Border Security:

Stronger Actions Needed to Assess and Mitigate Risks of the Visa Waiver Program

GAO-06-1090T: Published: Sep 7, 2006. Publicly Released: Sep 7, 2006.

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Jess T. Ford
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The Visa Waiver Program enables citizens of 27 countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for 90 days or less without obtaining a visa. In fiscal year 2005, nearly 16 million people entered the country under the program. After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the risk that aliens would exploit the program to enter the United States became more of a concern. This testimony discusses our recent report on the Visa Waiver Program. Specifically, it (1) describes the Visa Waiver Program's benefits and risks, (2) examines the U.S. government's process for assessing potential risks, and (3) assesses the actions taken to mitigate these risks. We met with U.S. embassy officials in six program countries and reviewed relevant procedures and reports on participating countries

The Visa Waiver Program has many benefits as well as some inherent risks. It facilitates travel for millions of people and eases consular workload, but poses challenges to border inspectors, who, when screening visa waiver travelers, may face language barriers or lack time to conduct in-depth interviews. Furthermore, stolen passports from visa waiver countries are prized travel documents among terrorists, criminals, and immigration law violators, creating an additional risk. While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has intercepted many fraudulent documents at U.S. ports of entry, DHS officials acknowledged that an undetermined number of inadmissible aliens may have entered the United States using a stolen or lost passport from a visa waiver country. DHS's process for assessing the risks of the Visa Waiver Program has weaknesses. In 2002, Congress mandated that, every 2 years, DHS review the effect that each country's continued participation in the program has on U.S. law enforcement and security interests, but did not set a reporting deadline. In 2004, DHS established a unit to oversee the program and conduct these reviews. We identified several problems with the 2004 review process, as key stakeholders were not consulted during portions of the process, the review process lacked clear criteria and guidance to make key judgments, and the final reports were untimely. Furthermore, the monitoring unit cannot effectively achieve its mission to monitor and report on ongoing law enforcement and security concerns in visa waiver countries due to insufficient resources. DHS has taken some actions to mitigate the program's risks; however, the department has faced difficulties in further mitigating these risks. In particular, the department has not established time frames and operating procedures regarding timely stolen passport reporting--a program requirement since 2002. Furthermore, DHS has sought to require the reporting of lost and stolen passport data to the United States and the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), but it has not issued clear reporting guidelines to participating countries. While most visa waiver countries report to Interpol's database, four do not. Further, DHS is not using Interpol's data to its full potential as a border screening tool because U.S. border inspectors do not automatically access the data at primary inspection.

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