Travel Report: AILA in Athens

by Ashley Emerson Mendoza

Every year, the Rome District Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) holds a conference outside of the US. The Rome District Chapter is mainly composed of AILA members from the US, Europe, and Africa and specifically focuses on the visa application process and related consular issues, with an additional focus on outbound immigration (i.e., when US citizens need work or travel visas to Europe and beyond). This year, in March, the Rome District Chapter Conference took place in Athens, Greece.

As a first-time conference attendee and traveler to Greece, and inspired by Protima, Liz, and Jen's own travel reports on conferences in San Francisco, Vermont, and India, respectively, I am thrilled to report on this most recent travel and conference experience!

Day 1 – Arrival
Yassas! I became quite familiar with this Greek greeting during my first visit to this very hospitable country. After landing late at night in Athens, we arrived at the Hotel Grand Bretagne. Located on Constitution Square, it is in the heart of Athens with an unparalleled view of the Parthenon. After a long day of traveling, I was thrilled to put on some slippers and dive into the fluffiest bed I have ever been in.  

Athens and the Acropolis from our hotel rooftop.

Athens and the Acropolis from our hotel rooftop.

Day 2 –Sightseeing
After a sound night’s sleep, I woke up refreshed and ready to explore before the conference started. Traveling with a friend, we struck off towards the Acropolis. On the way, we received a complimentary tour from our very friendly taxi driver. Indeed, we received a very similar tour from nearly every taxi driver we had on our trip! Between the little Greek we knew and the more substantial English our taxi drivers knew, we managed to learn quite a bit of Greek history, such as about the gate to the old city, the Temple of Zeus, and the stadium where the first Olympics were held.

Odeon of Herodes Atticus. I would love to attend an Athens Festival event here someday!

Odeon of Herodes Atticus. I would love to attend an Athens Festival event here someday!

Upon arriving at the Acropolis, the beauty of the natural land formations, plant life, and sunshine put me into a peaceful state of mind. It was easy to understand how the Greeks selected this site to be the great sanctuary of ancient Athens. Dedicated primarily to its patron, the goddess of Athena, Acropolis means “Summit City.” Each and every structure in the Acropolis was striking in a different way. One of my favorites was The Erechtheion, dedicated to Athena Polias and Poseidon Erechtheus. Built on two levels due to the natural landscape, it is unique and famous for its “Porch of the Maidens” with six draped female figures as supporting columns.

Athens from the Acropolis.

Athens from the Acropolis.

The view of Athens from the Acropolis was breathtaking. From here, I could see the entire layout of the city like a map. I could trace our path from the hotel and identify the neighborhoods and every landmark our taxi drivers had pointed out along the way.

Coming from the US where our architecture and cities are very new in comparison, it’s always fascinating to see the contrast between ancient and modern in cities such as Athens. The Greeks are very proud of their history and their preservation efforts are apparent. I learned from the hotel concierge that building codes in Athens forbid any building to be built taller than the Acropolis, enabling it to be seen from virtually any point in the city.

While I was able to see some of the great sights in Athens, unfortunately I was recovering from food poisoning for most of the trip. As I ate rice and nibbled on crackers, I could only gaze longingly at people enjoying some of the Greek culinary classics: pita and tzatziki (a yogurt dish flavored with garlic, cucumber and spices) chicken souvlaki (skewered chicken), and baklava.

As a tourist, amidst my sight seeing it would have been easy to forget about the financial crisis and difficulties facing the country. I witnessed, however, part of a strike and demonstration that occurred in Constitution Square in front of the Parliament. The rally and a planned twenty-four-hour public sector strike occurred in the context of an ongoing deal on further austerity measures between the Greek government and international creditors. Observing the serious and passionate citizens taking part in the demonstration was understandably a contrast to the cheery Greeks I had encountered thus far; however, it was inspiring to see Greek citizens actively voicing their opinions and advocating for their beliefs.

Days 3 & 4 – Conference
The conference kicked off with a panel discussion “Know before you go—Post Comparison” led by Protima! The other conference panels were also engaging and informative. Many of the panels featured Foreign Service officers, including from the US Embassy in Athens and (via telephone) Ireland Preclearance (i.e. pre-flight inspection in Dublin) and the US Embassy in Paris. Here are some of the major take-aways from the conference panels:

Attorney Representation: Whether attorneys are allowed to accompany their clients into US Embassies and Consulates is a rule that varies by post. No attorneys are allowed to accompany their clients inside the US Embassy in London. In Paris attorneys may accompany their clients with prior permission from the Chief of the Non-Immigrant Visa Unit. The US Consulate in Frankfurt lets attorneys in with prior permission, and sometimes a walk-in basis. The US Embassy in Tel Aviv is unique in its E-1/E-2 flagship program, as it allows attorney participation in the interview (whereas the Consulate in Jerusalem does not process E-1/E-2 visas or allow attorney participation). The US Embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia hosts hours where the general public may go to the US Embassy to ask questions, and attorneys are also welcome for these sessions.

