oversight

Border Security: New Policies and Procedures Are Needed to Fill Gaps in the Visa Revocation Process

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2003-06-18.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                             United States General Accounting Office

GAO                          Testimony
                             Before the Subcommittee on National Security,
                             Emerging Threats, and International Relations,
                             Committee on Government Reform, House of
                             Representatives
For Release on Delivery
Expected at 10:00 a.m. EST
Wednesday, June 18, 2003     BORDER SECURITY
                             New Policies and
                             Procedures Are Needed to
                             Fill Gaps in the Visa
                             Revocation Process
                             Statement of Jess T. Ford, Director
                             International Affairs and Trade




GAO-03-908T
                                               June 2003


                                               BORDER SECURITY

                                               New Policies and Procedures Are Needed
Highlights of GAO-03-908T, a testimony         to Fill Gaps in the Visa Revocation
before the Subcommittee on National
Security, Emerging Threats, and                Process
International Relations, Committee on
Government Reform, House of
Representatives




The National Strategy for                      Our analysis shows that the visa revocation process was not being fully
Homeland Security calls for                    utilized as an antiterrorism tool. The visa revocation process broke down
preventing the entry of foreign                when information on individuals with revoked visas was not shared between
terrorists into our country and                State and appropriate immigration and law enforcement offices. It broke
using all legal means to identify;             down even further when individuals had already entered the United States
halt; and where appropriate,
prosecute or bring immigration or
                                               prior to revocation. INS and the FBI were not routinely taking actions to
other civil charges against                    investigate, locate, or resolve the cases of individuals who remained in the
terrorists in the United States.               United States after their visas were revoked. In our review of 240 visa
GAO reported in October 2002 that              revocations, we found that
the Department of State had
revoked visas of certain persons               •       appropriate units within INS and the FBI did not always receive
after it learned they might be                         notifications of all the revocations;
suspected terrorists, raising                  •       names were not consistently posted to the agencies’ watch lists of
concerns that some of these                            suspected terrorists;
individuals may have entered the               •       30 individuals whose visas were revoked on terrorism grounds had
United States before or after State’s                  entered the United States and may still remain; and
action. Congressional requesters
asked GAO to (1) assess the
                                               •       INS and the FBI were not routinely taking actions to investigate, locate,
effectiveness of the visa revocation                   or resolve the cases of individuals who remained in the United States
process and (2) identify the                           after their visas were revoked.
policies and procedures of State,
the Immigration and Naturalization             These weaknesses resulted from the U.S. government’s limited policy
Service (INS), and the Federal                 guidance on the process. None of the agencies have specific, written policies
Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that             on using the visa revocation process as an antiterrorism tool.
govern their respective actions in
the process.                                   Diagram of Gaps in the Visa Revocation Notification System



GAO makes recommendations to
the Department of Homeland
Security, in conjunction with the
Departments of State and Justice,
to develop specific policies and
procedures for the interagency visa
revocation process to ensure that
when State revokes a visa because
of terrorism concerns, the
appropriate units within State, INS,
and the FBI are notified
immediately and that proper
actions are taken.



www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-03-908T.

To view the full product, click on the link
above. For more information, contact Jess T.   a
                                                   On March 1, 2003, INS’s various functions transferred to the Department of Homeland Security.
Ford at (202) 512-4128 or fordj@gao.gov.
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I am pleased to be here to discuss the report1 we are issuing today on the
need for new policies and procedures to fill gaps in the visa revocation
process. As you are aware, Mr. Chairman, in the National Strategy for
Homeland Security2 the President said that the U.S. government has no
more important mission than protecting the homeland from future
terrorist attacks. Our report calls for new policies and procedures to
ensure that when the Department of State revokes a visa because of
terrorism concerns, homeland security and law enforcement agencies that
protect our country are promptly notified of this information and take
appropriate action. Since the September 11 attacks, State’s Bureau of
Consular Affairs has been receiving an increased volume of information
from the intelligence community, law enforcement agencies, and other
sources on suspected terrorists. In some cases, the department decided to
revoke visas of certain individuals when it received potentially derogatory
information on them after issuing the visas. This issue was raised in our
October 2002 report on strengthening the visa process as an antiterrorism
tool.3 In that report, we found that the State Department had revoked the
visas of certain individuals after learning that they might be suspected
terrorists, raising concerns that some of these people may have entered
the United States before or after their visas were revoked.

At your request, Mr. Chairman, and that of Senator Grassley, we evaluated
how the visa revocation process is being used as an antiterrorism tool. We
(1) assessed the effectiveness of the visa revocation process, specifically
(a) the steps State took to notify appropriate units within the Immigration
and Naturalization Service (INS),4 which is now part of the Department of


1
 U.S. General Accounting Office, Border Security: New Policies and Procedures Needed to
Fill Gaps in the Visa Revocation Process (Washington, D.C.: June 18, 2003).
2
Office of Homeland Security, National Strategy for Homeland Security (Washington,
D.C.: July 2002).
3
 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).
4
 On March 1, 2003, INS became part of three units within the Department of Homeland
Security. INS inspection functions transferred to the Bureau of Customs and Border
Protection; its investigative and enforcement functions transferred to the Bureau of
Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and its immigration services function became part
of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. Because our work focused on visa
revocation cases that took place before the March 1 reorganization, our report refers to the
U.S. government’s immigration agency as INS.



