Circling the block where the U.S. Department of State’s consulate is situated was no easy feat in the crowded Indian city of Hyderabad. As I tried to aim my camera out the window to take photos of the consulate grounds and entrance, we were admonished loudly in Telugu by several security guards with weapons.
“No stopping, no photos!” my driver translated for me, begging me to put away the camera.
Security is tight, and after a trip around the congested block, dodging scooters, pedestrians, and more men with weapons, I was dropped off at a safe distance from the security barriers and entered the U.S. Consulate General Hyderabad to meet with Vice Consul José Vega.
For San Antonio native Vega, 31, and his wife, Maridela Ortiz, 32, this is their first joint posting with the U.S. Foreign Service.
I had first met the couple, married three years, one year earlier at a World Affairs Council event. My visit to India coincided with Vega’s last week in Hyderabad. His wife had already departed to enjoy her scheduled home leave in the U.S. before joining Vega at their next posting.
Vega and Ortiz joined the U.S. Foreign Service, the diplomatic branch of the federal government under the State Department, after previous public service-oriented jobs.
Before becoming a diplomat, Ortiz was a project manager and financial analyst at San Antonio’s North American Development Bank, specializing in water infrastructure projects. She had also interned for the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Commerce, the United Nations Development Program, and U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic representative for her hometown, El Paso.
Vega previously was attorney-adviser to the Peace Corps’ inspector general, chief of protocol for the City of San Antonio under then-Mayor Julian Castro, and a legal fellow both at the World Bank and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs.
As we walked the verdant grounds of the faded pink Paigah Palace that is the temporarily leased home for the U.S. Consulate, Vega talked about how important State Department consular work is in advancing U.S. economic interests abroad. As vice consul, he focused on consular affairs, specifically processing visa applications.
“This consulate opened in 2008,” Vega said. “There has been such demand for visas in India, especially with its tech cities like HiTec [Hyderabad Information Technology and Engineering Consultancy City] in Hyderabad, that this consulate now ranks 11th worldwide for visa volume.”
As Vega wrapped up his two-year tour in Hyderabad he had just reached in his last week the milestone of having conducted 50,000 visa interviews.
“We have 16 visa windows and that is still not enough,” Vega said. The wait time for completing the visa application process is 15 to 20 days, and during high demand [times] it can be more than 25 days.”
The demand for U.S. visa services in India reflects the high level of trade contributing to the U.S. economy. The U.S. is India’s largest trading partner and it is also India’s top export market, with a $31 billion trade surplus, the largest India has with any country. India is also the 18th-largest export market for U.S. goods.
There are about 1,000 visa applicants processed every day with each consular officer typically conducting 120 interviews every morning. Of these, 70% of all visas granted are for technology workers (H1B visas) or for student visas, according to Vega.
H1B visas allow U.S. employers to sponsor temporary foreign skilled workers from abroad, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professions. Currently, U.S. law permits 85,000 H1B visas to be issued every year.
“We have major tech employers here in Hyderabad – IBM, Google, Facebook – they are all here,” Vega said. “With innovation moving so quickly in the tech industry, every day counts.”
The new consulate is being built nearby and will open in 2020 with 40 windows for visa processing.
Local staff supports U.S. consular officers in 307 diplomatic locations across the globe. In Hyderabad, they translate Telugu, Urdu, and Hindi in visa interviews, Vega explained.
“Consular officers also benefit from their wealth of knowledge, as there is very little turnover in the local staff,” Vega said. “They are loyal to the U.S. despite the fact that many have never been there.”
Because of his interests and background, a career with the U.S. Foreign Service was a natural fit for Vega. Vega stressed how those with an interest in the world and a desire to serve should consider a career in the U.S. Foreign Service. The application process to become accepted into the Foreign Service is rigorous, given those chosen must adapt to ever-changing conditions to represent the U.S. in various locations abroad.
After an announcement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson canceling the incoming class of Foreign Service officers, Tillersonon July 1 upended his own self-imposed hiring freeze at the State Department. In both July and September, there will be incoming Foreign Service officer classes, where all foreign service officers get their start.
“Every employee in the Foreign Service is a generalist,” Vega said. “During your first year in consular operations you develop an understanding of how the Department of State operates.”
Before Ortiz left Hyderabad, she was the acting consular liaison on visas and also acting chief of U.S. citizen services, helping U.S. citizens in India in emergency situations. Following their first assignments in India, Ortiz will serve as an economic officer at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, while Vega will be the staff assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, learning about political issues and public diplomacy.
Vega is excited by his next assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.
“U.S.-Pakistan cooperation is vital to regional and global peace and security,” Vega said. “We will have strong interests in the region for the foreseeable future.”
What Vega enjoys the most in his career in the Foreign Service is “gaining a different experience living somewhere rather than just visiting.
“The hard part is being separated from family, since I come from a traditional Hispanic family,” Vega said. “Part of me misses all the developments in San Antonio, and if I had stayed, I could have been a part of that.”
When asked about long-term plans, Vega said that “if we can continue to be assigned together, I think we will continue to pursue our careers in public service, as long as it continues to be challenging and interesting.”
As for what comes after Pakistan, both Vega and Ortiz already know they will be assigned at roughly the same time at the same location for a three-year posting – in Rome.