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Testimony: 

Before the Committee on Government Reform, House of Representatives: 

United States Government Accountability Office: 

GAO: 

For Release on Delivery Expected at 10:00 a.m. EDT: 

Tuesday, April 4, 2006: 

Border Security: 

Reassessment of Consular Resource Requirements Could Help Address Visa 
Delays: 

Statement of Jess T. Ford, Director, International Affairs and Trade: 

GAO-06-542T: 

GAO Highlights: 

Highlights of GAO-06-542T, a testimony before the Committee on 
Government Reform, House of Representatives: 

Why GAO Did This Study: 

In deciding to approve or deny a visa application, the Department of 
State’s (State) consular officers are on the front line of defense in 
protecting the United States against those who seek to harm U.S. 
interests. To increase border security following the September 11 
attacks, Congress, State, and the Department of Homeland Security 
initiated a series of changes to border security policies and 
procedures. These changes have added to the complexity of consular 
workload. But consular officers must balance this security 
responsibility against the need to facilitate legitimate travel. In 
recent years, GAO has issued a series of reports on the visa process. 
This statement discusses (1) wait times for visas, (2) factors that 
affect wait times, and (3) GAO’s recent work on consular staffing. 

What GAO Found: 

As a result of changes since September 11, 2001, aimed at strengthening 
visa policies and procedures, applicants have faced extensive wait 
times for visas at some posts. According to consular officials, posts 
that consistently have wait times of 30 days or longer for interview 
appointments may have a resource problem. During a recent 6-month 
period, 97 of State’s 211 visa-issuing posts reported maximum wait 
times of 30 or more days in at least one month; at 20 posts, the 
reported wait times were in excess of 30 days for this entire 6-month 
period. Further, in February 2006, 9 posts reported wait times in 
excess of 90 days. 

Several factors have contributed to these delays at some consular 
posts. For example, Congress, State, and the Department of Homeland 
Security have initiated new policies and procedures since the September 
11 attacks to strengthen the security of the visa process; however, 
these new requirements have increased consular workload and exacerbated 
delays. Additionally, some applicants have faced additional delays 
because of special security checks for national security concerns. 
Other factors, such as resurgence in visa demand and ongoing embassy 
facility limitations, could continue to affect wait times. 

We recently reported that State had not conducted a worldwide, 
comprehensive assessment of staffing requirements for visa operations. 
While State has increased hiring of consular officers, there is a need 
for such an assessment to ensure that State has sufficient staff at key 
consular posts, particularly in light of the visa processing delays at 
some posts. 

Consular Posts with Maximum Reported Wait Times for Temporary Business 
and Tourism Visa Interview Appointments in Excess of 90 Days, February 
2006: 

Post: Chennai, India; 
Maximum Wait Time in Days: 168. 

Post: Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; 
Maximum Wait Time in Days: 92. 

Post: Havana, Cuba; 
Maximum Wait Time in Days: 129. 

Post: Mexico City, Mexico; 
Maximum Wait Time in Days: 134. 

Post: Mumbai, India; 
Maximum Wait Time in Days: 154. 

Post: New Delhi, India; 
Maximum Wait Time in Days: 91. 

Post: Paris, France; 
Maximum Wait Time in Days: 116. 

Post: Port Au Prince, Haiti; 
Maximum Wait Time in Days: 167. 

Post: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; 
Maximum Wait Time in Days: 140. 

Source: Department of State 

Note: These data are based on reports from overseas consular posts to 
the Consular Affairs Bureau in Washington, D.C. According to consular 
officials, in cases where posts report wait time data more than once in 
a given month, State's data are the maximum wait time reported that 
month. 

[End of section] 

What GAO Recommends: 

We recommended in October 2002 and again in September 2005 that State 
reassess its consular staffing requirements. In commenting on a draft 
of our September 2005 report, State disagreed with our recommendation 
that it prepare a plan to address consular requirements. In light of 
the increased workload due to additional border security requirements 
and ongoing staffing shortages and processing delays at some posts, we 
continue to urge State to fully assess its resource needs to ensure it 
has the right people at key posts. 

www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-06-542T. 

To view the full product, including the scope and methodology, click on 
the link above. For more information, contact Jess Ford at (202) 512-
4128 or fordj@gao.gov. 

