Border Security:

State Department Rollout of Biometric Visas on Schedule, but Guidance Is Lagging

GAO-04-1001: Published: Sep 9, 2004. Publicly Released: Sep 9, 2004.

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As a complement to the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program--a governmentwide program to better control and monitor the entry, visa status, and exit of visitors--the State Department (State) is implementing the Biometric Visa Program at all 207 overseas consulates by October 26, 2004. This program, required by the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, requires that all persons applying for U.S. visas have certain biometrics (fingerprints) and a digital photograph collected during the visa application interview. This information must be cleared through the DHS Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT) before an applicant can receive a visa. GAO reviewed State's rollout of the program, including its implementation progress and how State and DHS envision the program being used to help adjudicate visas.

State is installing the equipment and software for the Biometric Visa Program on schedule and will likely meet the October 26, 2004, implementation deadline. However, DHS and State have not fully developed guidance for the program's use. As of September 1, 2004, State had installed program hardware and software at 201 out of a total of 207 overseas posts and plans to complete the installation at the remaining 6 posts by September 30. The posts with the program are now collecting fingerprints of each visa applicant and processing the prints through the DHS IDENT database. Although the technology installation has progressed smoothly, DHS and State have not developed and not provided comprehensive guidance that includes directions to consular officers on when in the visa process prints are to be scanned and when and how information from the IDENT database on visa applicants should be considered by consular officers. In the absence of such guidance, GAO found that consular officers are unclear on how to use the program and the information available from IDENT on visa applicants. For example, officers are unclear about whether fingerprints of visa applicants should be collected before or during the visa interview, whether information on visa applicants from the DHS database should be considered by the visa-adjudicating officer during or after the interview, and who should have responsibility for reviewing the IDENT information before visa issuance. Answers to these questions could significantly affect how each post manages workflows and processes visa applicants, which could have staffing and resource implications.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • 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

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Homeland Security and State should develop and provide comprehensive guidance to consular posts that includes direction to consular officers on how to best implement the Biometric Visa Program. The guidance should address the planned uses for the Biometric Visa Program at consular posts including directions to consular officers on when in the visa process prints are to be scanned and when and how information from the IDENT database on visa applicants should be considered by consular officers during their interviews. In developing the guidance, State and DHS should consider factors such as program security goals, resources in terms of personnel and costs, response times, and the burden on the applicant.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2004, GAO recommended that the Departments of State (State) and Homeland Security develop and provide comprehensive guidance to consular posts on how to best implement the Biometric Visa Program. Specifically, we reported that the guidance include directions to consular officers on when in the visa process fingerprints are to be scanned and when and how information from the DHS Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT) should be considered. On April 18, 2006, State cabled all diplomatic and consular posts with new instructions on IDENT results and procedures. In particular, the cable states that posts should ensure that the interviewing officers read IDENT results, either during the interview or as soon after the interview as possible. According to State, this allows consular officers to see the IDENT results while the interviews are free in their minds in case any information from the travel record may prove relevant. In addition, the cable provides guidance on several types of IDENT watch list hits, and how adjudicating officers are to review these hits. In our report, we also recommended that the Secretary of State direct each consular post to develop an implementation plan based on this guidance. While acknowledging that posts may collect the fingerprints in a different manner, the April 2006 cable states that all posts should ensure that their procedures are applied consistently and that all interviewing officers review their own IDENT hits. Consular officials stated that State developed this guidance and issued this cable based, in part, on GAO's recommendations.

    Recommendation: The Secretaries of Homeland Security and State should develop and provide comprehensive guidance to consular posts that includes direction to consular officers on how to best implement the Biometric Visa Program. The guidance should address the planned uses for the Biometric Visa Program at consular posts including directions to consular officers on when in the visa process prints are to be scanned and when and how information from the IDENT database on visa applicants should be considered by consular officers during their interviews. In developing the guidance, State and DHS should consider factors such as program security goals, resources in terms of personnel and costs, response times, and the burden on the applicant.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2004, GAO recommended that the Departments of State (State) and Homeland Security develop and provide comprehensive guidance to consular posts on how to best implement the Biometric Visa Program. Specifically, we reported that the guidance include directions to consular officers on when in the visa process fingerprints are to be scanned and when and how information from the DHS Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT) should be considered. On April 18, 2006, State cabled all diplomatic and consular posts with new instructions on IDENT results and procedures. In particular, the cable states that posts should ensure that the interviewing officers read IDENT results, either during the interview or as soon after the interview as possible. According to State, this allows consular officers to see the IDENT results while the interviews are free in their minds in case any information from the travel record may prove relevant. In addition, the cable provides guidance on several types of IDENT watch list hits, and how adjudicating officers are to review these hits. In our report, we also recommended that the Secretary of State direct each consular post to develop an implementation plan based on this guidance. While acknowledging that posts may collect the fingerprints in a different manner, the April 2006 cable states that all posts should ensure that their procedures are applied consistently and that all interviewing officers review their own IDENT hits. Consular officials stated that State developed this guidance and issued this cable based, in part, on GAO's recommendations.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should direct each consular post to develop an implementation plan based on this guidance.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2004, GAO recommended that the Departments of State (State) and Homeland Security develop and provide comprehensive guidance to consular posts on how to best implement the Biometric Visa Program. Specifically, we reported that the guidance include directions to consular officers on when in the visa process fingerprints are to be scanned and when and how information from the DHS Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT) should be considered. On April 18, 2006, State cabled all diplomatic and consular posts with new instructions on IDENT results and procedures. In particular, the cable states that posts should ensure that the interviewing officers read IDENT results, either during the interview or as soon after the interview as possible. According to State, this allows consular officers to see the IDENT results while the interviews are free in their minds in case any information from the travel record may prove relevant. In addition, the cable provides guidance on several types of IDENT watch list hits, and how adjudicating officers are to review these hits. In our report, we also recommended that the Secretary of State direct each consular post to develop an implementation plan based on this guidance. While acknowledging that posts may collect the fingerprints in a different manner, the April 2006 cable states that all posts should ensure that their procedures are applied consistently and that all interviewing officers review their own IDENT hits. Consular officials stated that State developed this guidance and issued this cable based, in part, on GAO's recommendations.

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