David Jones: Mohamud case not Canadian consular corps' finest hour

See also Rights of Canadian citizens
Published in The Hill Times(subscription required)

Khadour’s seclusion suggests perhaps a quiet release of a non-disclosed compensation payment for Mohamud.

Consular officers are defensive about their decisions. During the course of a day, at a busy post a consular officer may make hundreds of “yes or no” decisions regarding individuals seeking visas to enter their country. Indeed, there are no longer “good” posts where visa issuance was an easy, indeed, automatic call. Even in “Western” countries, there are large numbers of third-country nationals and out-of-work citizens who must be interviewed. In traditional “bad” posts, that is, much of the developing world, there is substantial fraud, since obtaining a visa to a desirable country is potentially a life-changing event for self and family. When the stakes are so high, honesty is not the best policy for the applicant; instead, the applicant will present any legend (s)he thinks will obtain a visa. For some, quite literally, their lives are at stake.
To reinforce USG consular/visa officer independence and autonomy, a visa decision cannot be reversed at post. An officer’s decision can be reviewed/questioned, and an applicant encouraged to apply again with better documentation, etc; but the ambassador cannot approach a visa officer and say, “David, you rejected this visa application. I want you to change it.” Can’t be done; only in Washington can it be reversed. Such autonomy reduces personalized local pressure on the U.S. visa officer, but also increases the level of responsibility for each decision.
Consequently, the pressures are high; the potential for consular burn out is a constant (since making life-altering decisions can burden even those with blithe equanimity), and during a career, doubtless every consular/visa officer will privately admit to making mistakes of commission—and omission.
As well as determining qualification for visa admission to their country, consular officers determine citizenship. This issue most frequently arises when individuals appear stating that their passports have been lost/stolen. The consular officer must determine whether they are citizens and eligible to receive a new passport. In many cases, it is an easy call: a local resident has an old passport; has a certified copy of a birth certificate or naturalization papers, and a fully valid new passport can be issued immediately.
Problems begin when a traveler/tourist appears seeking a new passport. More than occasionally, such an individual lost everything that would prove (or even imply) citizenship. They have no documentation of any sort and don’t know the number of their lost passport; they speak English badly; they have no money; no points of contact in the U.S. They don’t give the interviewing consular officer the sense that they are citizens. It can be a tedious investigatory process to determine whether a claimant is indeed a citizen. One starts with the most obvious questions (“What color is the passport?”) and proceeds from there. If you are particularly suspicious (or believe that the passport was sold rather than lost/stolen), you can issue a passport limited only to travel to the U.S. In such instances, we have issued a (limited) passport on the strength of a library card. (And, in at least in one instance, a visa applicant was so fluent with AmEnglish and so aware of U.S. society and mores that we would have issued a passport had he not been honest about being a noncitizen).
We also struggle to determine true citizenship of individuals presenting birth certificates from Puerto Rico and southern U.S. states at embassies around the world. With a global market in documentation (lost, stolen, or sold), proof of identity isn’t obvious or easy. We also employ DNA testing to prove immigrant visa relationships.
Nevertheless, outright identity theft with an “impostor” possessing a U.S. passport is exceptionally rare. One retired career consular officer had never encountered such a case during a 30-year career. Consequently, one is driven to conclude that:
–there is a very high level of impostors/identity theft in Kenya; or
–something is wrong with the High Commission’s staff attitude and/or
training.
It is with this admittedly U.S. background in mind that one hesitates to lay judgment on Liliane Khadour, the “vice-consul, first secretary (consular)” who handled the Saad Hagi Mohamud case. We have not heard “her side of the story” but admit to finding it remarkable that she flatly declared Ms. Mohamud to be an impostor, given her possession of a valid passport (not reported lost/stolen) and substantial amounts of official Canadian-origin documentation. For her then to write a letter
to that effect to the Kenyan authorities opening Ms. Mohamud to criminal action is even more remarkable. There are standard techniques (that do not require CSI skills) to compare photos and individuals, most obviously shape of ears, distance between eyes, etc. In that regard, we once interviewed a clean shaven male whose previous passport photo was of a male bearded to the eyeballs. We issued a new passport based on the unchanged physical facial characteristics. From casual examination on my part, the passport photo and the media photo of Ms. Mohamud certainly appear to be the same person—at a minimum certainly worthy of an exchange with Ottawa before making a definitive judgment that required three months to reverse.
The projected extended investigation and Ms. Khadour’s seclusion suggest a “hope it all goes away” embarrassment with perhaps a quiet, Friday afternoon release of a non-disclosed compensation payment for Ms. Mohamud. Not the consular corps’ finest hour.

David Jones is a former diplomat who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa from 1992-1996.

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