[End of section] 

April 4, 2006: 

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee: 

I am pleased to be here to discuss GAO's observations on delays in the 
nonimmigrant visa process.[Footnote 1] In deciding to approve or deny a 
visa application, the Department of State's (State) consular officers 
at 211 visa-issuing posts overseas are on the front line of defense in 
protecting the United States against potential terrorists and others 
whose entry would likely be harmful to U.S. national interests. But 
consular officers must balance this security responsibility against the 
need to facilitate legitimate travel. Congress, State, and the 
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have initiated a series of 
changes since the September 11 attacks to enhance border security 
policies and procedures. These changes have added to the complexity of 
consular officers' workload. They have also, in turn, contributed to 
the delays facing foreign citizens at some posts who are seeking visas 
for travel to the United States. For example, in February 2004, we 
reported that applicants had faced delays when scheduling appointments 
for visa interviews at consular posts in China and India.[Footnote 2] 
Although wait times in China have improved in recent months, applicants 
in India continue to face long delays. Moreover, worldwide, nine posts 
reported maximum wait times of 90 or more days in February 2006. In 
light of the increased workload per visa applicant due to additional 
border security requirements, we recommended in October 2002 and again 
in September 2005[Footnote 3] that State reassess its staffing 
requirements. 

Today I will discuss (1) wait times facing visa applicants, (2) factors 
that affect wait times, and (3) our recent work on consular staffing 
concerns. My statement covers a series of reports that we have issued 
regarding the visa process and related areas. Over the course of our 
work for these reports, we have reviewed relevant legislation and 
agency documents, interviewed State's consular and human resource 
officials in Washington, and observed visa operations and interviewed 
consular officials at more than 20 consular posts. In addition, in 
2005, we interviewed consular staff at 25 overseas posts regarding 
issues such as visa policies and procedures, staffing, and training. 
Our work was conducted in accordance with generally accepted government 
auditing standards (see appendix I for a list of GAO reports). 

Summary: 

Since September 11, 2001, applicants have faced extensive wait times 
for visas at some posts. According to consular officials, posts that 
consistently have wait times for visa interview appointments of 30 days 
or longer may have a resource or management problem. State's data show 
that between September 2005 and February 2006, 97 posts reported 
maximum wait times of 30 or more days in at least one month; at 20 
posts, the reported wait times were in excess of 30 days for this 
entire 6-month period.[Footnote 4] Further, in February 2006, nine 
posts reported wait times in excess of 90 days. In Chennai, India, 
applicants applying for visas faced an average reported wait time of 
126 days over this 6-month period. 

Several factors have contributed to delays for visa interview 
appointments at some consular posts. For example, new policies and 
procedures implemented since the September 11 attacks have strengthened 
the security of the visa process; however, these new requirements have 
increased consular workload and exacerbated delays. For example, 
consular officers are now required to interview virtually all visa 
applicants. Additionally, some applicants have faced additional delays 
because of special security checks. Other factors, such as resurgence 
in visa demand, and ongoing consular facility limitations, could 
continue to affect wait times. 

In September 2005, we reported that State had not conducted a 
worldwide, comprehensive assessment of staffing requirements for visa 
operations. In commenting on a draft of that report, State argued that 
it had a staffing plan. While State has increased hiring of consular 
officers, we continue to see a need for such an assessment to ensure 
that State has sufficient staff with the necessary skills at key 
consular posts, particularly in light of the visa processing delays at 
some posts. 

Background: 

The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, as amended, is the primary 
body of law governing immigration and visa operations.[Footnote 5] The 
Homeland Security Act of 2002 generally grants DHS exclusive authority 
to issue regulations on, administer, and enforce the Immigration and 
Nationality Act and all other immigration and nationality laws relating 
to the functions of U.S. consular officers in connection with the 
granting or denial of visas.[Footnote 6] As we reported in July 2005, 
the act also authorizes DHS to, among other things, assign employees to 
any consular post to review individual visa applications and provide 
expert advice and training to consular officers regarding specific 
security threats related to the visa process.[Footnote 7] A subsequent 
September 2003 Memorandum of Understanding between State and DHS 
further outlines the responsibilities of each agency with respect to 
visa issuance. DHS is responsible for establishing visa policy, 
reviewing implementation of the policy, and providing additional 
direction. State manages the visa process, as well as the consular 
corps and its functions at 211 visa-issuing posts overseas. 

The process for determining who will be issued or refused a visa 
contains several steps, including documentation reviews, in-person 
interviews, collection of biometrics[Footnote 8] (fingerprints), and 
cross-referencing an applicant's name against the Consular Lookout and 
Support System--State's name-check database that posts use to access 
critical information for visa adjudication. In some cases, a consular 
officer may determine the need for a Security Advisory Opinion, which 
is a response from Washington on whether to issue a visa to the 
applicant. Depending on a post's applicant pool and the number of visa 
applications that a post receives, each stage of the visa process 
varies in length. 

