Anatomy of an Immigration Officer: The Subtle Art of Reading Your Case Officer’s Mind
“I probably have mildly sociopathic tendencies”
– Christopher Levingston, former Immigration officer
The Immigration Department is pretty fond of ethnic (and other) profiling.
Immigration officers analyse the behaviours of past visa applicants and visa holders to predict future visa applicant/holder behaviour. And they adjust their requirements and scrutiny accordingly.
So, we thought we’d turn the tables…
We distilled thousands of hours of our own careful observations, and those of our immigration lawyer colleagues, to predict how Immigration officers might behave in different situations.
This kind of statistical “mind reading” is something we’ve been doing for many years to guide our applications, with great success. But now we have put it in writing, so that you can use this information too.
And what did we end up with?
Mildly Sociopathic Tendencies?
Consider the quotation above.
That’s an actual statement from a real (former) Immigration officer.
Is every Immigration officer a sociopath?
According to our data: no, not even close.
But it takes a certain person to do this kind of work.
And if you can understand that person; if you can comprehend what makes the average Immigration officer tick; if you can play to their unique pressures and frustrations – then your visa application has an infinitely greater chance of success.
Who Is This Person Making Decisions About Your Life?
Who is this shadowy character, cackling maniacally as they make decisions that will likely impact the rest of your life?
OK, they’re probably not cackling. Probably.
But really, what do you know about the average Immigration officer?
Are they a good person?
Do they give to charity?
Do they like to play golf on the weekends?
They’re just people, right? Like the rest of us.
Well… yes and no.
Meet Fred, Immigration Officer
Let’s imagine an Immigration case officer.
We’ll call him Fred.
Fred is a good guy. He’s just graduated with a degree from a respectable university. He doesn’t really have a career in mind. He has heard, though, that the wages and perks in public service jobs are pretty good.
So he applies to a few different government departments for their graduate program, and he lands a job with Immigration.
Fast-forward 15 years.
Fred has been promoted a handful of times. He’s been moved around a bit, but usually only after what seem like obligatory yet arbitrary department restructures, dictated by external consultants.
Some say the departmental reshuffles are to prevent corruption and bribery, that the case officers are circulated because they are never completely trusted.
Whatever the reason, Fred has learnt to just roll his eyes upon hearing of the latest restructure, then he’s off to a new section, processing different visas, having to start learning the ropes all over again.
It’s a different job, but essentially the same.
Fred Feels a Bit Disillusioned
If Fred had his way, there would be many things he would change about Immigration.
But no one ever asks Fred.
Sure, Immigration sends out periodic employee surveys (again, dictated by external consultants), but the feedback is rarely implemented in any meaningful way, so these days he doesn’t even bother responding.
Fred has KPI’s and quotas to meet. These change a lot, depending on whatever statistic the government is chasing at any given time.
Fred finds it hard to keep up with the KPI’s and quotas, because his team is under-resourced. It means he can’t always be as thorough as he’d like to be.
But it doesn’t matter anyway – Fred doesn’t ever really speak to the visa applicants. He just keeps his head down and pushes through the decisions as quickly as he can.
Fred Struggles to Handle Competing Job Requirements
If you look beyond those merciless KPI’s, Fred’s job is, in essence, to apply the law.
Except the law changes what feels like every five minutes.
And Fred doesn’t have any legal training so it can be rough to keep up.
Any training Fred gets is usually after the fact. But often his superiors don’t even know about changes until the last minute, so how is he supposed to know?
Fred Doesn’t Rock the Boat
Occasionally Fred is instructed to apply policy that he believes is inconsistent with the law.
Or his conscience.
Sometimes Fred is given to understand that he should bend Immigration policy due to vaguely understood political orders from above.
He is uneasy with that sort of pressure, but Fred did not join the public service to rock any boats.
And why start now, at a time when the government has started replacing case officers with robots, who always obey…
What Fred Can Teach Us
Many Immigration officers are kind and brilliant people who serve the public with great honour.
I have dealt with some exceptional ones (hint: this article is not about them).
I have also encountered all manner of cynics, fools and bullies (they will be covered in a future article).
But most of all, I have encountered the Freds – functionaries just grinding their way through a repetitive job, doing their best (mostly) to get by.
And if you can understand Fred, you can understand how to best approach your visa application.
Because more likely than not, Fred is the one deciding it.
Below I have set out a few things you can learn from Fred.
Your Case Officer Doesn’t Care About You
Personally, that is.
Think about that Immigration officer with the sociopathic tendencies.
Even for a mentally balanced case officer like Fred, yours is going to be one of many applications they look at in a day.
They will never understand the deeper personal implications of the decision they make, or how it will impact on your life.
They only have so much empathy to spare.
They might be looking at your application right before lunch, and the primary thing on their mind might not be the future of your business, or your relationship, or your kids, but rather the ham and cheese sandwich they have waiting for them.
Which basically means…
Your Case Officer Wants You to Make Things Easy for Them
Don’t make your case officer join the dots.
Don’t make them think too hard.
Rest assured – if an Immigration officer has to think too much about an application, their thoughts are going to tend towards suspicion quicker than you can say “visa refusal”.
If you leave gaps, those gaps will be filled with the kind of skepticism and doubt aroused by a career spent dealing with a constant barrage of fraud – more about that later.
