Border Security:

State Department Should Plan for Potentially Significant Staffing and Facilities Shortfalls Caused by Changes in the Visa Waiver Program

GAO-08-623: Published: May 22, 2008. Publicly Released: Jun 23, 2008.

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Under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), citizens from 27 countries can travel to the United States visa free. Terrorism concerns involving VWP country citizens have led some to suggest eliminating or suspending the program, while the executive branch is considering adding countries to it. Legislation passed in 2007 led the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop its Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), to screen VWP country citizens before they travel to the United States; if found ineligible, travelers will need to apply for a visa. GAO reviewed how (1) program elimination or suspension, (2) program expansion, and (3) ESTA could affect visa demand, resource needs, and revenues. We collected traveler, staffing, facilities, and cost data from the Department of State (State), DHS, and embassy officials and developed estimates related to the three scenarios above.

The potential elimination or suspension of the Visa Waiver Program could cause dramatic increases in visa demand--from around 500,000 (the average number of people from VWP countries who obtain a U.S. visa each year) to as much as 12.6 million (the average number of people who travel to the United States from VWP countries each year)--that could overwhelm visa operations in the near term. To meet visa demand, State officials said they could need approximately 45 new facilities, which we estimate could cost $3.8 billion to $5.7 billion. We estimate State would also need substantially more staff--around 540 new Foreign Service officers at a cost of around $185 million to $201 million per year, and 1,350 local Foreign Service national staff at around $168 million to $190 million per year, as well as additional management and support positions for a total annual cost of $447 million to $486 million. Because VWP elimination would increase the number of travelers needing a visa, we estimate annual visa fee revenues would increase substantially, by $1.7 billion to $1.8 billion, and would offset the year-to-year recurring staffing costs. State has done limited planning for how it would address increased visa demand if the program were suspended or eliminated. Adding countries to the Visa Waiver Program would reduce visa demand in those countries, but likely have a relatively limited effect overall on resources needed to meet visa demand and on State's visa fee revenues. The volume of visa applications is relatively small in most of the 13 "Road Map" countries the executive branch is considering for expansion. If all 13 Road Map countries were to join the program, and if all of those countries' citizens who previously traveled with visas were to travel to the United States without visas, the reduction in workload would, we estimate, permit State to move about 21 to 31 Foreign Service officers to other posts in need, and to cut 52 to 77 Foreign Service national positions. In addition, though program expansion would result in less space needed for visa operations, this would likely result in little or no building or lease savings because any resulting excess consular space is in government-owned facilities, and could not be sold. If all 13 Road Map countries were admitted to the Visa Waiver Program, we estimate that State would lose approximately $74 million to $83 million each year in collected visa fees, offsetting any savings in personnel costs. State and DHS officials acknowledged that the implementation of ESTA could increase visa demand in VWP countries, though neither State nor DHS has developed estimates of the increase. DHS is currently developing ESTA, and DHS officials told us the ESTA rejection rate could be between 1 percent and 3 percent, but they currently do not know. In addition, State and embassy officials believe some travelers might choose to apply for a visa rather than face potential, unexpected travel disruptions due to ESTA. Neither DHS nor State has attempted to estimate how these two factors would affect visa demand, and, as a result, State has not estimated what additional resources would be needed to manage the demand, and what additional visa fees would be received. However, State officials told us that, if 1 percent to 3 percent of current VWP travelers came to embassies in VWP countries for visas, it could greatly increase visa demand at some locations, which could significantly disrupt visa operations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Based on these estimates of ESTA applications approved and potentially rejected, State ran estimates in their own computer systems to determine the potential impact of ESTA implementation to consular operations in VWP partner countries. According to State officials, based on its review of the estimates, the number of rejected ESTA applicants that would need to apply for a visa at an embassy or consulate was too low to require any significant change in operations. State officials provided planning and outreach documents preparing posts for the implementation of ESTA and highlighting potential increases to the visa applicants. These documents identified steps individual VWP embassies and consulates could take to address the potential increased in demand from ESTA, including reallocating resources within the embassy as well as requesting additional resources from CA, such as TDY and When-actually-employed staff to help manage increased workload.

    Recommendation: Based on these estimates, the Secretary of State should develop plans for how the department will manage the increased workload in the existing 27 Visa Waiver Program countries.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DHS agreed with our recommendation that it work with State to develop estimates of the impact of ESTA implementation on visa demand. DHS worked with State to coordinate ESTA screening methodologies and also performed an analysis to anticipate the number of ESTA applications that might not be approved, among other steps.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Homeland Security and State should develop estimates of increased visa demand in Visa Waiver Program countries resulting from ESTA implementation. These estimates would include information on how many applicants can be expected to be rejected from ESTA and how many potential travelers can be expected to choose to come to the embassy for a visa.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In response to the GAO recommendation, the Department of State (State) officials indicated that they did not develop formal contingency plans to address the potential increases in visa demand from elimination of the Visa Waiver Program. According to State officials, the possibility that the VWP would be eliminated would be unlikely. If the program was eliminated, embassies and consulates within VWP countries would be unable to process the more than 16 million travelers from Visa Waiver Program countries that would need visas under current resource constraints. Consular sections would be unable to process requests in a timely manner, especially in the short term. State officials indicated that they would reallocate resources to expand the consular sections at embassies and consulates, but reallocation would only ease the pressure slightly and not address long-term needs. In addition, elimination of the VWP would be disastrous for U.S. relations with the terminated country. Due to the unlikely nature of ending the Visa Waiver Program, State did not develop contingency plans.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should develop contingency plans for U.S. embassies in Visa Waiver Program countries to address the potential increases in visa demand that could result from program elimination. These plans would include identifying what options State has for providing additional resources and taking actions that could be needed, as well as the extent to which increased visa fee revenues would cover the cost of these resources.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) worked with State to coordinate ESTA screening methodologies and performed analysis to anticipate the number of ESTA applications that might be approved and rejected.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Homeland Security and State should develop estimates of increased visa demand in Visa Waiver Program countries resulting from ESTA implementation. These estimates would include information on how many applicants can be expected to be rejected from ESTA and how many potential travelers can be expected to choose to come to the embassy for a visa.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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