Applicants May Face Extensive Wait Times for Visa Interviews: 

According to consular officials, posts that consistently have wait 
times for visa interview appointments of 30 days or longer may have a 
resource or management problem. To monitor posts' workload, State 
requires that posts report, on a weekly basis, the wait times for 
applicant interviews.[Footnote 9] As of March 2006, State's data showed 
that between September 2005 and February 2006, 97 posts reported 
maximum wait times of 30 or more days in at least one month; at 20 
posts, the reported wait times were in excess of 30 days for the entire 
6-month period. Moreover, in February 2006, nine posts reported wait 
times in excess of 90 days (see table 1). 

Table 1: Consular Posts with Maximum Reported Wait Times for Temporary 
Business and Tourism Visa Interview Appointments in Excess of 90 Days, 
February 2006: 

Post: Chennai, India; 
Maximum Wait Time in Days: 168. 

Post: Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; 
Maximum Wait Time in Days: 92. 

Post: Havana, Cuba; 
Maximum Wait Time in Days: 129. 

Post: Mexico City, Mexico; 
Maximum Wait Time in Days: 134. 

Post: Mumbai, India; 
Maximum Wait Time in Days: 154. 

Post: New Delhi, India; 
Maximum Wait Time in Days: 91. 

Post: Paris, France; 
Maximum Wait Time in Days: 116. 

Post: Port Au Prince, Haiti; 
Maximum Wait Time in Days: 167. 

Post: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; 
Maximum Wait Time in Days: 140. 

Source: Department of State. 

[End of table] 

According to the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, 
managing consular workload is a major issue for the department, 
particularly at posts in India and China where volume is expected to 
continue to increase. In February 2004,[Footnote 10] we reported that 
officials at some of the posts we visited in India and China indicated 
they did not have enough space and staffing resources to handle 
interview demands and the new visa requirements. According to consular 
officers, during the 2003 summer months, the wait for visa interviews 
was as long as 12 weeks in Chennai, India. In China, applicants at one 
post were facing waits of about 5 to 6 weeks during our September 2003 
visit due to an imbalance between demand for visas and the number of 
consular officers available to interview applicants and staff to answer 
phones. Although these posts have undertaken initiatives to shorten the 
wait times, such as using temporary duty help and instituting longer 
interviewing hours, delays for visa interviews remain an ongoing 
concern. For example, the U.S. embassy in New Delhi instituted a new 
appointment system in October 2005, which resulted in immediate, 
additional interviewing capacity at post, according to consular 
officials. However, reported wait times in New Delhi had risen above 90 
days by February 2006 (see table 2). 

Table 2: Maximum Reported Wait Time in Days for Temporary Business and 
Tourism Visa Interview Appointments at Posts in India, September 2005 
through February 2006: 

India: 

Post: Calcutta; 
September: 111; 
October: 96; 
November: 101; 
December: 94; 
January: 94; 
February: 86. 

Post: Chennai (Madras); 
September: 168; 
October: 121; 
November: 122; 
December: 84; 
January: 123; 
February: 136. 

Post: Mumbai (Bombay); 
September: 79; 
October: Not reported; 
November: 70; 
December: 127; 
January: 134; 
February: 154. 

Post: New Delhi; 
September: 140; 
October: 9; 
November: 24; 
December: 40; 
January: 74; 
February: 91. 

Source: Department of State. 

[End of table] 

At posts in China, Consular Affairs indicated that improvements in 
facilities and staff increases have helped to lessen wait times for 
interviews. However, consular officials have acknowledged that demand 
for visas at posts in China is likely to rise and continue to affect 
wait times in the future. Table 3 shows recent wait times for visa 
appointments in China. 

Table 3: Maximum Reported Wait Time in Days for Temporary Business and 
Tourism Visa Interview Appointments at Posts in China, September 2005 
through February 2006: 

China: 

Post: Beijing; 
September: 36; 
October: 21; 
November: 25; 
December: 34; 
January: 26; 
February: 18. 

Post: Guangzhou; 
September: 49; 
October: 30; 
November: 17; 
December: 18; 
January: Not reported; 
February: 1. 

Post: Shanghai; 
September: 58; 
October: 28; 
November: 30; 
December: 36; 
January: 33; 
February: 19. 

Post: Shenyang; 
September: 35; 
October: 12; 
November: 2; 
December: 7; 
January: 6; 
February: 8. 

Source: Department of State. 

