nearby African country to obtain the visa. Why? First, the consulate in the other African country was not open every day; we could fly this individual to that country and we could not rely that the consulate would see them on a timely basis because those from the country where the consulate was located would have first priority to be seen. To my surprise, it was cheaper to have the individual fly to the US, where they could attend another conference, go to the Argentinian Consulate in the US, make an appointment to fill out the application and have it processed before she left the US. It was also more reliable.

I am constantly reminded, especially, in the international arena, of uninformed assumptions that I make where my experience is limited to the perspective of someone from a privileged developed country.

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