Border Security:

Additional Actions Needed to Eliminate Weaknesses in the Visa Revocation Process

GAO-04-795: Published: Jul 13, 2004. Publicly Released: Jul 13, 2004.

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The National Strategy for Homeland Security calls for preventing foreign terrorists from entering our country and using all legal means to identify; halt; and where appropriate, prosecute or bring immigration or other civil charges against terrorists in the United States. GAO reported in June 2003 that the visa revocation process needed to be strengthened as an antiterrorism tool and recommended that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in conjunction with the Departments of State (State) and Justice, develop specific policies and procedures to ensure that appropriate agencies are notified of revocations based on terrorism grounds and take proper actions. GAO examined whether weaknesses in the visa revocation process identified in its June 2003 report were addressed.

GAO's analysis shows that the Departments of State and Homeland Security took some actions in the summer of 2003 to address weaknesses in the visa revocation process identified in its June 2003 report. However, GAO's review of visas revoked from October to December 2003, including a detailed review of a random sample of 35 cases, showed that weaknesses remained in the implementation of the revocation process, especially in the timely transmission of information among federal agencies. For example, delays existed in matching names of suspected terrorists with names of visa holders and in forwarding necessary information to State. In at least 3 of the 35 cases, it took State 6 months or more to revoke visas after receiving a recommendation to do so. In 3 cases, State took a week or longer after deciding to revoke visas to post a lookout or notify DHS. Without these notifications, DHS may not know to investigate those individuals who may be in the country. In 10 cases, DHS either failed to notify or took several months to notify immigration investigators that individuals with revoked visas may be in the country. It then took over 2 months for immigration investigators to request field investigations of these individuals. After GAO initiated its inquiry for this report in January 2004, additional actions were taken to improve the process, including revising procedures and reassessing the process. DHS and State believe these actions will help avoid the delays experienced in the past. In April and May, State revised its procedures and formalized its tracking system for visa revocation cases. In March, DHS developed new written procedures and acted to ensure that immigration investigators are aware of all individuals with revoked visas who may be in the country. State and DHS also took some steps to address legal and policy issues related to visa revocations. In April, the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), an interagency group organized under the FBI, identified the visa revocation process as a potential homeland security vulnerability and developed an informal process for TSC to handle visa revocation cases. However, weaknesses remain. For example, State's and DHS's procedures are not fully coordinated and lack performance standards, such as specific time frames, for completing each step of the process. Outstanding legal and policy issues continue to exist regarding the removal of individuals based solely on their visa revocation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2003 (GAO-03-798) and July 2004 (GAO-04-795) GAO identified weaknesses in the visa revocation process. We briefed interested congressional staff and discussed the potential need for Congress to make legislative changes. Regarding the weaknesses, GAO reported that the revocation of a visa on terrorism grounds is not explicitly a stated grounds for removal from the United States under the Immigration and Nationality Act. As a result, the issue whether DHS would have the authority to initiate removal proceedings against an alien who is in the United States when their visa is revoked solely based on the visa revocation remained unresolved legally. We recommended that the key agencies (DHS and State) address outstanding legal issues regarding the status of persons in the United States when their visa is revoked on terrorism concerns and tell Congress if legislative changes would be necessary to resolve the issues. Congress took the opportunity to attempt to resolve the issues. Following GAO's recommendation, in December 2004, Congress passed the "Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act." The Act amended the Immigration and Nationality Act to add aliens "whose nonimmigrant visa (or other documentation authorizing admission into the United States as a nonimmigrant) has been revoked" as a class of deportable aliens.

    Recommendation: To strengthen and improve the visa revocation process as an antiterrorism tool, the Secretary of Homeland Security should work jointly with the Secretary of State and other appropriate agencies to address outstanding legal and policy issues regarding the status of aliens with visas revoked on national security grounds who are in the United States at the time of the revocation. If these issues cannot be addressed, the Executive Branch should, by October 1, 2004, provide Congress with a list of specific actions (including any potential legislative changes) that could help resolve them.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2003 and July 2004, GAO documented various weaknesses in the visa revocation process (GAO-03-798 and GAO-04-795) and made recommendations to overcome those weaknesses. A number of GAO's recommendations required interagency action. In response, several interagency efforts have been conducted to eliminate weaknesses in the visa revocation process. Regarding GAO's observation that various agencies had conflicting records regarding visa revocations, State and DHS report that they have taken steps to reconcile their visa revocation records. In addition, the Terrorist Screening Center (an interagency group) has developed a process for coordinating the sharing of information on visa revocation cases. In response to GAO's observation that DHS investigators lacked information on the basis of individual revocation decisions, State and DHS have agreed that State will provide access to additional intelligence information to DHS regarding visa revocation cases. Finally, in response to GAO's observation that, in some cases, State and DHS are not familiar with what the different agencies' written policies expect of them, State testified that it is coordinating the standard operating procedures of all the agencies and putting them in a consolidated flowchart. According to a State official, this flowchart is designed to ensure that the agencies are aware, in writing, of what the others players are doing in the process.