[End of table] 

Officials, Groups Have Noted Impact of Visa Delays on U.S. Scientific 
and Business Interests: 

Although we have not attempted to measure the impact of the time it 
takes to adjudicate a visa, we reported in February 2004 that consular 
officials and representatives of several higher education, scientific, 
and governmental organizations reported that visa delays could be 
detrimental to the scientific interests of the United States. Although 
these officials and representatives provided numerous individual 
examples of the consequences of visa delays, they were unable to 
measure the total impact of such lengthy waits. For example, in 
September 2003, Department of Energy officials in Moscow explained that 
former Soviet Union scientists have found it extremely difficult to 
travel to the United States to participate in U.S. government-sponsored 
conferences and exchanges that are critical to nonproliferation 
efforts. Business groups have also expressed concern about the impact 
of visa delays. For example, officials from the American Chamber of 
Commerce and other industry executives have testified numerous times in 
recent years about the problem of delayed entry for foreign nationals 
traveling to the United States for legitimate business purposes. In 
addition, on June 2, 2004, a coalition of eight industry associations 
published a study estimating that U.S. companies suffered losses 
totaling $30 billion from July 2002 to March 2004 due to delays and 
denials in the processing of business visas.[Footnote 11] Beijing's 
Deputy Chief of Mission and consular officials at the embassy and 
consulates in China also stated that visa delays could have a negative 
impact on student and scholar exchanges. 

Several Factors Contribute to Wait Times for Visas: 

Visa delays are a longstanding problem. However, since September 2001, 
several factors have exacerbated wait times for visas. First, changes 
to visa policies and procedures have resulted in additional workload 
for consular officers. Second, while not reaching pre-2001 levels, visa 
application volume has increased in recent years. Third, many posts 
face facility constraints, which limit the extent to which posts can 
increase visa processing. Finally, staffing shortfalls also affect the 
length of time that applicants must wait for a visa. 

Visa Policy and Procedural Changes Have Increased Consular Workload: 

Since the September 11 attacks, Congress, State, and DHS have initiated 
a series of changes to policies and procedures designed to enhance 
border security. These changes have added to the complexity of consular 
officers' workload and, in turn, exacerbated State's resource 
constraints. These changes include the following: 

* Consular officers must interview virtually all visa applicants; prior 
to August 2003, they could routinely waive interviews. 

* Since October 2004, consular officers are required to scan foreign 
nationals' right and left index fingers and clear the fingerprints 
through the DHS Automated Biometric Identification System before an 
applicant can receive a visa.[Footnote 12] 

* Some responsibilities previously delegated to Foreign Service 
nationals[Footnote 13] and consular associates[Footnote 14] have been 
transferred to consular officers. For example, consular associates are 
no longer authorized to adjudicate visas. 

* As previously mentioned, some applicants have faced additional delays 
due to various special security checks, or Security Advisory Opinions. 
For example, foreign science students and scholars, who may pose a 
threat to our national security by illegally transferring sensitive 
technology, may be subject to security checks known as Visas Mantis. In 
the spring of 2003, it took an average of 67 days for Visas Mantis 
checks to be processed and for State to notify consular posts of the 
results. Since then, State and other agencies have taken actions which 
have reduced delays to about 15 days for these checks.[Footnote 15] 

In addition, on July 13, 2005, the Secretary of Homeland Security 
announced that the U.S. government had adopted a 10-print standard for 
biometric collection for visas. In January 2006, the director of the 
U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program[Footnote 
16] testified that moving to a 10-fingerscan standard from a 2-print 
standard would allow the United States to be able to identify visa 
applicants and visitors with even greater accuracy. In February 2006, 
State reported that it plans to complete pilot testing and procurement 
of the 10-print equipment to ensure that all visa-issuing posts have 
collection capability by the end of fiscal year 2007. Requiring 
applicants to submit 10-prints could add more time to the applicant's 
interview and potentially delay visa processing. 

To help mitigate the adverse impact of these policy and procedural 
changes on wait times, State has taken actions to help maintain the 
right balance between promoting security and facilitating travel. For 
example, while we have not assessed the impact of these actions, all 
overseas posts have established procedures to expedite the processing 
of business visas and are working closely with local American Chambers 
of Commerce in more than 100 countries to expedite the visa process for 
bona fide business travelers. In July 2005, State also established a 
Business Visa Center to facilitate visa application procedures for U.S. 
businesses in conjunction with upcoming travel or events. Regarding 
foreign students, in February 2006, State announced that it has 
extended the length of time foreign students may be issued student 
visas, which will allow some students to apply up to 120 days before 
their academic program start date (as compared to 90 days under 
previous regulations).[Footnote 17] According to State, U.S. embassies 
and consulates also have established special, expedited visa interviews 
for prospective foreign students. 

