Protection of American Citizens Abroad - The consular service

Nothing has been said yet about the work of the Bureau of Consular Affairs, an agency that operates within the Department of State, in the Berenson case. Throughout the years of Berenson's imprisonment, American consular officials have visited her regularly, checking on the conditions of her jail, her needs, and her well-being. Soon after her initial conviction, Berenson was shipped to a prison that had been constructed to house terrorists. It was in a remote location, some twelve thousand feet high in the Andes. No heat warmed the frigid mountain air. Rats were everywhere, and medical services were not provided.

What the consuls saw touched off sustained American efforts to have Berenson moved to another prison. American consuls argued that, given the prison environment, her health would suffer. Peruvian authorities initially refused, but they eventually conceded when Berenson's physical condition did begin to deteriorate. Beyond these efforts, the consular office facilitated her family's shipments of warm clothing, blankets, medicine, and food. Except for the disagreement over where Berenson was to be imprisoned, Peru did not interfere with the services of the consular office. The United States, Peru, and almost all other nations signed the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963. In addition, the United States had concluded with Peru, as it has with most other nations, bilateral agreements that refined the Vienna Convention's understandings so that they more precisely fit the circumstances of the two countries' relationships. This means that what the consular officers may do on behalf of American citizens varies from country to country, but, generally speaking, they provide an impressive array of services for citizens almost everywhere in the world.

America's Founders, as former British subjects, knew how much Great Britain valued its consular officers as facilitators of that nation's trade. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that the Constitution links presidential appointment of consuls with other officials representing the United States abroad. However, the consular service of the infant Republic did not resemble the one operating today. American consuls were initially assigned to posts—often foreign ports—where American merchants traded.

Not infrequently, these early consuls were themselves merchants willing to perform official duties on the side. When an American ship sailed into port, the consul received and held the ship's papers until the captain had met his obligations to the crew and local authorities. He certified invoices on merchandise bound for the United States. He might also send to the State Department information that helped American merchants identify local marketing trends. In lieu of salaries, consuls retained a portion of the fees that they collected for handling documents related to trade. In only a very few places could substantial incomes be realized from these fees. Nineteenth-century consuls in Amoy, China, reputedly collected upward of $40,000 annually, and those at Liverpool, England, earned about $60,000 a year.

American seamen were the most likely recipients of any protective services offered by these early consuls. Sometimes consuls found themselves mediating controversies between officers and crews of American vessels, investigating charges of mutiny, or representing American seamen in trouble with local authorities. A stranded and destitute seaman could sometimes look to the consul for a loan that funded his return to the United States. If an American died abroad, the nearest consul might ship his body home and help with settling his estate.

By the latter half of the nineteenth century, the number of Americans traveling or residing abroad escalated rapidly. The U.S. government, however, apparently gave little thought to the impact of these developments on the Consular Service. The impact, however, immediately became apparent when some fifty thousand Americans were trapped in Europe at the outbreak of World War I. Most of those in Europe had gone abroad without passports. Only as war closed in did they discover an urgent need to establish their national identity. The disruption of banking facilities left thousands without funds, and pressures on shipping stranded thousands of those anxious to return home. American consuls throughout Europe attempted to locate and report to families in the United States on Americans scattered over the continent. Their offices issued emergency passports, arranged loans, and pressured steamship lines into providing immediate passage for thousands of Americans. This emergency proved to be one of the experiences that prompted efforts to modernize and expand the Consular Service. The Rogers Act of 1924, for example, authorized important steps toward staffing the Consular Service with trained professionals and integrating consuls into the nation's corps of career foreign service officers.

The modern Bureau of Consular Affairs' efforts to protect Americans abroad have become much broader than those of the agency in its earlier years. Americans preparing to leave the United States to travel or live may consult the bureau's voluminous, and continually updated, files on the Internet. Those who do, will find much more than detailed descriptions of how consular officers may assist those who are arrested and jailed or those caught in emergencies.

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