Border Security:

Actions Needed to Strengthen Management of Department of Homeland Security's Visa Security Program

GAO-05-801: Published: Jul 29, 2005. Publicly Released: Jul 29, 2005.

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The Homeland Security Act of 2002 required that the Department of Homeland Security's on-site personnel in Saudi Arabia review all visa applications. The act also authorized the expansion of the Visa Security Program to other embassies and consulates to provide expert advice and training to consular officers, among other things. Given the congressional interest in effective implementation of the Visa Security Program, we assessed (1) the Visa Security Officers' activities in Saudi Arabia, and (2) DHS's plans to expand its Visa Security Program to other consular posts overseas.

Visa Security Officers (VSO) assigned to Saudi Arabia review all visa applications prior to final adjudication by consular officers, and assist consular officers with interviews and fraud prevention; however, no comprehensive data exists to demonstrate the VSOs' impact. According to State Department consular officers, the deputy chief of mission, and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials in Saudi Arabia, the VSOs in Riyadh and Jeddah strengthen visa security because of their law enforcement and immigration experience, as well as their ability to access and use information from law enforcement databases not immediately available, by law, to consular officers. Furthermore, the requirement to review all visa applications in Saudi Arabia limits the VSOs' ability to provide additional training and other services to consular officers, such as assisting with interviews. Moreover, security concerns in Saudi Arabia limit staffing levels at these posts. DHS has not developed a strategic plan outlining the Visa Security Program's mission, activities, program goals, and intended results for operations in Saudi Arabia or the planned expansion posts. Chiefs of mission at the five posts chosen for expansion in fiscal year 2005 delayed approving DHS's requests for the assignment of VSOs until DHS answered specific questions regarding the program's goals and objectives, staffing requirements, and plans to coordinate with existing staff and law enforcement and border security programs at post. DHS's development of a strategic plan may address outstanding questions from chiefs of mission and other embassy officials and help DHS expand the program.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress has not taken action to respond to this matter.

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider amending current legislation, which requires that VSOs in Saudi Arabia review all visa applications prior to adjudication, to provide DHS the flexibility to determine the extent to which VSOs review applications, based upon the development of a riskassessment tool. This flexibility will allow them to engage in other activities that will provide additional benefit to consular officers and the visa process.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2005, GAO reported (Border Security: Actions Needed to Strengthen Management of Department of Homeland Security's Visa Security Program, GAO-05-801) that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) planned to expand the Visa Security Program to five locations in fiscal year 2005 and intended further expansion in future years; however, chiefs of mission at the posts chosen for expansion in fiscal year 2005 delayed approval of DHS's National Security Decision Directive 38 requests. Embassy and State officials attributed the delays to questions about the program's goals, objectives, and staffing requirements, as well as DHS's plans to coordinate with existing law enforcement and border security staff and programs at post. Thus, GAO recommended that DHS develop a strategic plan for visa security operations in Saudi Arabia or the future expansion posts in fiscal year 2005 and beyond. In response to this recommendation, DHS's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) developed the Visa Security Program Strategic Plan. In April 2007, pursuant to the recommendation, the plan includes a mission statement, program goals and objectives, approaches to achieving those goals, and a description of how the effectiveness of the program will be evaluated. In addition, ICE developed an additional program expansion plan in March 2007, which includes more specific information on the criteria used to select the locations for expansion, justification for the number of VSOs at each post, the roles and responsibilities of the VSOs in relation to other agencies located at post, and the resources needed to establish the Visa Security Program overseas.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Visa Security Program, and its expansion to other locations worldwide, is managed effectively, the Secretary of Homeland Security should develop a strategic plan, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to guide visa security operations in Saudi Arabia and in other embassies and consulates overseas. This plan should incorporate the key elements of strategic planning, including a mission statement, program goals and objectives, approaches to achieving those goals, a connection between the long-term and short-term goals, and a description of how the effectiveness of the program will be evaluated. In addition, DHS should include or develop supporting documents that provide more specific information on the criteria used to select the locations for expansion, justification for the number of VSOs at each post, the roles and responsibilities of the VSOs in relation to other agencies located at post, and the resources needed to establish the Visa Security Program overseas.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2005, GAO reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not maintain comprehensive data on the results of Visa Security Program activities, such as the number of cases for which visa security officers (VSO) recommended that visas be refused, and thus was unable to fully demonstrate the program's overall impact on visa operations. Therefore, we recommended that DHS develop and maintain comprehensive performance data that track the results of VSO activities to demonstrate the Visa Security Program's impact at each location. According to DHS officials, in the fall of 2005, the department developed the first version of an automated workload management database to serve as a mechanism through which VSOs conduct and manage their screening and vetting of visa applications. The system has been operational for non-immigrant visa work since January 2006. The VSO database facilitates automated screening in law enforcement databases that are not available to consular officers, and allows VSOs to record additional vetting activities, including a review of the hard copy documentation associated with each case. VSOs will also note in the system the extent to which they consulted with consular officers prior to or during visa interviews. Upon completion of their vetting, the VSOs make a determination to either support issuance of the visa or recommend refusal. The VSO database serves as a workload and performance management tool, according to DHS officials. The system will track those cases in which the VSO and consular officer disagree. In addition to the adjudication decision, the database tracks other law enforcement activities that may result from the VSOs reviews, including investigations that might be opened or the watch-listing of individuals of concern to U.S. interests. GAO observed that the system can produce management reports, including the number of DHS-initiated visa denials; the number of VSO consultations with consular officers; the timeliness of VSO reviews, including number of pending cases; and individual VSO workload statistics. DHS officials stated that they considered GAO's report in the development of this database to ensure that it would be a useful workload and performance management tool and responds to our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Visa Security Program, and its expansion to other locations worldwide, is managed effectively, the Secretary of Homeland Security should develop performance data that can be used to assess the results of the Visa Security Program at each post.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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