Increasing Visa Demand Strains Consular Resources: 

While not returning to levels prior to the September 11 attacks, visa 
issuance rates increased in fiscal years 2004 and 2005, according to 
State's data (see fig. 1). Should application volume continue to 
increase, State has acknowledged that additional management actions 
will be necessary to ensure that visa applications are processed in a 
timely manner. 

Figure 1: Worldwide Visa Issuance Volume, Fiscal Years 1992 through 
2005: 

[See PDF for image] 

Note: According to State, the data for fiscal year 2005 are preliminary 
as of November 23, 2005, and are subject to change. 

[End of figure] 

In the future, we believe that increased global trade and economic 
growth will likely result in increased demand for visas, particularly 
in certain countries. 

Facilities Constraints Limit State's Options for Addressing Visa 
Delays: 

Embassy facilities at some posts limit the number of visa applications 
that are processed each day and make it difficult to keep up with visa 
demand. In our September 2005 report, we noted that many visa chiefs we 
interviewed reported problems with their facilities. For example, at 14 
of the 25 posts covered in our survey, consular officials rated their 
workspace as below average, and 40 percent reported that applicants' 
waiting rooms were below average. In addition, due to overcrowded 
waiting rooms at four of the eight posts we visited, we observed visa 
applicants waiting for their interviews outside or in adjacent 
hallways. Moreover, a limited number of security guards and screening 
devices, as well as limited physical space, often create bottlenecks at 
the facilities' security checkpoints. In March 2006, we observed visa 
facilities in Paris, France, and noted that there are insufficient 
adjudicating windows to meet visa demand. A senior consular official 
acknowledged that many consular facilities are located in run-down 
buildings with insufficient adjudicating windows and waiting rooms. In 
fiscal year 2003, Congress directed the Overseas Building Operations 
Bureau to begin a 3-year Consular Workspace Improvement Initiative to 
improve the overall working environment for consular officers.[Footnote 
18] In fiscal years 2003 and 2004, State obligated $10.2 million to 79 
workspace improvement projects at 68 posts. However, according to a 
senior consular official, these funds are being used to provide 
temporary solutions at posts that may require a new embassy as part of 
State's multibillion-dollar embassy construction program. It may take 
years before some posts' facilities needs are fully addressed. 

To have sufficient resources to manage the demand for visas and 
minimize the time applicants must wait, State may need to consider 
establishing new visa-issuing posts. Indeed, in its 2005 inspection of 
the Embassy in New Delhi, for example, the Office of the Inspector 
General stated that State should establish a permanent consulate in 
Hyderabad, India, by no later than 2008 in light of the need for 
expanded visa processing facilities due to increased application 
volume. In March 2006, the President announced that the United States 
would open a new consulate; however, it is unclear when this may 
happen. 

Staffing Shortfalls Impact the Effectiveness of Visa Operations: 

In September 2005, we reported that State faced staffing shortfalls in 
consular positions--a key factor affecting the effectiveness of the 
visa process and the length of time applicants must wait for visas. As 
of April 30, 2005, we found that 26 percent of midlevel consular 
positions were either vacant or filled by an entry-level 
officer.[Footnote 19] In addition, almost three-quarters of the vacant 
positions were at the FS-03 level--midlevel officers who generally 
supervise entry-level staff. Consular officials attribute this 
shortfall to low hiring levels prior to the Diplomatic Readiness 
Initiative[Footnote 20] and the necessary expansion of entry-level 
positions to accommodate increasing workload requirements after 
September 11, 2001. We believe experienced supervision at visa-issuing 
posts is important to avoiding visa delays. For example, experienced 
officers may provide guidance to entry-level officers on ways to 
expedite visa processing, including advising staff on when special 
security checks are required. 

During our February 2005 visits to Riyadh and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and 
Cairo, Egypt, we observed that the consular sections were staffed with 
entry-level officers on their first assignment with no permanent 
midlevel visa chief to provide supervision and guidance. Although these 
posts had other mid-or senior-level consular officers, their 
availability on visa issues was limited because of their additional 
responsibilities. For example, the head of the visa section in Jeddah 
was responsible for managing the entire section, as well as services 
for American citizens due to a midlevel vacancy in that position. At 
the time of our visit, the Riyadh Embassy did not have a midlevel visa 
chief. Similarly, in Cairo, there was no permanent midlevel supervisor 
between the winter of 2004 and the summer of 2005, and Consular Affairs 
used five temporary staff on a rotating basis during this period to 
serve in this capacity. Entry-level officers we spoke with stated that 
due to the constant turnover, the temporary supervisors were unable to 
assist them adequately. At the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, entry-level 
officers expressed concern about the lack of a midlevel supervisor. 
More recently, during a February 2006 visits to posts in Nigeria and 
China, we found similar consular vacancies. For example, first tour, 
entry-level officers in Chengdu and Shenyang, China, are filling 
midlevel consular positions. 

