Strengthened Visa Process Would Benefit from Additional Management Actions by State and DHS
GAO-05-994T: Published: Sep 13, 2005. Publicly Released: Sep 13, 2005.
In adjudicating a visa application, Department of State (State) consular officers are on the front line of defense against those whose entry would likely be harmful to U.S. national interests. In October 2002, we identified shortcomings and made recommendations on the role of national security in the visa process. This testimony discusses our report issued today on actions taken since our 2002 report to strengthen the visa process, as well as areas that deserve additional management actions. It also discusses our July 2005 report on the status of the assignment of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) personnel to U.S. consular posts overseas.
State and DHS have taken many steps to strengthen the visa process as an antiterrorism tool. Consular officers are receiving clear guidance on the importance of addressing national security concerns through the visa process, and State has established clear procedures on visa operations worldwide. State has also increased its hiring of consular officers and language proficient Foreign Service officers, and has enhanced training and fraud prevention efforts. Further, consular officers have access to more information from intelligence and law enforcement agencies. However, some areas require additional attention. For example, officers we spoke with said that guidance is needed on DHS staff's roles and responsibilities overseas. In addition, while State has hired more consular officers, it continues to experience shortages in supervisory staff. As of April 30, 2005, 26 percent of midlevel positions were either vacant or filled by entry-level staff. During our February 2005 visits to three consular posts in Saudi Arabia and Egypt--all of which are of interest to U.S. antiterrorism efforts--the visa sections were staffed with first-tour officers and no permanent midlevel visa chiefs to provide direct oversight. Further improvements are also needed in training and fraud prevention, as well as information sharing with the FBI. In September 2003, DHS assigned visa security personnel to consular posts in Saudi Arabia. According to DHS, State's consular officials, and the deputy chief of mission in Saudi Arabia, the DHS officers in Saudi Arabia strengthen visa security. However, DHS does not maintain comprehensive data on their activities and thus is unable to fully demonstrate the program's impact. Further, DHS has not developed a strategic plan for visa security operations in Saudi Arabia or for the planned future expansion of the program.