International Affairs:

Visa Operations at U.S. Posts in Canada

GAO-04-708R: Published: May 18, 2004. Publicly Released: May 18, 2004.

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On October 21, 2002, we reported that consular staff at posts around the world held different views on balancing national security and customer service in the process of adjudicating visas. Since then, the Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs has underscored the importance of visa operations in protecting our nation's security and implemented many changes in visa processing to tighten security screening for applicants worldwide. Because of Canada's proximity to the United States and the fact that many nationals from countries of concern apply for U.S. visas in Canada, Congress asked us to obtain the views of U.S. consular officers in Canada regarding the visa process. In response, we are providing information from consular staff who adjudicate U.S. visas in Canada regarding their perceptions of the importance of national security in the visa process, including impediments that could interfere with efforts to make security a top priority in visa processing.

Consular officers and managers at U.S. posts in Canada said that, despite rising workloads and more labor-intensive processing requirements, they are placing an emphasis on security in visa operations. All of the officers with whom we spoke reported that security was their first concern in visa adjudication. Some officers said security was their top priority because they would consider themselves personally accountable if they failed to notice an applicant who posed a security risk. Other officers cited the Bureau of Consular Affairs' standardized guidance as the source for their focus, while others credited post management with instilling a pro-security tone for visa operations. The officers acknowledged some challenges that could interfere with efforts to make security a top priority in visa processing. For example, some officers reported that new post-September 11 processing requirements for visas were more labor intensive, and they expressed concern that the requirements could reduce the time available for face-to-face interviews with some applicants. While most officers felt that they had enough time to screen applicants carefully for possible security risks, some of the newer officers at posts expressed concern about their ability to remain vigilant if the workload increased. This problem was most severe in Toronto, where workload was high and the consulate's poor space configuration cramped operations.

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