We have reported on numerous occasions that factors such as staffing 
shortages have contributed to long wait times for visas at some posts. 
Since 2002, State has received funding to address these shortfalls. 
Through the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative and other sources, State 
increased the number of Foreign Service officer consular positions by 
364, from 1,037 in fiscal year 2002 to 1,401 in fiscal year 2005. 
However, while we have not studied this issue, the disparity in wait 
times among posts may indicate the need to reallocate positions to 
address the growing consular demand and long wait times at some posts. 

In the event of staffing shortfalls, State has mechanisms for 
requesting increased staff resources. For example, if the Consular 
Affairs Bureau identifies a need for additional staff in headquarters 
or overseas, it may request that the Human Resources Bureau establish 
new positions. In addition, posts can also describe their needs for 
additional positions through their consular package--a report submitted 
annually to the Consular Affairs Bureau that details workload 
statistics and staffing requirements, among other things. For example, 
in December 2004, during the course of our work, the consular section 
in Riyadh reported to Washington that there was an immediate need to 
create a midlevel visa chief position at post, and consular officials 
worked with human resource officials to create this position, which, 
according to State officials, would be filled by summer 2005. 

State Has Not Assessed Overall Consular Resource Needs: 

State's current assignment process does not guarantee that all 
authorized positions will be filled, particularly at hardship posts. 
Historically, State has rarely directed its employees to serve in 
locations for which they have not bid on a position, including hardship 
posts or locations of strategic importance to the United States, due to 
concerns that such staff may be more apt to have poor morale or be less 
productive.[Footnote 21] Due to State's decision to not force 
assignments, along with the limited amount of midlevel officers 
available to apply for them,[Footnote 22] important positions may 
remain vacant. 

According to a deputy assistant secretary for human resources, Consular 
Affairs can prioritize those positions that require immediate staffing 
to ensure that officers are assigned to fill critical staffing gaps. 
For example, Consular Affairs could choose not to advertise certain 
positions of lesser priority during an annual assignment cycle. 
However, senior Consular Affairs officials acknowledged that they 
rarely do this. According to these officials, Consular Affairs does not 
have direct control over the filling of all consular positions and can 
often face resistance from regional bureaus and chiefs of mission 
overseas who do not want vacancies at their posts. Thus, as we have 
previously reported, certain high-priority positions may not be filled 
if Foreign Service officers do not bid on them. 

In commenting on a draft of our September 2005 report, State disagreed 
with our recommendation that it prepare a comprehensive plan to address 
vulnerabilities in consular staffing. State argued that it already had 
such a plan. Moreover, State claimed that it appreciates that priority 
positions must be filled worldwide based on the relative strategic 
importance of posts and positions. While State argued that every visa 
consular officer is serving a strategic function, the department 
identified one post, Embassy Baghdad, as a clear example of a priority 
post. Further, State acknowledged that it has fewer midlevel consular 
officers than it needs. We continue to believe it is incumbent on the 
department to conduct a worldwide analysis to identify high-priority 
posts and positions, such as supervisory consular positions in posts 
with high-risk applicant pools or those with high workloads and long 
wait times for applicant interviews. Although State noted that it 
anticipated addressing this shortage of midlevel consular officers, it 
did not indicate when that gap would be filled. 

On January 18, 2006, the Secretary of State announced the department's 
plan to restructure overseas and domestic staffing. This plan aims to 
shift U.S. diplomatic personnel from European posts and headquarters 
offices to posts in Africa, South Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere. 
While we have not conducted a comprehensive review of this initiative, 
only midlevel political, economic, and public diplomacy officers, and 
not consular officers, would comprise the initial realignment of 100 
positions, according to State officials. 

In February 2006, consular officials told us that, since our report, 
they concluded a review of consular position grades to ensure that they 
reflect the work requirements for each consular position. Based on this 
analysis, consular officials recommended that 47 positions be upgraded-
-from an entry-to midlevel position, for example--to reconcile the 
management structures of posts that have undergone rapid growth. 
However, State's bidding and assignment process does not guarantee that 
the positions of highest priority will always be filled with qualified 
officers. Therefore, a further assessment is needed to ensure that 
State has determined its staffing requirements and placed the right 
people in the right posts with the necessary skill levels. 

