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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) manages the Visa Security Program (VSP), which provides an additional layer of review to the visa adjudication process; however, VSP agents are not consistently providing required training to consular officers. ICE implemented the Pre-Adjudicated Threat Recognition and Intelligence Operations Team (PATRIOT) in fiscal year 2014. PATRIOT screens 100 percent of nonimmigrant visa applications at VSP posts against U.S. databases, and U.S.-based analysts manually vet applications with potential matches to derogatory information. VSP agents at post then make recommendations to Department of State (State) consular officers on whether to refuse a visa. In fiscal year 2016, VSP screened over 2.1 million visa applications, and recommended over 8,000 visa refusals. In addition, VSP agents and VSP-funded locally employed staff dedicated approximately 43 percent of their work hours in fiscal year 2016 to non-VSP activities—such as assisting ICE investigations not directly related to visas. ICE increased the percentage of VSP posts providing quarterly training from 30 percent in fiscal year 2014 to 79 percent in fiscal year 2016. However, some trainings are not targeted to the specific post and do not address identified threats to the visa process, as required. Ensuring that VSP agents provide required training would help ensure consular officers have information that could assist them in adjudicating visas.

ICE developed objectives and performance measures for VSP, but its measures are not outcome-based and limit the agency's ability to assess the effectiveness of VSP. As of fiscal year 2017, none of VSP's 19 established performance measures are outcome-based. For example, ICE measures its activities, such as number of visa refusals VSP agents recommended, rather than the outcomes of those recommendations. ICE officials stated that measuring VSP's outcomes is difficult due to the qualitative nature of the program's benefits; however, solely tracking activities, such as number of recommended refusals, does not allow ICE to evaluate VSP's effectiveness. Developing and implementing outcome-based performance measures, consistent with best practices for performance management, would help ICE determine whether VSP is achieving its objectives.

ICE evaluated options for VSP expansion but its site selection process did not incorporate PATRIOT data or options for remote operations that, for example, use U.S.-based VSP agents. ICE has previously utilized PATRIOT to gather data to estimate program capacity, but ICE officials stated that they do not use PATRIOT to collect data on the potential number of ineligible visa applicants and workload for posts under consideration for VSP expansion. By incorporating PATRIOT data on posts under consideration into its site selection process, ICE could more effectively manage human capital and other resources. Further, ICE has implemented remote VSP operations in some posts, but does not consider such approaches during its annual site selection process. ICE documentation stated that ICE could successfully screen and vet applicants remotely through VSP, however the officials' preferred approach is to deploy agents to posts overseas. Incorporating remote options for VSP operations could help identify opportunities to further expand VSP and better utilize resources.

Why GAO Did This Study

In response to congressional concerns about potential vulnerabilities in the visa issuance process, ICE implemented VSP in 2003, which deploys officials to certain U.S. posts overseas to review visa applications, train consular officers, and conduct related investigations. ICE had expanded VSP operations to 32 posts, as of 2017.

GAO was asked to review VSP. This report examines the extent to which: (1) VSP has contributed to the visa adjudication process, (2) ICE has implemented a system to assess VSP performance, and (3) ICE has identified and evaluated options to expand VSP to additional posts.

GAO analyzed ICE data for each VSP post for fiscal years 2014 through 2016, the most current full-year data available at the time of GAO's study; reviewed documents relating to VSP; and interviewed relevant agency officials. GAO visited 7 VSP posts selected on the basis of workload and other factors, and administered two surveys to consular and VSP officials, respectively, at all VSP posts that were operational at the time the survey was administered.

