Border Security:

Strengthened Visa Process Would Benefit from Improvements in Staffing and Information Sharing

GAO-05-859: Published: Sep 13, 2005. Publicly Released: Sep 13, 2005.

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GAO reported in October 2002 that the visa process needed to be strengthened as an antiterrorism tool and recommended that the Secretary of State, in consultation with appropriate agencies, (1) develop a clear policy on the role of national security in the visa process, (2) create more comprehensive guidance on how consular officers should screen against potential terrorists, (3) fundamentally reassess staffing requirements, and (4) revamp and expand consular training. This report examines State's and other agencies' progress in implementing changes to the visa process since 2002, in the areas of policy and guidance; consular resources, including staffing and training; and information sharing.

The Department of State (State), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and other agencies have taken many steps to strengthen the visa process as an antiterrorism tool. Led by the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, consular officers have received clear guidance on the importance of national security. We observed that consular officers at eight posts, including those of interest to antiterrorism efforts, regard security as their top priority, while recognizing the importance of facilitating legitimate travel. State has also increased hiring of consular officers, targeted recruitment of foreign language speakers, revamped consular training with a focus on counterterrorism, and increased resources to combat visa fraud. Further, intelligence and law enforcement agencies have shared more information for consular officers' use in conducting name checks on visa applicants. Additional issues require attention. For example, State has not consistently updated the consular and visa chapters of the Foreign Affairs Manual to reflect recent policy changes. Consular officers we interviewed also said that guidance is needed on DHS staff's roles and responsibilities overseas. Actions are also needed to ensure that State has sufficient experienced staff with the necessary language skills at key consular posts. In particular, staffing shortages at the supervisory level place a burden on new officers. In February 2005, we found that the visa sections in critical posts in Saudi Arabia and Egypt were staffed with first-tour officers and no permanent midlevel visa chiefs to provide guidance. Further improvements in training and fraud prevention are also needed, and additional information from FBI criminal history files would allow consular officers to help facilitate efficient visa adjudication.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: As GAO has reported, information is a crucial tool in fighting terrorism, and the timely dissemination of that information is critical to maintaining the security of our nation. Although State and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have taken steps to increase the amount of information available to consular officers in the visa process, further information from criminal history files would help facilitate visa adjudication for legitimate travelers. Thus, Congress may wish to require that the Department of State and FBI develop and report on a plan that details (1) the additional information from criminal history records that should be made available to visa adjudicators; (2) how the FBI proposes to provide this additional information to State; (3) the potential concerns associated with increased access to this information such as technology limitations and privacy concerns, and how the agencies propose to mitigate these concerns; and (4) any legislative changes that may be necessary to facilitate the exchange of this information between the FBI and State.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO found that consular officers were statutorily prohibited from having direct access to detailed information in criminal history records of visa applicants. Consular officers were required to fingerprint applicants, in ink, who had a potential match in the FBI's criminal history files for positive identification in the FBI records; if there was a match, consular officers could then ascertain whether the information contained in the criminal record would make the applicant ineligible for a visa. In fiscal year 2004, of the more than 40,000 sets of fingerprints consular officers sent to the FBI for verification, about 29 percent were positive matches between the applicant and a criminal record. State officials we spoke with estimated that of those applicants who were positively identified by fingerprints, only about 10 percent were denied a visa based on the criminal history record information provided by the FBI. Moreover, fingerprinted applicants were charged an additional $85 processing fee and, as of the spring of 2005, were waiting an estimated 4 to 8 weeks for a response from Washington, D.C., before adjudication could proceed. According to FBI and State officials, the processing delays were due to inefficiencies in the way the fingerprints were sent to the FBI for processing. Because there were statutory provisions preventing consular officers from directly accessing the FBI files, we included a Matter for Congressional Consideration to clarify, among other things, whether any legislative changes were necessary to facilitate the exchange of this information between the FBI and State. In commenting on the draft report, the FBI stated that efforts were underway to develop a biometric technology standard to establish a fully integrated system for sharing law enforcement and intelligence information in connection with visa processing, pursuant to the USA Patriot Act. FBI stated that this system, developed jointly with DHS and State, would provide a more accurate, efficient, and cost-effective means of sharing criminal history record information used in visa adjudication decisions. According to State's Consular Affairs Bureau, since January 2008, the department has been collecting ten fingerprints of visa applicants electronically, rather than in ink, and screening them through the FBI's system. According to State, the FBI provides results within 15 minutes on 80 percent of these cases, and the rest are normally cleared within two hours. The visas are not issued until the results from fingerprint checks are received at posts. If a visa applicant has an arrest record, the FBI forwards electronically to the post the Record of Arrest and Prosecution sheet, which the consular officer reviews in adjudicating the visa application. The agencies' actions addressed the intent in the Matter of Congressional Consideration.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure consular sections have the necessary tools to enhance national security and promote legitimate travel, the Secretary of State should in consultation with law enforcement and intelligence agencies, further expand consular training in terrorist travel trends, post-specific counterterrorism techniques, and fraud prevention, either at the Foreign Service Institute or at overseas posts.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2005, GAO reported that the Department of State (State) had revamped and expanded consular training at its Foreign Service Institute (FSI) to enhance visa security. We also found that training efforts had been bolstered by contributions from law enforcement and intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as well as by improved information sharing. However, we found that additional training could further assist consular officers. For example, despite guidance from the Consular Affairs Bureau, 12 of the 25 visa chiefs we interviewed for our report stated that the embassy did not offer post-specific training. In addition, all of the posts we contacted reported that additional training on terrorist travel trends would be helpful. Some posts also reported that additional post-specific briefings on counterterrorism techniques and fraud prevention would be helpful. To ensure that consular sections have the necessary tools to enhance national security and promote legitimate travel, we recommended that the Secretary of State, in consultation with law enforcement and intelligence agencies, further expand consular training in terrorist travel trends, post-specific counterterrorism techniques, and fraud prevention, either at FSI or at overseas posts. State concurred with our recommendation. Since our report, FSI expanded its training in border security, including distance training and on-the-job training, to consular officers and those who support consular work abroad in the context of the Global War on Terrorism. For example, in 2009, FSI enhanced its consular interviewing modules and expanded the course to include hands-on exercises in detecting impostors and fraudulent documents, as well as live observations of DHS port of entry procedures. FSI also recently began using distance learning tools to present material on consular fraud prevention and countering terrorist travel. These interactive courses are available not only for consular officers, but for other agency officials. Lastly, in 2009, FSI developed a Web site devoted to at-post training, whereby individual posts may share their post-specific training guides, and have access to others', as well as FSI's training module exemplars.

