Border Security:

Reassessment of Consular Resource Requirements Could Help Address Visa Delays

GAO-06-542T: Published: Apr 4, 2006. Publicly Released: Apr 4, 2006.

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Jess T. Ford
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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.

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.

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