By Aparajitha Vadlamannati
I remember coming back to the States a few years ago after a long summer spent with family and friends in India. I felt homesick, tired from the 16 hour flight, and did not want to start school in two weeks but then I was pulled out of my funk when a customs official smiled and said ‘welcome home.’ It was such a simple act but it changed my mood and made me feel as though maybe all those customs officials, even the ones with sour faces, are not so bad after all. Little did I know, I doubt the official recognized this either, that this act is public diplomacy.
Public diplomacy was believed to be a job solely for the state department but it takes more than Foreign Service Officers to do the job well. It is important for every citizen, resident, official, supporter, etc. of a nation to do their best to fairly represent the nation they associate with to a foreign (i.e. those from a nation different than their own) audience. Those working for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are certainly no exception. In fact, they play one of the most important roles in maintaining a positive image of the US because of the opinions and experiences immigrants relay to family and friends back home. These experiences become a part of the composite image/impression that foreigners have of Americans overall; similar to the reasons why an exchange program works to shape an image of America.
Creating a person-to-person connection forever impresses a memory upon the visitor whether good or bad even if that interaction is as short as that of an entrant handing over documents to a customs official. Those that work for agencies such as ICE, the Transportation Security Authority (TSA) and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) must be aware that their authority is recognized by foreigners. As representatives of how the American government functions and exerts authority, these officials must be trained and encouraged to understand how their job affects the interests (beyond immediate interests of security) of the country they so dutifully serve. We must be able to monitor how foreigners are treated within America to ensure that they are left with valuable, positive impressions.
Most recently, ICE raided Tri-Valley University in Pleasanton, CA and the residences of students after evidence of a large-scale immigration fraud surfaced. TVU could have been an invaluable exchange experience for these students but turned out to be a diploma mill. Nearly 95% of the students were Indian with many from the state of Andhra Pradesh. Arrested students were tagged and feared what would come next. These feelings of anxiety set the Indian media and several politicians in motion to start blasting the US government for cruel treatment of victims of a scam. Another troubling aspect of the case is that students trusted advice given by administrators because it was part of ICE’s Student and Exchange Visitor’s Program. Poor treatment of students further evoked anger in India because it conjured up feelings of fear stemming from crimes involving inordinate numbers of Indian students in Australia in 2009 and 2010. Indians felt that, once again, they had to fear sending students abroad and to America of all places.
In 2010, Pew found India’s favorability rating of the US was at 66%. Over 100,000 Indian students in the US contribute millions of dollars in tuition and living expenses to the American economy, maintaining a positive relationship with Indian students and attracting more of them is beneficial. Tactfully, the US government has taken steps to repair the situation by notifying Indian officials that the ankle monitors are a part of standard protocol out of safety and security concerns. ICE and CBP have begun to remove bracelets and allow students to voluntarily leave the country without marring immigration records but it has taken over a month for these concessions to be made. Meaning a month’s worth of negative press for the US was generated in India. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs PJ Crowley is working on smoothing things over by stating that the US regrets putting the students in limbo and indicating that the US and Indian embassies are cooperating to exchange information on the ongoing investigation.
To prevent future incidents, it is vital to train individuals working in the government on conducting his or her job diplomatically. Showing these teams that they affect foreign policy and America’s image abroad, especially when handling issues as sensitive as immigration, will help them be better public diplomats. Between President Obama’s and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s trips to foreign nations and official visits by foreign dignitaries to the US to strengthen long-term political and economic ties, it is necessary for all government officials to be working diligently for national interests through the medium of public diplomacy.
This article is not meant to advocate lenient security standards or a watered down enforcement of US legal code but is instead meant to get the officials and those that train them thinking about how they influence perceptions of America. Learning skills such as identifying foreign diplomats in airports and treating victims of immigration scams with respect, if not minimal decency, can only enhance the job that these men and women already do while having them positively contribute to US public diplomacy.
Aparajitha Vadlamannati graduated with a BA in Global Studies and Minor in Communications from San Jose State University with an emphasis on South and Southeast Asia. An Indian citizen growing up in the US, she became interested in India’s evolving relationship with the US and how the Indian government engages with diaspora communities in the US. Aparajitha is a student in Matt Armstrong’s Spring 2011 public diplomacy course at USC.
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