Conclusions: 

The visa process presents a balance between facilitating legitimate 
travel and identifying those who might harm the United States. State, 
in coordination with other agencies, has made substantial improvements 
to the visa process to strengthen it as a national security tool. 
However, given the large responsibility placed on consular officers, 
particularly entry-level officers, it is critical to provide consular 
posts with the resources necessary for them to be effective. Indeed, 
extensive delays for visa interview appointments point to the need for 
State to perform a rigorous assessment of staffing requirements to 
achieve its goal of having the right people with the right skills in 
the right places. 

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement. I will be happy to 
answer any questions you or Members of the Committee may have. 

Contact and Staff Acknowledgments: 

For questions regarding this testimony, please call Jess T. Ford, (202) 
512-4128 or fordj@gao.gov. Individuals making key contributions to this 
statement include John Brummet, Assistant Director, and Kathryn Bernet, 
Eugene Beye, Joseph Carney, and Jane Kim. 

[End of section] 

Appendix I: Related GAO Products: 

Border Security: Strengthened Visa Process Would Benefit From 
Improvements in Staffing and Information Sharing. GAO-05-859. September 
13, 2005. 

Border Security: Actions Needed to Strengthen Management of Department 
of Homeland Security's Visa Security Program. GAO-05-801. July 29, 
2005. 

Border Security: Streamlined Visas Mantis Program Has Lowered Burden on 
Foreign Science Students and Scholars, but Further Refinements Needed. 
GAO-05-198. February 18, 2005. 

Border Security: State Department Rollout of Biometric Visas on 
Schedule, but Guidance Is Lagging. GAO-04-1001. September 9, 2004. 

Border Security: Additional Actions Needed to Eliminate Weaknesses in 
the Visa Revocation Process. GAO-04-795. July 13, 2004. 

Visa Operations at U.S. Posts in Canada. GAO-04-708R. May 18, 2004. 

Border Security: Improvements Needed to Reduce Time Taken to Adjudicate 
Visas for Science Students and Scholars. GAO-04-371. February 25, 2004. 

State Department: Targets for Hiring, Filling Vacancies Overseas Being 
Met but Gaps Remain in Hard-to-Learn Languages. GAO-04-139. November 
19, 2003. 

Border Security: New Policies and Procedures Are Needed to Fill Gaps in 
the Visa Revocation Process. GAO-03-798. June 18, 2003. 

Border Security: Implications of Eliminating the Visa Waiver Program. 
GAO-03-38. November 22, 2002. 

Technology Assessment: Using Biometrics for Border Security. GAO-03- 
174. November 15, 2002. 

Border Security: Visa Process Should Be Strengthened as an 
Antiterrorism Tool. GAO-03-132NI. October 21, 2002. 

State Department: Staffing Shortfalls and Ineffective Assignment System 
Compromise Diplomatic Readiness at Hardship Posts. GAO-02-626. June 18, 
2002. 

State Department: Tourist Visa Processing Backlogs Persist and U.S. 
Consulates. GAO/NSIAD-98-69. March 13, 1998. 

State Department: Backlogs of Tourist Visas at U.S. Consulates. 
GAO/NSIAD-92-185. April 30, 1992. 

FOOTNOTES 

[1] The United States also grants visas to people who intend to 
immigrate to the United States. In this testimony, the term "visa" 
refers to nonimmigrant visas only. Persons who may require nonimmigrant 
visas include temporary business travelers and tourists. 

[2] See GAO, Border Security: Improvements Needed to Reduce Time Taken 
to Adjudicate Visas for Science Students and Scholars, GAO-04-371 
(Washington, D.C.: Feb. 25, 2004). 

[3] See GAO, Border Security: Strengthened Visa Process Would Benefit 
From Improvements in Staffing and Information Sharing, GAO-05-859 
(Washington, D.C.: Sept. 13, 2005), and GAO, Border Security: Visa 
Process Should Be Strengthened as an Antiterrorism Tool, GAO-03-132NI 
(Washington, D.C.: Oct. 21, 2002). 

[4] According to consular officials, in cases where posts report wait 
time data more than once in a given month, State's data are the maximum 
wait time reported that month. 

[5] P.L. 82-414, 8 U.S.C. § 1101 et seq. 

[6] State retains authority in certain circumstances, as outlined in 
the act. See P.L. 107-296. 

[7] The act also requires that DHS on-site personnel in Saudi Arabia 
review all visa applications prior to adjudication by consular 
officers. P.L. 107-296, Sec. 428(e) and Sec. 428(i). See GAO, Border 
Security: Actions Needed to Strengthen Management of Department of 
Homeland Security's Visa Security Program, GAO-05-801 (Washington, 
D.C.: July 29, 2005). 

