Border Security:

Streamlined Visas Mantis Program Has Lowered Burden on Foreign Science Students and Scholars, but Further Refinements Needed

GAO-05-198: Published: Feb 18, 2005. Publicly Released: Feb 18, 2005.

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In February 2004, GAO reported that improvements were needed in the time taken to adjudicate visas for science students and scholars. Specifically, a primary tool used to screen these applicants for visas (the Visas Mantis program) was operating inefficiently. We found that it took an average of 67 days to process Mantis checks, and many cases were pending for 60 days or more. GAO also found that the way in which information was shared among agencies prevented cases from being resolved expeditiously. Finally, consular officers lacked sufficient program guidance. This report discusses the time to process Mantis checks and assesses actions taken and timeframes for improving the Mantis program.

Mantis processing times have declined significantly. In November 2004, the average time to process a Mantis check was about 15 days, far lower than the average of 67 days we reported previously. The number of Mantis cases pending more than 60 days has also dropped significantly. Although an action plan that the State Department (State) drafted was not fully implemented, State and other agencies took several actions in response to our recommendations to improve Visas Mantis and to facilitate travel by foreign students and scholars. These actions included (1) adding staff to process Mantis cases, (2) providing additional guidance to consular officers, (3) developing an electronic tracking system, (4) clarifying roles and responsibilities of agencies involved in the Mantis program, (5) reiterating State's policy of giving students and scholars priority interviews, and (6) extending the validity of Mantis clearances. Nonetheless, some issues remain unresolved. Consular officers at posts we visited continue to need guidance on the Mantis program, particularly through direct interaction with State officials knowledgeable about the program. Several agencies that receive Mantis cases are not fully connected to State's electronic tracking system. This can lead to unnecessary delays in the process. Finally, students and scholars from China are limited to 6-month, two-entry visas. The Chinese government has rejected a proposal by the United States to extend visa validities, on a reciprocal basis, for students and scholars.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2005, GAO reported that several U.S. government agencies were not fully connected to State's electronic system for tracking Visas Mantis data, a problem that can lead to unnecessary delays in the Mantis process. GAO recommended that the Secretary of State, in coordination with the Secretary of Homeland Security, develop a timeframe for connecting agencies to the Mantis tracking system. In October 2005, the State Department informed GAO that it had established December 31, 2005 as a firm target for ensuring that all end-users of Mantis data have access to that data through connectivity to the Mantis tracking system. As a result, unnecessary delays in the Visas Mantis process should be eliminated.

    Recommendation: In order to further streamline the Visas Mantis process, the Secretary of State, in coordination with the Secretary of Homeland Security, should, in order to eliminate use for the cabling system in the Mantis process, establish milestones for fully connecting all necessary U.S. agencies and bureaus to the computer system used to track and process Mantis cases.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2005, GAO reported that consular officers at certain posts continued to need guidance on the Visas Mantis program, particularly through direct interaction with State officials knowledgeable about the program. GAO recommended that the Secretary of State, in coordination with the Secretary of Homeland Security, provide more opportunities for consular officers at key Mantis consular posts to receive guidance and feedback on the Visas Mantis program through direct interaction with agency officials knowledgeable about the program. GAO stated that these opportunities could include, among other initiatives, mandatory one-on-one meetings with officials from the Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) and Nonproliferation (NP) for new consular officers before they travel to post and additional visits by State officials to consular conferences. In April 2005, State reported to Congress that it had established a policy for consular officers assigned to a post in one of the Mantis countries of interest to receive an in-depth briefing from CA and NP prior to departing for post. State is considering expanding this new policy to consular officials assigned to additional countries. State also reported that in February and March 2005, CA officials traveled to consular conferences in Warsaw, Moscow, and Shanghai, China to discuss Visas Mantis issues. These steps should provide the guidance and one-on-one feedback that consular officers need to avoid submitting Mantis cases on applicants who do not need them or failing to submit cases when appropriate. In addition, this additional feedback should help consular officers include information in their Mantis requests that is most useful to U.S. agencies in Washington.

    Recommendation: In order to further streamline the Visas Mantis process, the Secretary of State, in coordination with the Secretary of Homeland Security, should provide more opportunities for consular officers at key Mantis consular posts to receive guidance and feedback on the Visas Mantis program through direct interaction with agency officials knowledgeable about the program. These opportunities could include, among other initiatives, mandatory one-on-one meetings with officials from the Bureaus of Consular Affairs and Nonproliferation for new consular officers before they travel to post; additional visits by State officials to consular conferences; and more frequent videoteleconferences with posts that submit large numbers of Mantis requests.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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