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United States General Accounting Office:

Washington, DC 20548:

May 18, 2004:

The Honorable F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr.


Committee on the Judiciary:

House of Representatives:

Subject: Visa Operations at U.S. Posts in Canada:

Dear Mr. Chairman:

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.[Footnote 1] 
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, you 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. We 
interviewed 19 consular officers[Footnote 2] and managers at the four 
largest visa-issuing posts in Canada: the embassy in Ottawa and 
consulates in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.[Footnote 3] We 
conducted our work between January 2004 and March 2004 in accordance 
with generally accepted government auditing standards.

Results in Brief:

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 


Since Canadian citizens generally do not need a visa to travel to the 
United States,[Footnote 4] consular officers at visa-issuing posts in 
Canada process visas almost exclusively for third-country nationals who 
are residing in, or visiting, Canada. Many of these third-country 
nationals have "landed immigrant" status in Canada, a status similar to 
permanent residency in the United States. Consular officers also renew 
work and student visas for aliens residing in the United States who 
prefer to apply at a post in Canada rather than travel to their home 
country. Posts in Canada handle a diverse applicant pool. Nationals of 
more than 180 countries applied for visas in Toronto in 2003, and more 
than 165 nationalities applied in Montreal. The wide range of 
nationalities creates a unique challenge for consular officers, who 
must be familiar with official documents from many countries and have 
an understanding of circumstances that affect each nationality's 
eligibility for a visa. Some third-country national applicants are from 
countries of concern and require additional security clearance 

The Bureau of Consular Affairs implemented many changes in visa 
processing after September 11 in an effort to tighten security 
screening for applicants worldwide. These changes include requiring 
interviews for the vast majority of visa applicants, new security 
clearance processes for certain types of applicants, and collecting 
fingerprints from most visa applicants.[Footnote 5] The Bureau has 
issued guidance to keep posts worldwide apprised of these policy and 
procedural changes. Since February 2003, Consular Affairs has issued 
more than 60 Standard Operating Procedures in an effort to standardize 
visa operations worldwide.

In addition to worldwide changes to visa processing, Consular Affairs 
implemented changes after September 11 that affected only posts in 
Canada. For example, in March 2003, the United States began requiring 
that landed immigrants living in Canada from Commonwealth[Footnote 6] 
countries and Ireland obtain visas to enter the United States. Prior to 
March 2003, certain landed immigrants in Canada who originally came 
from Commonwealth countries (including India, Pakistan, and Malaysia) 
and Ireland were not required to have a visa or passport to visit the 
United States when entering from Canada. The change increased the 
workload at posts in Canada, particularly in Toronto.

Consular Officers Said They Are Prioritizing Security:

Overall, the consular managers and officers we interviewed said they 
are emphasizing security concerns in visa processing over all other 
factors. One consular manager said security concerns trump all other 
issues in Canada, such as facilitation of trade and commerce. Several 
consular officers reported that they would hold themselves personally 
accountable if they issued a visa to an applicant who posed a security 
risk to the United States. None of the consular officers said they felt 
pressured by their managers to issue visas in cases where they felt the 
applicant posed a security risk. One officer reported that she believes 
Consular Affairs' overarching policy is for consular officers always to 
err on the side of caution. Consular staff in Ottawa pointed to the 
results of several validation studies as confirmation that they are 
making good decisions on visa applicants. The staff attempted to 
contact approximately 300 individuals who had received visas between 
January 2002 and November 2003 to verify whether they had returned to 
Canada after using their visas to visit the United States; aside from 
one individual who they determined had remained in the United States, 
they ascertained that all the rest had returned to Canada.

Consular officers cited several sources of guidance from the Bureau of 
Consular Affairs as being helpful in determining how to balance 
national security and customer service. Some consular officers said the 
Standard Operating Procedures were particularly helpful. Consular 
managers cited the benefit of attending conferences for consular 
section chiefs at the embassy in Ottawa. At these conferences, managers 
discussed implementation of post-September 11 changes to visa 
processing and ways that posts in Canada could implement them smoothly. 
One consular manager said that his policy to prioritize security came 
directly from the Ambassador in Ottawa, who said that border security 
was the most important issue for posts in Canada.

Some Challenges Could Affect Focus on Security:

Although consular officers said that they placed an emphasis on 
security above all else in their visa processing, they reported some 
challenges that may negatively affect their ability to remain vigilant. 
Post-September 11 processing requirements for visas require more labor-
intensive work for consular officers, such as fingerprinting applicants 
and processing special security clearance requests. In addition to the 
increased time it takes to adjudicate a visa applicant, the number of 
applications increased at posts in Canada, causing backlogs for 
appointments and long hours for some consular staff. While officers 
said they would always take the time they felt necessary to rule out 
any security concerns on an application, some also reported that 
workload pressures could affect their vigilance. From our observations 
at the busiest post, Toronto, we also questioned whether officers could 
remain alert after long days adjudicating visas.

