Guest Columnist

On the front line of immigration policy

Carroll McKibbin’s great-grandfather, William Spencer (right), stands in front of his custom boot and shoe business in Iowa City in the 1870s.
Carroll McKibbin’s great-grandfather, William Spencer (right), stands in front of his custom boot and shoe business in Iowa City in the 1870s.

Immigration policy again is in the forefront of American politics as the fate of a million or more “dreamers,” undocumented people who entered the United States as children, remains in limbo. If and when that issue is settled, dealing with nearly 12 million illegal aliens remains, as well as what immigrants to allow residence and potential citizenship in the United States.

No matter what is eventually decided, no law or wall or quota or whatever will result in total control of the flow of undocumented immigrants. That I know from personal experience.

I’ve been on both ends of the immigration issue. First, as the descendant of those who gave me the blessing of American citizenship, and later as a consular officer charged with issuing visas for entry into the United States.

My great-grandfather, William Spencer, moved his family in 1870 from Earls Barton, England, to Iowa City where he established a custom-made boot and shoe business.

Another great-grandfather, George McKibbin, escaped the Irish potato famine in 1849 by stowing away on a ship out of Dublin and eventually settling in Grinnell, Iowa.

Our family history is not particularly unique. Many American families have similar stories. But mine developed an interesting twist when I received a presidential appointment to the Foreign Service in 1961 and became a visa officer at the American Consulate General in Geneva, Switzerland.

No one can legally enter the United States without an American passport or a visa. Foreigners who wish to move to the U.S. and remain indefinitely must have an immigrant visa. Those who come temporarily, such as tourists, businessmen, and students, are required to have a nonimmigrant visa stamped in their passports that indicates the specific period of time they are allowed to remain in the United States. I signed a lot of those as the officer in Geneva responsible for granting nonimmigrant visas.


I envied officers responsible for immigrant visas. Their applicants stated a clear intention of moving to the United States and establishing a new domicile. The requirements were lengthy, the vetting thorough. In contrast, I had to determine whether nonimmigrant visa applicants were telling the truth. Did they plan to just visit Disneyland, as they might say? Or did they really intend to disappear into the depths of a metropolitan area and attempt to remain in the U.S. indefinitely?

I was no mind reader, and with a waiting room full of applicants, had only a few minutes to reach a decision. So how did I make a determination?

The key question was whether applicants had a compelling reason to return home, such as a family, business, or property they were unlikely to abandon to stay in the United States. Their case was strengthened if records showed they previously visited the United States and resumed their foreign residency.

A visa would be issued quickly to a married, middle-age Swiss employee of the Nestle Chocolate Co. in nearby Montreux for a business trip to, say, New York, and a check of the records showed he had done so several times before.

On the other hand, a young, single, unemployed Italian woman living in Rome would not receive a visa. Instead, she would be politely told to apply at the American Embassy in that city.

A lengthy list of background elements would bar a person from receiving a visa, including conviction of a felony, being a Communist, being a prostitute, or a previous deportation from the United States.

The list of disqualifying factors, much too long and time-consuming to ask of each applicant, was the intent of the law. But discretion mattered also, such as not asking a Swiss businessman whether he belonged to the Communist Party.

A new consular officer at the American Embassy in London, reading down the list of disqualifications for visa applicants, asked a dowager member of the royal family if she had ever been a prostitute. Although following the letter of the law, he was rightfully reprimanded for bad judgment.


I had to refuse a visa to an elderly Polish man because of his citizenship in a Soviet Bloc country in that Cold War era. He had served in the American army with distinction in World War I and wanted to visit the gravesites of his fallen comrades at the Arlington National Cemetery. Regretfully, I denied a visa, as required, to this stately gentleman who insisted on calling me “excellency,” something my ego enjoyed.

In reality, the difference between an immigrant and nonimmigrant visa is not totally distinct. Those with the former permit can stay in the United States indefinitely. Those with the latter could, upon arrival in the U.S., apply for permanent residency with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, now called the Citizenship and Immigration Service.

In those instances, I would receive a form from the INS indicating a person to whom I issued a nonimmigrant visa had applied for permanent residency and asked whether I knew of any reason why it should not be granted.

I lamented receiving the embarrassing INS forms. It meant I incorrectly evaluated a visa applicant as a nonimmigrant. No doubt a negative note was added to my personnel file.

I recall but one instance when I could inform the INS a supposed nonimmigrant should be disallowed permanent residency. In that case, the applicant committed a felony just before leaving Switzerland when he cleaned out his employer’s cash register.

In other instances, I just felt hoodwinked. In time I became more cautious, more doubtful, but it always was a matter of determining whether the person seated across the interviewing table told the truth.

Dozens of American consular officers around the world are trying daily to determine the true intentions of thousands of nonimmigrant visa applicants. This difficult screening task will never reach 100 percent effectiveness.

So long as America is viewed as the “promised land” by literally millions of foreigners, there will be subterfuges, ruses, and illegalities to contend with by visa officers and other officials involved in the immigration process. They, like the little Dutch boy, have their fingers in a dike.


• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. He has written two books: “Apron Strings,” a humorous memoir of an Iowa upbringing, and “Lillian’s Legacy,” the true story of a supposedly unsolved murder in a small Iowa town. Comments:

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