    Recommendation: To ensure consular sections have the necessary tools to enhance national security and promote legitimate travel, the Secretary of State should ensure that consular chiefs update interview wait-time data on a weekly basis.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On September 13, 2005, GAO reported that the State Department's data on wait times for visa applicant interviews was unreliable. Consular posts are required to report, on a weekly basis, the wait times for visa interview appointments. The Department of State (State) considers that consular posts with consistent wait times for visa interview appointments of 30 days or more may signal a resources or management problem. Our analysis of State's data on wait times revealed significant numbers of posts that did not report on a weekly basis during a six-month period. Thus, we found that consular officials may not have accurate workload statistics from which to allocate resources effectively, and visa applicants may be using inaccurate wait-time information when planning their travel to the United States. We recommended that the Secretary of State ensure that consular chiefs update interview wait-time data on a weekly basis. In commenting on a draft of our report, State concurred with this recommendation and noted that the department had subsequently notified all diplomatic and consular posts in an August 2005 cable of the importance of keeping wait times current. In addition, State said that it had contacted delinquent posts directly to instruct them to update their wait time information, and would continue to monitor these data closely. The cable to posts reiterated that all nonimmigrant visa-issuing posts must ensure that this information is kept current.

    Recommendation: To ensure consular sections have the necessary tools to enhance national security and promote legitimate travel, the Secretary of State should report to Congress, within 1 year of this report, on the implementation of this plan.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Although State implemented the recommendation we made concerning a comprehensive staffing analysis, it did not report to Congress on its efforts within one year of our report.

