The United States suspended the issuance of visas on March 20. Five days later, the US Department of State ordered the departure from Indonesia of embassy employees’ family members under the age of 21.
What does this mean?
In effect, American parents with adopted Indonesian children were forced to tell their kids that they can’t go back to the US, while the State Department mandated and evacuated the American children of their staff. Nearly two months later, there has been no word on even a timeline for resumption of visa services.
As Americans, we don’t leave people behind, and we treasure liberty. Perhaps no other values are more fundamentally American than these two. All families are facing tough choices right now, but denying our citizens the means to obtain a visa for their loved ones is not right.
Imagine having to look your adopted daughter in the eye and tell her that because of her passport, the whole family has to stay. No parent should ever have to do that. But I have.
The State Department’s order has also forced American employers to tell some families that they cannot evacuate together. Many Americans have Indonesian spouses, and no country in the world permits entry to nonresident Indonesian nationals without a visa. On April 15, the US Embassy released a video saying, “The longer you wait, the less likely your chances are of getting home.” Yet, they have been unable to say when they will resume visa services. As a matter of practicality, the traditional visa interviews won’t be happening anytime soon with most staff evacuated. The video went on to explain that commercial flights were likely to become unavailable soon.
So what is to be done? Take the process online.
One lesson from the COVID-19 crisis is that technology can help us remain productive at a distance. State Department Undersecretary Keith Krach pioneered the efficiency of legal document exchange and processing when he was the head of DocuSign, a cloud-based electronic agreement and signing service.
Surely, he faced opposition from those who said that such important processes could not be made digital, but his persistence provided the world with a product that has greatly improved how such documentation can be handled. In fact, an online visa processing system could serve the interests of the State Department and its employees.
Health experts say we will be dealing with the coronavirus threat for several months, if not longer. An online visa service would eliminate face-to-face meetings and reduce the health risk for State Department employees. The efficiency of an online system would reduce costs and increase productivity, which are essential measures for all institutions amid the economic turbulence. More importantly, fewer people inside the embassy gates would inherently lessen the risks that will remain long after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
While we’re at it, perhaps we should take one step further. Perhaps the process should be done by Amazon Alexa, not foreign service officers. Processing visa applications is the least desirable work for talented professionals beginning their overseas careers, and research suggests that algorithmic predictions may be just as good at assessing applicants.
A 2017 Stanford study, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers (2019), concluded that algorithms would reduce crime and incarceration rates compared to human judges when considering whether to grant bail. Processing visa applications is essentially the same thing in terms of assessing whether an individual applicant will follow the rules: obey the country’s laws, leave within the required time frame, and so on. To draw another comparison, banks lend trillions of dollars without ever meeting a loan applicant.
When facing any big institutional change, the convenient default is to focus on the reasons the change will be difficult to implement with any degree of success. But like the leadership Krach showed in bringing DocuSign to the world, mixing innovation with a heavy dose of American grit can be a powerful combination to unleash positive change.
Chair of the Board of Governors, American Chamber of Commerce in Indonesia; cochair of Overseas Security Advisory Council for Indonesia. The views expressed are his own.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.