[8] Biometrics is a wide range of technologies that can be used to 
verify a person's identity by measuring and analyzing that person's 
physiological characteristics. For the purposes of this testimony, 
"biometric identifiers" refers to fingerprints. See GAO, Technology 
Assessment: Using Biometrics for Border Security, GAO-03-174 
(Washington, D.C.: Nov. 14, 2002). 

[9] Posts are asked to provide the appointment wait time applicable to 
the majority of applicants applying for a given category of visas on a 
given day, and not an average wait time. In September 2005, our 
analysis of State's data on reported wait times revealed significant 
numbers of posts that did not report on a weekly basis during the 6- 
month period we reviewed. Therefore, the data were not sufficiently 
reliable to fully determine how many posts had wait times in excess of 
30 days. We recommended that State ensure that consular chiefs update 
interview wait time data on a weekly basis. For the purposes of this 
statement, the data are sufficiently reliable to broadly indicate that 
delays for visa appointments are an ongoing concern. 

[10] GAO-04-371. 

[11] The Santangelo Group, Do Visa Delays Hurt U.S. Business? 
(Washington, D.C.: June 2, 2004). 

[12] The Automated Biometric Identification System is a DHS database 
that includes some 5 million people who may be ineligible to receive a 
visa. For example, the Automated Biometric Identification System data 
includes, among other records, FBI information on all known and 
suspected terrorists, selected wanted persons, and previous criminal 
histories for individuals from high-risk countries. See GAO, Border 
Security: State Department Rollout of Biometric Visas on Schedule, but 
Guidance Is Lagging, GAO-04-1001 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 9, 2004). 

[13] Foreign Service national employees are non-U.S. citizens employed 
at a U.S. Foreign Service post by a U.S. government agency. 

[14] Consular associates are U.S. citizens and relatives of U.S. 
government direct-hire employees overseas who, following successful 
completion of the required Basic Consular Course, are hired by the 
Consular Section at their post. Beginning in fiscal year 2002, State 
began a 3-year transition to remove adjudication functions from 
consular associates and provide additional consular officers. 

[15] GAO, Border Security: Streamlined Visas Mantis Program Has Lowered 
Burden on Foreign Science Students and Scholars, but Further 
Refinements Needed, GAO-05-198 (Washington, D.C.: Feb. 18, 2005). 

[16] US-VISIT is a government wide program to collect, maintain, and 
share information on foreign nationals and better control and monitor 
the entry, visa status, and exit of visitors. Under the program, most 
foreign visitors are required to submit to fingerprint scans of their 
right and left index finger and have a digital photograph taken upon 
arrival at U.S. ports of entry. As a complement to US-VISIT, State 
implemented the Biometric Visa Program at all visa-issuing overseas 
consulates on October 26, 2004. See Section 303 of the Enhanced Border 
Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, P.L. 107-173. 

[17] These changes apply only to initial-entry students. 

[18] See House Conference Report 108-10, attached to P.L. 108-7, 
Consolidated Appropriations Resolution, 2003. 

[19] Foreign Service officers are assigned a grade, which ranges from 
FS-06 to FS-01, corresponding from entry-level to midlevel, 
respectively. According to State, officers at grades 6 through 4 are 
classified as junior officers; 3 through 1 are midlevel officers. In 
addition, members of the senior Foreign Service are senior officers. In 
this testimony, we refer to them as entry-level, midlevel, and senior- 
level officers. 

[20] In fiscal year 2002, State launched the Diplomatic Readiness 
Initiative--a 3-year effort to ensure global diplomatic readiness-- 
through which State reported that it hired 834 Foreign Service 
officers. In addition, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention 
Act of 2004 authorized the hiring of an additional 150 consular 
officers per year for fiscal years 2006 through 2009. See P.L. 108-458 
§ 7203. 

[21] State defines hardship posts as those locations where the U.S. 
government provides differential pay incentives--an additional 5 
percent to 25 percent of base salary depending on the severity or 
difficulty of the conditions--to encourage employees to bid on 
assignments to these posts and to compensate them for the hardships 
they encounter. See GAO, State Department: Staffing Shortfalls and 
Ineffective Assignment System Compromise Diplomatic Readiness at 
Hardship Posts, GAO-02-626 (Washington, D.C.: June 18, 2002). 

[22] The assignment process begins when Foreign Service employees who 
are eligible to be transferred from their current assignment each year 
receive a list of instructions and upcoming vacancies for which they 
may compete. Staff then must submit a list of those positions for which 
they want to be considered.