    Recommendation: To strengthen and improve the visa revocation process as an antiterrorism tool, the Secretary of Homeland Security should work jointly with the Secretary of State and other appropriate agencies to develop a written governmentwide policy that clearly defines the roles and responsibilities of the agencies involved in the visa revocation process, including TSC. This policy should include directions for sharing information and tracking visa revocation cases throughout the interagency visa revocation process. It should incorporate performance standards (e.g., time frames for completing each step in the process) and periodic interagency assessments to determine whether information is being shared among the agencies involved and appropriate follow-up action is being taken and to reconcile data differences if they occur.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2003 and July 2004, GAO documented various weaknesses in the visa revocation process (GAO-03-798 and GAO-04-795) and made recommendations to overcome those weaknesses. A number of GAO's recommendations required interagency action. In response, several interagency efforts have been conducted to eliminate weaknesses in the visa revocation process. Regarding GAO's observation that various agencies had conflicting records regarding visa revocations, State and DHS report that they have taken steps to reconcile their visa revocation records. In addition, the Terrorist Screening Center (an interagency group) has developed a process for coordinating the sharing of information on visa revocation cases. In response to GAO's observation that DHS investigators lacked information on the basis of individual revocation decisions, State and DHS have agreed that State will provide access to additional intelligence information to DHS regarding visa revocation cases. Finally, in response to GAO's observation that, in some cases, State and DHS are not familiar with what the different agencies' written policies expect of them, State testified that it is coordinating the standard operating procedures of all the agencies and putting them in a consolidated flowchart. According to a State official, this flowchart is designed to ensure that the agencies are aware, in writing, of what the others players are doing in the process.

    Recommendation: To strengthen and improve the visa revocation process as an antiterrorism tool, the Secretary of Homeland Security should work jointly with the Secretary of State and other appropriate agencies to develop a written governmentwide policy that clearly defines the roles and responsibilities of the agencies involved in the visa revocation process, including TSC. This policy should include directions for sharing information and tracking visa revocation cases throughout the interagency visa revocation process. It should incorporate performance standards (e.g., time frames for completing each step in the process) and periodic interagency assessments to determine whether information is being shared among the agencies involved and appropriate follow-up action is being taken and to reconcile data differences if they occur.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2003 (GAO-03-798) and July 2004 (GAO-04-795) GAO identified weaknesses in the visa revocation process. We briefed interested congressional staff and discussed the potential need for Congress to make legislative changes. Regarding the weaknesses, GAO reported that the revocation of a visa on terrorism grounds is not explicitly a stated grounds for removal from the United States under the Immigration and Nationality Act. As a result, the issue whether DHS would have the authority to initiate removal proceedings against an alien who is in the United States when their visa is revoked solely based on the visa revocation remained unresolved legally. We recommended that the key agencies (DHS and State) address outstanding legal issues regarding the status of persons in the United States when their visa is revoked on terrorism concerns and tell Congress if legislative changes would be necessary to resolve the issues. Congress took the opportunity to attempt to resolve the issues. Following GAO's recommendation, in December 2004, Congress passed the "Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act." The Act amended the Immigration and Nationality Act to add aliens "whose nonimmigrant visa (or other documentation authorizing admission into the United States as a nonimmigrant) has been revoked" as a class of deportable aliens.

    Recommendation: To strengthen and improve the visa revocation process as an antiterrorism tool, the Secretary of Homeland Security should work jointly with the Secretary of State and other appropriate agencies to address outstanding legal and policy issues regarding the status of aliens with visas revoked on national security grounds who are in the United States at the time of the revocation. If these issues cannot be addressed, the Executive Branch should, by October 1, 2004, provide Congress with a list of specific actions (including any potential legislative changes) that could help resolve them.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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