Border Security:

Improvements Needed to Reduce Time Taken to Adjudicate Visas for Science Students and Scholars

GAO-04-371: Published: Feb 25, 2004. Publicly Released: Feb 25, 2004.

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Each year thousands of international science students and scholars apply for visas to enter the United States to participate in education and exchange programs. They offer our country diversity and intellectual knowledge and are an economic resource. At the same time, the United States has important national security interests in screening these individuals when they apply for a visa. At a hearing held by the House Committee on Science on March 26, 2003, witnesses raised concern about the length of time it takes for science students and scholars to obtain a visa and about losing top international students to other countries due to delays in the visa process. GAO reviewed 1) how long it takes a science student or scholar from another country to obtain a visa and the factors contributing to the length of time, and 2) what measures are under way to improve the process and decrease the number of pending cases.

State Department (State) data are not available on how long it takes for a science student or scholar to obtain a visa. While State has not set specific criteria or time frames for how long the visa process should take, its goal is to adjudicate visas as quickly as possible, consistent with immigration laws and homeland security objectives. During this review, GAO found that the time it takes to adjudicate a visa depends largely on whether an applicant must undergo a security check known as Visas Mantis, which is designed to protect against sensitive technology transfers. Based on a random sample of Visas Mantis cases for science students and scholars sent from posts between April and June 2003, GAO found it took an average of 67 days for the security check to be processed and for State to notify the post. In addition, GAO's visits to posts in China, India, and Russia in September 2003 showed that many Visas Mantis cases had been pending 60 days or more. GAO also found that the way in which Visas Mantis information was disseminated at headquarters made it difficult to resolve some of these cases expeditiously. Furthermore, consular staff at posts GAO visited said they were unsure whether they were contributing to lengthy waits because they lacked clear guidance on when to apply Visas Mantis checks and did not receive feedback on whether they were providing enough information in their Visas Mantis requests. Another factor that may effect the time taken to adjudicate visas for science students and scholars is the wait for an interview. The wait time at posts GAO visited was generally 2 to 3 weeks but could be longer depending on the time of the year. While State and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officials acknowledged there have been lengthy waits, they report having measures under way that they believe will improve the process and that they are collaborating to identify and resolve outstanding Visas Mantis cases. In addition, State officials told GAO they have invested about $1 million to upgrade the technology for sending Visas Mantis requests. According to State officials, the new system will help to reduce the time it takes to process Visas Mantis cases. But despite State's plans to improve the Visas Mantis process, challenges remain. For example, the FBI's systems will not immediately be interoperable with State's. GAO was unable to assess State's new system since it was not yet functioning at the time of the review.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2004, GAO recommended that the State Department "provide additional information through training or other means to consular posts that clarifies guidance on the overall operation of the Visas Mantis program, when Mantis clearances are required, what information consular posts should submit to enable the clearance process to proceed as efficiently as possible, and how long the process takes." In March 2004, the State Department began issuing "Visas Mantis Quarterly Reports" to all overseas posts in an attempt to address these concerns. In addition, the State Department has included general training on security advisory opinions (SAO) and a special presentation on Visas Mantis in its Basic Consular Training Course. In addition, State officials from the department's Nonproliferation Bureau have attended regional consular conferences to discuss the Mantis program. State also indicated it will organize a series of video conferences with posts that submit large numbers of Visas Mantis SAO requests. During these video conferences, embassy officers are provided feedback on the quality of their Mantis requests. Finally, State's Nonproliferation Bureau has begun providing feedback to State's Bureau of Consular Affairs on individual Mantis requests made by posts. Consular Affairs then forwards that feedback to the posts. According to State, future quarterly reports will provide classified nonproliferation information that will help officers understand more clearly what Washington's proliferation concerns are.

    Recommendation: To help improve the process and reduce the length of time it takes for a science student or scholar to obtain a visa, the Secretary of State, in coordination with the Director of the FBI, and the Secretary of Homeland Security, should develop and implement a plan to improve the Visas Mantis process. In developing this plan, the Secretary should consider actions to provide additional information through training or other means to consular posts that clarifies guidance on the overall operation of the Visas Mantis program, when Mantis clearances are required, what information consular posts should submit to enable the clearance process to proceed as efficiently as possible, and how long the process takes.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2004, State and the FBI reached agreement that FBI would no longer be an active participant in the MANTIS process. State no longer waits until FBI responds before issuing a recommendation to grant a visa. This has allowed State to process MANTIS cases more easily.

    Recommendation: To help improve the process and reduce the length of time it takes for a science student or scholar to obtain a visa, the Secretary of State, in coordination with the Director of the FBI, and the Secretary of Homeland Security, should develop and implement a plan to improve the Visas Mantis process. In developing this plan, the Secretary should consider actions to develop performance goals and measurements for processing Visas Mantis checks.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2004, GAO reported that it took an average of 67 days to process MANTIS Security Advisory Opinions (SAOs). In November 2004, State reached agreement with an intelligence agency that the agency would use only 10 business days to respond to State on each MANTIS case. As a result, State should now be able to process MANTIS SAOs in as little as 15-17 calendar days.

    Recommendation: To help improve the process and reduce the length of time it takes for a science student or scholar to obtain a visa, the Secretary of State, in coordination with the Director of the FBI, and the Secretary of Homeland Security, should develop and implement a plan to improve the Visas Mantis process. In developing this plan, the Secretary should consider actions to establish milestones to reduce the current number of pending Visas Mantis cases.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2004, GAO recommended that the Secretary of State develop and implement a plan to improve the Visas Mantis process. As part of this plan, GAO recommended that the Secretary work to achieve interoperable systems and expedite transmittal of data between agencies. In spring 2004, the Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs informed Congress that the State Department had prepared a plan to implement this recommendation and would submit that plan to the Department of Homeland Security for concurrence. He added that the State Department had also created a new system for fully electronic communication of security advisory opinion (SAO) data in near-real time and was working with other government agencies to establish fully electronic connectivity in the near future.

    Recommendation: To help improve the process and reduce the length of time it takes for a science student or scholar to obtain a visa, the Secretary of State, in coordination with the Director of the FBI, and the Secretary of Homeland Security, should develop and implement a plan to improve the Visas Mantis process. In developing this plan, the Secretary should consider actions to work to achieve interoperable systems and expedite transmittal of data between agencies.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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