So, for example, if you’re providing a statement for a Partner visa application, think about what’s important for your case officer to know.
Put really important dates (like the date you met, and the date you were married) in bold and at the start of the document.
Provide a chronology if you think it will help.
If a reference you’re providing for your TSS application looks like someone could have forged it (i.e. it’s not on formal letterhead, it has different fonts etc.), then provide an additional piece of evidence to substantiate your employment (like pay slips or a contract).
Help your case officer help you.
Give them a reason to trust you.
Which brings us to our next point…
Your Case Officer Has Seen a Lot of Fraud
There is an ancient and esteemed legal principle known as falsus in omnibus.
In layman’s terms, this translates roughly as…
Immigration officers have seen a lot of it. Their “falsus” detector is set to “extreme” 100% of the time.
So you can expect them to come to your application and documents with a very jaded frame of mind.
Put yourself in their shoes – if they’re used to seeing fraud, and their department and managers are constantly telling them to look out for lies and dodgy documents, why would they trust your application?
It’s your job to make sure they do.
So if you can’t back up a claim, don’t make that claim.
If you can’t prove a document is genuine, then don’t provide it.
These things will only land you in hot water.
And trust me on this one – once they find one piece of information they don’t trust, they’re going to go looking for others.
Whole visa applications can go down on this stuff, and as we went over in detail in our last article, the ramifications are serious.
Your Case Officer Won’t Think Laterally
This article is about reading your case officer’s mind. Don’t expect them to read yours.
Regardless of any resources they have available to them (such as the data matching outlined in our previous article), immigration officers won’t necessarily make an effort to understand your story.
Don’t assume an Immigration officer will understand something about you just because you think it “goes without saying”.
Don’t assume they’re going to read information on file from an application you previously lodged.
Don’t assume they already have information because your employer provided a heap of details with the Nomination application associated with your Visa application.
If you have a point to make, and it is favourable, you should make it blindingly obvious.
For example, if you’re providing evidence of business payroll figures, and you’re attaching a Profit & Loss Statement as evidence, be as clear as you can about it – highlight the figure in the document and label it something like ‘P&L confirming turnover and payroll’.
Similarly, when providing a seemingly random photo of you and a bunch of sheep as part of your Partner visa application, it helps to add commentary such as “this is me at my partner’s brother’s wedding in New Zealand in May 2017”.
And be careful when it comes to answering questions with “please see attached”.
Attached where? What document? Which part of the document?
They’re not going to go looking for it.
If you’re going to respond to a question this way be really clear: ‘Please see responsibilities and duties of the role in the document labelled “Job Description” attached’.
Your Case Officer Doesn’t Have to Ask You for More Information
If your case officer can’t find what they need to approve your application, common courtesy would dictate that they contact you and provide an opportunity to meet their requirements.
After all, they are in the business of serving the public, right?
Common courtesy often competes with KPI’s and poor training.
Which means any omissions in your application could potentially result in immediate refusal.
Your Case Officer May Just Be Lazy
While you could be refused because something was not attached to your application, you could equally be refused because it WAS attached but the officer didn’t see it.
Maybe it’s the pressure to meet certain KPI’s, or maybe it’s just an old school public servant mentality, but there is a significant minority of Immigration officers who just want to produce an outcome as quickly as possible, with the least possible work on their part.
Some bizarre requests for further information, or worse, some decisions, can only be explained by the fact that the case officer just got a bit lazy – they haven’t really reviewed the documents properly, and you’ve basically been sent a “copy/paste” from a template that does not really apply.
But you can also use laziness this to your advantage.
When you can, aim to include so much high quality evidence, the case officer will find it easier to just grant the visa quickly, rather than spend time scrutinizing everything.
Your Case Officer Doesn’t Have Legal Training
Immigration officers don’t need specific qualifications to get their gig.
Generally a degree, any degree – think Dog Psychology – is enough. And sometimes not even that.
What does this mean?
The person determining your future may not fully understand the laws they need to apply.
Any time there are major changes in the law, there is a lag time before Immigration officers are adequately trained to apply those laws.
Mistakes that can ruin lives if you’re not equipped to nip them in the bud.
Immigration policy provides some guidance, but the policy is not always clear or detailed enough.
Sometimes Immigration policy isn’t even consistent with the law.
This can lead to annoying and badly written requests for additional information, not to mention bad decisions and refusals.
What to do?
First, don’t expect your case officer to research how the latest case law applies to the peculiarities of your situation. They almost invariably will not.
It’s up to you, or your lawyer (we’ll talk more in a future article about whether you actually need a lawyer, and how to choose one if you do) to make sure the case officer agrees with your interpretation of the law.
So, it’s a good idea to provide written submissions as to how your application meets the relevant legislation, policy and case law.
This is doubly important where your application has any unusual twists or vulnerabilities, or where you are asking the case officer (or even the Minister) to exercise a discretion.
Congratulations! You’re Now a Mind Reader
While it’s impossible to know everything about every single Immigration officer, you are now thoroughly acquainted with that quintessential case officer, Fred.
While we have built a profile for you, never forget that the real Freds are human beings – with virtues and vices like the rest of us – trying to do an important job under difficult circumstances.
Fred is not a sociopath.
In all likelihood, he is not that different from you or me.
Understand the “anatomy” of a case officer, and you can use that knowledge to prepare a visa application that is geared for success.