    Recommendation: To ensure consular sections have the necessary tools to enhance national security and promote legitimate travel, the Secretary of State should develop a comprehensive plan to address vulnerabilities in consular staffing worldwide, including an analysis of staffing requirements and shortages, foreign language proficiency requirements, and fraud prevention needs, among other things--the plan should systematically determine priority positions that must be filled worldwide based on the relative strategic importance of posts and positions and realistic assumptions of available staff resources.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2002, GAO identified shortcomings and made recommendations on the Department of State's policy on the role of national security in the visa process, procedures for addressing heightened border security concerns, staffing, and counterterrorism training of consular officers. In September 2005, GAO reported that State had not conducted a worldwide, comprehensive assessment of staffing requirements for visa operations, as GAO recommended in 2002. Therefore, in 2005, GAO repeated its recommendation and called for further actions to ensure that State has sufficient staff with the necessary skills at key consular posts, especially in light of the increased workload per visa applicant due to additional border security requirements. In 2006, State conducted a comprehensive consular staffing review of all positions worldwide. Based on this review, the Bureau of Consular Affairs is seeking to reposition 32 positions and add 22 new positions to enable the bureau to more effectively respond to changing consular workload demands. The bureau has also stated that it plans to conduct continuing reviews every 1 to 2 years.

    Recommendation: To further clarify current visa policies and procedures, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, should develop additional guidance on the relationship between DHS and State in the visa process, including the roles and responsibilities of DHS personnel overseas who assist consular sections and DHS's procedures at points of entry.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO found that consular officers needed additional information on the roles and responsibilities of DHS personnel overseas who assist consular officers through the Visa Security Program. In 2008, DHS and State drafted a cable regarding the relationship between consular officers and the Visa Security Units (VSU) located overseas. In addition, throughout 2008 and 2009, VSU officers and consular officials regularly trained outgoing consular officers regarding the role and responsibilities of the VSUs abroad and the history of the VSU programs. In addition, GAO found that consular officers needed additional information on DHS procedures at ports of entry into the United States, such as guidance on how to resolve cases in which visa holders have been denied entry to the country. According to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials, CBP has regular and recurring interaction with State regarding visa issuance issues, as well as ineligibility and inadmissibility questions. According to CBP, State has a liaison co-located at CBP's National Targeting Center. In addition, CBP and State have regular communications with regard to temporary waivers of inadmissibility associated with nonimmigrant visas. CBP officers also receive training and have access to the State's consular databases.

    Recommendation: To further clarify current visa policies and procedures, the Secretary of State should update the Foreign Affairs Manual on a regular basis to incorporate all changes in visa policies and procedures.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2005, GAO reported that the Department of State's (State) Bureau of Consular Affairs had not consistently updated the consular and visa chapters of the Foreign Affairs Manual--State's central Internet resource for all regulations, policies, and guidance. While the Consular Affairs Bureau's internal Web site contained updated guidance, it also linked to out-of-date sections in the manual, which did not yet incorporate all updated procedures. As a result, there was no single, reliable source for current information for consular officers. Therefore, we recommended that the Secretary of State update the Foreign Affairs Manual on a regular basis to incorporate all changes in visa policies and procedures. State concurred with this recommendation. In response, the Under Secretary for Management decided in 2007 to require annual certifications from offices and bureaus having responsibility for individual sections or volumes of the Foreign Affairs Manual. The first annual review requirement for the Visa Office was September 30, 2008. Since that time, the Visa Office has published more than 208 updates to Volume 9 on the Foreign Affairs Manual, which covers visas.

    Recommendation: To ensure that consular officers have access to all relevant information on known or suspected terrorists, the Secretary of State, in consultation with appropriate agencies, should further encourage interactions between consular sections, law enforcement officials, and other security officials at post to increase information sharing with consular officers on terrorism issues relevant to the visa process, including regional or post-specific terrorism trends, either through the Visas Viper process, or other similar interagency mechanisms.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2005, GAO reported that information sharing at U.S. overseas posts between the consular sections and the law enforcement and intelligence communities varied. While we found that some posts had frequent communications, others had little or no communication. To ensure that consular officers have access to all relevant information on known or suspected terrorists, we recommended that the Secretary of State further encourage interactions between consular sections, law enforcement officials, and other security officials at post to increase information sharing with consular officers on terrorism related issues relevant to the visa process, including regional or post specific terrorism trends. In response to our recommendation, on December 24, 2005, the Department of State issued a cable reminding all chiefs of mission to ensure that all agencies at post keep consular officers informed of terrorist trends or travel patterns affecting their host country. In particular, the cable noted that post management should encourage regular exchange of information between consular sections and relevant agencies at post on fraud and law enforcement issues in country, as well as economic, political, and security trends that may have an impact on consular work.

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