Border Security:

Additional Actions Needed to Eliminate Weaknesses in the Visa Revocation Process

GAO-04-899T: 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 our June 2003 report were addressed.

GAO's analysis shows that the Departments of State and Homeland Security took some actions in summer 2003 to address weaknesses in the visa revocation process that we identified in June 2003. 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. Delays existed in matching names of suspected terrorists with names of visa holders and in forwarding necessary information to consular officials at State. In at least 3 of the 35 cases, it took State 6 months or longer 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 or took several months to notify immigration investigators that individuals with revoked visas may be in the country. It then took more than 2 months for immigration investigators to initiate field investigations of these individuals. After GAO initiated its inquiry for this report in January 2004, additional actions were taken to improve 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 were 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. Further, in April, the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), an interagency group organized under the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 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. Moreover, outstanding legal and policy issues continue to exist regarding removing individuals based solely on their visa revocation.

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