Reissued with Revisions Mar. 29, 2018

This report was revised on March 29, 2018, to correct the definition of “ineligible” in the sidebar on page 10.
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Recommendations

GAO recommends that ICE ensure that trainings are implemented as required, develop and implement outcome-based performance measures, and incorporate PATRIOT data and remote options into its site selection process. DHS concurred with all recommendations. This is a public version of a sensitive report issued in December 2017. Information that DHS or State deemed sensitive has been omitted.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement The Director of ICE should ensure that trainings provided by VSP agents to consular officers are developed and implemented with required frequency and content. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
In March 2018, we reported that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data on the number of trainings recorded by Visa Security Program (VSP) agents indicated that the program had increased the percentage of VSP posts meeting the program's training requirement since fiscal year 2014, but some posts had not fully met this requirement. Specifically, we reported that some posts did not provide all of the quarterly training to Department of State consular officers, and some trainings were not targeted to the specific post and did not address identified threats to the visa process, as required by the Homeland Security Act of 2002. We recommended that ICE ensure that trainings provided by VSP agents to consular officers be developed and implemented with required frequency and content. In response, ICE created a training portal for VSP agents that contains training materials on various topics, such as human trafficking, terrorism finance, and grounds of inadmissibility. In January 2020, ICE officials stated that the portal allows VSP agents overseas to select training materials on topics that would be most relevant to the needs of their post. Further, ICE tracks implementation of the quarterly training through one of its performance measures, and communicates progress towards meeting the requirement to the posts through a quarterly dashboard. These actions should help ensure that that VSP agents provide training as required by the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which will provide consular officers with additional information on threats that could assist them in conducting visa adjudications.
United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement The Director of ICE should develop and implement outcome-based performance measures to evaluate the effectiveness of the VSP and assess whether the program is achieving its objectives. (Recommendation 2)
Closed - Implemented
In fiscal year 2018, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) developed targets for four performance measures to measure the Visa Security Program's (VSP) ability to achieve program objectives, which ICE tracks using a quarterly dashboard. In addition, ICE continues to track other output-based metrics related to program performance, such as applications screened, applications vetted, and investigations opened. ICE officials stated that the four new performance measures supplement the output-based metrics and measure key outcomes across VSP posts. Implementing these outcome-based performance measures should help ICE determine whether VSP is effective and achieving its intended objectives.
United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement The Director of ICE should incorporate PATRIOT data into the VSP's site selection process for the posts it is considering for expansion. (Recommendation 3)
Closed - Implemented
In March 2018, we reported that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had previously utilized data from the Visa Security Program's (VSP) Pre-Adjudicated Threat Recognition and Intelligence Operations Team (PATRIOT) to estimate program capacity, but do not use PATRIOT to collect data on the potential number of ineligible visa applicants and workload for posts under consideration for VSP expansion. Therefore, we recommended that ICE incorporate PATRIOT data into the VSP's site selection process for the posts it is considering for expansion. In response, in May 2019, ICE officials reported that the agency had developed a statistical model to incorporate historical PATRIOT data into its site selection process for posts being considered for expansion. In January 2020, ICE officials stated that the model will allow the program to make reasonable presumptions for workloads at posts being considered for expansion, as well as workload needs for domestically-based VSP analysts. Further, ICE officials stated that they review the statistical model every year to assess how effective it was in predicting workload, and will make adjustments to the model as needed. Using such data to help make expansion decisions should better position ICE to more effectively manage human capital and other resources by anticipating workload needs at posts to which it is considers expanding the program.
United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement The Director of ICE should incorporate remote models of VSP operations in the program's site selection process. (Recommendation 4)
Closed - Implemented
In March 2018, we reported that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had implemented Visa Security Program (VSP) operations at some posts remotely, but does not consider such approaches during its annual site selection process. ICE documentation stated that ICE could successfully screen and vet applicants remotely through VSP, however the officials' preferred approach is to deploy agents to posts overseas. We recommended that ICE incorporate remote models of VSP operations in the program's site selection process. In response, in June 2018, ICE updated its site-selection methodology and tools to incorporate additional data points and filters to help evaluate the viability of potential remote VSPs operations. Further, the program has previously expanded to two remote posts and, as of January 2020, is in the process of expanding to three additional posts using remote vetting. At these posts, ICE Homeland Security Investigations agents abroad coordinate with Department of State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security agents at the post and ICE analysts in the United States to screen and vet visa applicants. Incorporating remote models of VSP operations in the program's site selection process should help ICE identify opportunities to better utilize finite resources while still addressing the congressional directive to expand VSP.

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