The post in Toronto expected an initial doubling of its workload for 
nonimmigrant visas with the imposition of the visa requirement for 
landed immigrants and an annual increase thereafter of 10 to 20 
percent. Post management reported that Toronto saw a substantial 
increase in applications and that the increased numbers may last for 2 
years. Toronto's consular package[Footnote 7] for fiscal year 2003 
stated that post-September 11 special processing requirements for visas 
made operations less efficient and were negatively affecting employee 
morale. Toronto expanded the hours during which visa interviews are 
conducted to an all-day schedule. Some officers we interviewed spoke of 
the busy summer of 2003 as "agonizing" and said they had considered 
leaving the Foreign Service. One officer said that he told managers in 
both Toronto and Ottawa that he could not perform the required security 
aspects of his job at that pace. One consular manager also commented 
that officers told him they would like more time to scrutinize cases. 
He said that, as new consular officers, they had to learn to make 
decisions faster. He did not think he was causing them to make less 
security-conscious decisions, but he acknowledged they were under a lot 
of stress. Toronto's busy visa operations are exacerbated by 
insufficient space and poor physical configuration of the consulate. 
The Consul General and the consular section chief in Toronto, as well 
as the Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs in Ottawa, acknowledged 
Toronto's staff and space problems and said they were being addressed. 
Canada's Mission Performance Plan for fiscal years 2005 and 2006 
requested an additional consular officer for Toronto for each of these 
years and for a redesign of office space to ameliorate these problems.

The post in Montreal expected a doubling of nonimmigrant visa workload 
when the visa requirement for landed immigrants went into effect but 
only saw a modest 5 percent increase in fiscal year 2003, according to 
the post's consular package. Officers in Montreal said the number of 
visa applicants they processed daily was reasonable. However, the 
post's consular package for fiscal year 2003 reported that post-
September 11 changes in visa processing affected the amount of time 
that officers spent on case adjudication and that if State continued to 
introduce labor-intensive processing changes without providing 
offsetting resources, it would eventually erode the amount of time that 
officers could spend face-to-face with applicants. The post estimated 
that officers may be devoting 40 percent less time to actual case 
adjudication than they did before September 2001.

The post in Vancouver saw a 20 percent increase in visa applications 
due to the visa requirement for landed immigrants and noted that post-
September 11 visa processing required additional handling for all 
cases, reducing efficiency at the post and causing an appointment 
backlog.[Footnote 8] The consular manager reported that he took 
security concerns very seriously, yet he also wanted to reduce the 
appointment backlog because delayed appointments increased the post's 
workload by requiring officers to respond to calls from applicants (or 
their attorneys) asking about the backlog. He told us he sets the 
number of appointments the post accepts to try to reduce the 
appointment backlog. Even when fingerprint scanners were installed at 
post in October 2003, adding to the adjudication time per case, he said 
the number of appointments per day was kept steady.

Agency Comments and Our Evaluation:

The Department of State provided written comments on a draft of this 
report (see enclosure). State agreed with GAO's characterization of 
visa operations at U.S. posts in Canada. State noted a number of 
actions it had taken to address issues in Toronto, including the 
authorization of funds to hire new consular staff and funds for State's 
Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations to conduct a review of the 
physical infrastructure. Furthermore, the Bureau of Consular Affairs 
said it planned to send a Consular Management Assistance Team to 
Toronto in May 2004 to assess the consular section and make 
recommendations on how to improve the operation.

Scope and Methodology:

To prepare this report, we conducted work at the Department of State, 
Department of Homeland Security, and Federal Bureau of Investigation in 
Washington, D.C. We conducted fieldwork at the U.S. embassy in Ottawa 
and at the consulates in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. We (1) 
interviewed management and consular officials at State Department 
headquarters, as well as management personnel in charge of operations 
at the U.S. embassy and consulates, including the U.S. Ambassador to 
Canada and all Consuls General; (2) obtained input from all 19 consular 
officers and managers at the four posts who were involved in 
nonimmigrant visa processing using a standard list of questions with 
follow-up interview questions; and (3) interviewed law enforcement 
officials at posts. We spent significant time observing visa processing 
and attending interagency meetings at post. We collected and reviewed 
data from each post on workload statistics and refusal rates. As we 
used this information for background purposes only, we did not assess 
the reliability of the data. We also obtained each post's consular 
package, the Bureau of Consular Affairs' worldwide guidance for visa 
operations, and State's Office of the Inspector General reports.

We are sending copies of this report to other interested Members of 
Congress. We are also sending copies to the Secretary of State. We will 
make copies available to others upon request. In addition, the report 
will be available at no charge on the GAO Web site at http://

If you or your staff have any questions about this report, please 
contact me at (202) 512-4128 or at MACROBUTTON HtmlResAnchor Kate Brentzel, John Brummet, Lori Kmetz, Janey Cohen, 
Mary Moutsos, and Martin De Alteriis contributed to this report.

