Border Security:

New Policies and Procedures Are Needed to Fill Gaps in the Visa Revocation Process

GAO-03-798: Published: Jun 18, 2003. Publicly Released: Jun 18, 2003.

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The National Strategy for Homeland Security calls for preventing the entry of foreign terrorists into 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 October 2002 that the Department of State had revoked visas of certain persons after it learned they might be suspected terrorists, raising concerns that some of these individuals may have entered the United States before or after State's action. Congressional requesters asked GAO to (1) identify the policies and procedures of State, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that govern their respective visa revocation actions and (2) determine the effectiveness of the process.

The U.S. government has no specific written policy on the use of visa revocations as an antiterrorism tool and no written procedures to guide State in notifying the relevant agencies of visa revocations on terrorism grounds. Further, State, INS, and the FBI do not have written internal procedures for notifying their appropriate personnel to take specific actions on visas revoked by the State Department. State and INS officials said they use the revocation process to prevent suspected terrorists from entering the country, but none of the agencies has a policy that covers investigating, locating, and taking action when a visa holder has already entered. This lack of formal written policies and procedures has contributed to systemic weaknesses in the visa revocation process that increase the possibility of a suspected terrorist entering or remaining in the United States. In our review of 240 visa revocations, we found that appropriate units within INS and the FBI did not always receive notifications of all the revocations; names were not consistently posted to the agencies' watch lists of suspected terrorists; 30 individuals whose visas were revoked on terrorism grounds had entered the United States either before or after revocation and may still remain; and INS and the FBI were not routinely taking actions to investigate, locate, or resolve the cases of individuals who remained in the United States after their visas were revoked.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2003 and July 2004, GAO made recommendations to overcome weaknesses in the visa revocation process (GAO-03-798 and GAO-04-795). In a July 2004 response to GAO's observations in a draft report, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) described several improvements it had made to the process. Regarding GAO's observation that various agencies had conflicting records regarding visa revocations, DHS officials explained that DHS now enters visa revocation cases into a lead-tracking database to monitor the status of cases. Regarding GAO's observation that DHS procedures often do not include specific timeframes for individual steps in the visa revocation process, a DHS official testified that it now has required timeframes for researching, assigning, and investigating visa revocation cases. A number of our recommendations required interagency action. In response, several interagency efforts have been conducted to eliminate weaknesses in the visa revocation process. Regarding our 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 our 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 our 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 the visa revocation process as an antiterrorism tool, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in conjunction with the Secretary of State and the Attorney General, develop specific policies and procedures for the interagency visa revocation process to ensure that notification of visa revocations for suspected terrorists and relevant supporting information is transmitted from State to immigration and law enforcement agencies, and their respective inspection and investigation units, in a timely manner.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our review (Border Security: New Policies and Procedures Are Needed to Fill Gaps in the Visa Revocation Process, June 2003) of the interagency visa revocation process, GAO questioned whether the INS Lookout Unit, upon receiving notice of revocations made by the State Department for terrorism concerns, checked to see if the individuals in question had already entered the United States before the revocation. In January 2003, Lookout Unit officials said that they did not check INS entry/exit data to determine whether these individuals had entered the country. As a result of GAO's inquiry into the INS's procedures and policies for visas revoked as a result of terrorism concerns, the INS Lookout Unit changed its operating procedures. In May 2003, Lookout Unit officials said that they established a procedure in which, upon receiving notice of a revocation, they will query their databases to determine if the individual has already entered the country. They said that if they determine the person has entered the country, they will forward this information to INS National Security Unit investigators, who are in a position to investigate these cases.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the visa revocation process as an antiterrorism tool, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in conjunction with the Secretary of State and the Attorney General, develop a specific policy on actions that immigration and law enforcement agencies should take to investigate and locate individuals whose visas have been revoked for terrorism concerns and who remain in the United States after revocation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our review (Border Security: New Policies and Procedures Are Needed to Fill Gaps in the Visa Revocation Process, June 2003) of the interagency visa revocation process, GAO questioned whether the INS Lookout Unit, upon receiving notice of revocations made by the State Department for terrorism concerns, checked to see if the individuals in question had already entered the United States before the revocation. In January 2003, Lookout Unit officials said that they did not check INS entry/exit data to determine whether these individuals had entered the country. As a result of GAO's inquiry into the INS's procedures and policies for visas revoked as a result of terrorism concerns, the INS Lookout Unit changed its operating procedures. In May 2003, Lookout Unit officials said that they established a procedure in which, upon receiving notice of a revocation, they will query their databases to determine if the individual has already entered the country. They said that if they determine the person has entered the country, they will forward this information to INS National Security Unit investigators, who are in a position to investigate these cases. In addition, in a June 2003 hearing following the release of GAO's report, a Department of Homeland Security Office testified that the department has investigated all the individuals who were referred to them by the State Department, and stated that they will continue to work with State to increase the timeliness of these actions. A Justice Department official similarly testified that the FBI, through the TIPOFF program, is aware of any individual with a revoked visa linked to terrorism.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the visa revocation process as an antiterrorism tool, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in conjunction with the Secretary of State and the Attorney General, determine if persons with visas revoked on terrorism grounds are in the United States and, if so, whether they pose a security threat.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement

 

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