Applicant Interviews: With a recent uptrend of consular revocation of visas (which Jen Mecum touched briefly on in her report, US Embassies and Consulates worldwide have made it clear that they want to hear from the applicants themselves. During the visa interviews, foreign nationals should be able to articulate their credentials, explain what they will be doing in the US, and describe how they qualify for the visa category they are applying for. It is thus advisable for applicants to review their petitions/applications carefully and/or speak with their immigration attorney before the interview. Foreign Service officers and US Citizenship and Immigration Services officers alike love a Google search, so it is also important for applicants to know what kind of information is available about them online prior to attending the interview.

Visa Call Centers: As discussed in my post on scheduling a visa appointment in London and in Protima’s post about changes in Germany, more and more US Embassies and Consulates worldwide are contracting outside companies to handle the logistics of the consular process, including appointment scheduling and passport delivery. The idea is that the visa call centers will handle the busy work and general questions about the consular process, thus freeing up consular officers and staff to review applications and answer more complex questions and issues. We learned that the US Embassy in Paris is currently scheduled to transition to a call center (using Global Strategy Support) on July 1, 2014.

E Visas in Paris: A Foreign Service officer joining one of the panels by phone provided us with several statistics with regard to E visa applications at the US Embassy in Paris. For example, ninety-five to ninety-eight percent of the E visa applications received in Paris are E-2s, rather than E-1s. In 2013, the US Embassy in Paris issued 2,800 E-2s, and two thirds of them were for pre-approved petitioning US companies. To be pre-approved, a US company must have had a minimum of ten E visas transfers in the past twelve months, or have over one thousand employees at the US company, or gross over twenty five million dollars in annual income between the US companies and their foreign affiliates. Having these pre-approved US companies allows the US Embassy in Paris to streamline the E visa applications.

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) FOIA: It’s no secret that CBP Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests are experiencing long delays. CBP now has an online method for submitting FOIA requests, and advised that anyone with a pending paper FOIA request open a FOIA online account. The paper FOIA request should then automatically be transferred online so its progress can be tracked.

"Orphans": The closure of US Embassies and Consulates (such as the US Embassy in Damascus, Syria) may occasionally result in the transfer of pending cases. This is ultimately the Department of State’s decision. The Foreign Affairs Manual contains a helpful chart for US Embassies and Consulates that accept “Orphans,” meaning foreign nationals whose home-country US Embassy/Consulate is closed. The US Consulate in Ankara, Turkey, for example, welcomes both immigrant and nonimmigrant visa applications by Syrian nationals, and does not automatically place these cases into long administrative processing. In addition, Turkey has its own program that is similar to the US’s Temporary Protected Status program. Welcoming Syrians through this program during the recent civil war, there are now over 900,000 documented Syrians living in Turkey.

Outbound Immigration: Although there have been several European Union-wide directives, immigration remains widely a national issue within each country in Europe. The most notable and popular European Union-wide immigration program has been the Schengen Agreement, which allows foreign nationals of select countries to enter the European Union (not Ireland or the UK) for short term stays of up to ninety days with relatively little restriction. Currently there are twenty-six member countries in the Schengen Agreement, with the possibility of more countries joining. The US State Department has more information here.

There have been several other directives in the European Union to attract highly qualified workers and investors, and each individual country must transpose these directives into its own national law. Each country can set its own quota for the number of visas and its own limitations on the rights for visa holders under these directives. For example, Italy allows up to 25,000 Blue Cards (a work permit for non-EU highly skilled workers) under its quota, while France allows up to 53,000 Blue Cards. Ultimately this means that the immigration process still varies vastly country-by-country in Europe and it’s important to research the procedures and laws of the specific country the applicant will be traveling to on the visa. Of course, it is always advisable to consult a qualified attorney as well.

Bye, Athens! Hope to see you again!

Bye, Athens! Hope to see you again!

Overall, this conference did an outstanding job of allowing access to Foreign Service officers from posts around the word. This is extremely helpful as open dialogue between attorneys and Foreign Service officers allows us to exchange key information, clarify procedure, and identify areas that need to be improved in the future. In addition, bringing together practicing immigration attorneys from all over the world allows for a truly global perspective when discussing the consular process. This was, in short, a wonderful opportunity to experience a new country and culture, as well as to gain valuable immigration-related insights. Yassas!