Sincerely yours,

Signed by: 

Jess T. Ford:

Director, International Affairs and Trade:


Comments from the Department of State:

United States Department of State 
Assistant Secretary and Chief Financial Officer:

Washington, D. C. 20520:

Ms. Jacqueline Williams-Bridgers 
Managing Director:

International Affairs and Trade 
General Accounting Office 
441 G Street, N.W. 
Washington, D.C. 20548-0001:

APR 27 2004:

Dear Ms. Williams-Bridgers:

We appreciate the opportunity to review your draft report, "Visa 
Operations on U.S. in Canada," GAO Job Code 320235.

The enclosed Department of State comments are provided for 
incorporation with this letter as an appendix to the final report.

If you have any questions concerning this response, please contact 
Elizabeth Pratt, Special Assistant, Bureau of Consular Affairs, at 
(202) 663-1152.


Signed by: 

Christopher B. Burnham: 

cc:	GAO - Kate Brentzel 
CA - Catherine Barry 
State/OIG - Mark Duda 
State/H - Paul Kelly:

Department of State Comments on GAO Draft Report "Visa Operations on 
U.S. Posts in Canada" (GAO Job Code 320235):

Thank you for allowing the Department of State the opportunity to 
comment on the draft report "Visa Operations at U.S. Posts in Canada," 
which addresses the views of U.S. consular officers in Canada regarding 
the visa process.

We appreciate the observations commending our worldwide improvements to 
visa processing and the effectiveness of the guidance to officers 
through our series of cables on Standard Operating Procedures. We were 
also pleased that the report reflected the consular officers' 
consistent dedication to meeting the priority goal of protecting U.S. 
borders by ensuring that the security of the visa function was 

Commenting on the growing workload at the Canada posts, particularly 
Toronto, the Report notes that some officers fear that their vigilance 
might be impaired since they are required to interview greater numbers 
of applicants and are responsible for more labor intensive steps in the 
visa process, such as biometric collection. We understand that the 
additional steps in the visa process can be daunting, but have tried to 
reassure consular officers that we understand they will need more time 
to do their jobs. We have also sought to provide the additional 
resources needed to match increased workload. Toward this end, we have 
reviewed the Consular Package submitted by the Canada posts and have 
already implemented steps to provide more resources.

As the largest visa processing post in Canada, Toronto has experienced 
the greatest increase in workload. The Bureau of Consular Affairs has 
already responded to Toronto's need for assistance. In response to 
their request, we authorized, $40,500 to hire three Locally Engaged 
Staff (LES) on six-month appointments to help with the surge in 
workload resulting from the change in visa requirements for certain 
Landed Immigrants who previously did not require visas. We also 
provided $9,000 to expand the countertops to accommodate biometrics 
collection equipment, and $36,000 to create an Eligible Family Member 
(EFM) position to assist with biometrics collection.

At this time, Toronto has informed us that further staff increases are 
not feasible because of the limited space available in the Consular 
Section. We have already scheduled a visit by a Consular Management 
Assistance Team (CMAT) to Toronto (May 4-7) in order to assess the 
situation there and to determine what additional resources are needed. 
In addition, State Department's Office of Overseas Buildings (OBO) has 
allotted $20,000 for a space study to suggest improvements to consular 
operations in Toronto.

Once again, we appreciate the opportunity to comment on the draft 
provided to us.

[End of section]



[1] A visa is a travel document that allows a foreign visitor to 
present himself or herself at a port of entry for admission to the 
United States. In this report, we use the term "visa" to refer to 
nonimmigrant visas only. The United States also grants visas to people 
who intend to immigrate to the United States. See U.S. General 
Accounting Office, Border Security: Visa Process Should Be Strengthened 
as an Antiterrorism Tool, GAO-03-132NI (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 21, 
2002) for more information on the visa adjudication process.

[2] We interviewed all consular officers currently involved in 
nonimmigrant visa processing, plus some additional officers who had 
done such processing the year before. 

[3] Mission Canada comprises the embassy in Ottawa; consulates in 
Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, Calgary, and Quebec City; and a 
U.S. presence in Winnipeg. The embassy and the six consulates issue 
nonimmigrant visas. Montreal issues both immigrant and nonimmigrant 

[4] Citizens of Canada do not need visas except under certain 
circumstances. 22 C.F.R. § 41.2(a). For example, if a Canadian is the 
fiancé/fiancée of a U.S. citizen, he/she must be in possession of a 
nonimmigrant visa. 22 C.F.R. § 41.2(k).

[5] State is installing digital fingerprint scanners at posts 
worldwide. All four posts we visited in Canada were equipped with the 

[6] The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of more than 50 
countries primarily composed of the United Kingdom and its former 

[7] All visa-issuing posts submit consular packages annually to State's 
Bureau of Consular Affairs. The packages contain a post's summary 
report on all areas of consular work.

[8] All posts we visited used an appointment booking system to control 
the number of applicants who arrived per day. Consular managers set the 
number of appointments that the posts accepted each day.