Page 1                                                                        GAO-03-908T
          Homeland Security, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of
          revocations and the procedures used by the three agencies to post
          lookouts on these revocations to their terrorist watch lists; 5 (b) whether
          any of the individuals whose visas had been revoked were able to enter the
          United States before or after the revocation; and (c) the actions taken by
          INS and the FBI to investigate; locate; and, where appropriate, clear,
          remove, or prosecute the individuals who did enter the United States and
          may still remain here after their visas have been revoked; and (2)
          determined the policies and procedures of the State Department, INS, and
          the FBI that govern their respective actions in the visa revocation process.
          Our work focused on all 240 of State’s visa revocations on terrorism
          grounds from September 11, 2001, through December 31, 2002.


          Our analysis shows that the visa revocation process is not being fully
Summary   utilized as an antiterrorism tool. The visa revocation process could be
          more aggressively used to prevent suspected terrorists from entering the
          country and to alert homeland security and law enforcement agencies that
          individuals who entered before their visas were revoked might be security
          risks. However, we found that, in practice, the process broke down when
          information on visa revocations was not shared between State and
          appropriate immigration and law enforcement offices. It broke down even
          further when the individuals in question had already entered the United
          States prior to revocation. INS and the FBI were not routinely taking
          actions to investigate,6 locate, or resolve the cases of individuals who
          remained in the United States after their visas were revoked. Depending
          on the results of the investigations, the cases could be resolved by clearing
          persons who were wrongly suspected of terrorism, removing suspected
          terrorists from the country, or prosecuting suspected terrorists on criminal
          charges.


          5
           These watch lists are automated databases that contain information about individuals who
          are known or suspected terrorists so that these individuals can be prevented from entering
          the country, apprehended while in the country, or apprehended as they attempt to exit the
          country. Specific entries on watch lists are sometimes referred to as “lookouts.”
          6
           The Attorney General’s Guidelines on General Crimes, Racketeering Enterprise and
          Terrorism Enterprise Investigations provide for graduated levels of investigative activity
          by the FBI, allowing the bureau to act well in advance of the commission of planned
          terrorist acts or other federal crimes. The three levels of investigative activity defined in the
          guidelines are (1) the prompt and extremely limited checking of initial leads; (2)
          preliminary inquiries; and (3) full investigations. In this testimony, we are not prescribing
          which level of investigative activity is appropriate for persons with revoked visas who may
          be in the United States.



          Page 2                                                                           GAO-03-908T
                   In our review of the 240 visa revocations, we found numerous cases where
                   notification of the revocation did not reach appropriate units within INS
                   and the FBI and cases where lookouts were not posted to the agencies’
                   watch lists of suspected terrorists. We also found evidence that 30
                   individuals whose visas were revoked because of terrorism concerns
                   entered the United States and may still remain in the country.7
                   Additionally, INS and the FBI were not routinely taking actions to
                   investigate, locate, or resolve the cases of individuals who remained in the
                   United States after their visas were revoked. I would like to expand on
                   these weaknesses in the process, and then comment on the U.S.
                   government’s lack of a specific policy on visa revocations. Finally, I will
                   outline the recommendations we have developed to strengthen the visa
                   revocation process as an antiterrorism tool. In general, we recommend the
                   development of specific policies and procedures to ensure that persons
                   whose visas have been revoked because of potential terrorism concerns
                   be denied entry to the United States and those who may already be in the
                   United States be investigated to determine if they pose a security threat.


                   In our review of the 240 visa revocations, we found examples where
Weaknesses in      information on visa revocations did not flow between the State
Notification and   Department and appropriate units overseas and within INS and the FBI.
                   State Department officials from the Visa Office told us that when they
Watch List         revoke a visa in Washington, they are supposed to take the following
Procedures         steps: (1) notify consular officers at all overseas posts that the individual is
                   a suspected terrorist by entering a lookout on the person into State’s
                   watch list, the Consular Lookout and Support System, known as CLASS;
                   (2) notify the INS Lookout Unit via a faxed copy of the revocation
                   certificate so that the unit can enter the individual into its watch list and
                   notify officials at ports of entry; and (3) notify the issuing post via cable so
                   that the post can attempt to contact the individual to physically cancel his
                   visa. Information-only copies of these cables are also sent to INS’s and
                   FBI’s main communications enters. State officials told us they rely on INS
                   and FBI internal distribution mechanisms to ensure that these cables are
                   routed to appropriate units within the agencies.



                   7
                    This number is based on our analysis of data we received from INS as of May 19, 2003. On
                   May 20 and 21, the INS and FBI, respectively, provided additional information related to
                   this matter. Because of the nature and volume of this data, we were not able to fully
                   analyze it in time for this testimony. The data could show that the number of persons is
                   higher or lower than 30.



                   Page 3                                                                      GAO-03-908T
Figure 1 demonstrates gaps that we identified in the flow of information
from State to INS and the FBI, and within these agencies, as well as the
resulting inconsistencies in the posting of lookouts to the agencies’
respective watch lists.




Page 4                                                         GAO-03-908T
Figure 1: Diagram of Gaps in the Visa Revocation Notification System and Watch
List Procedures




a
Now within the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.
b
Now within the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.




Page 5                                                              GAO-03-908T
The top arrow in the diagram shows the extent of communication on visa
revocations between the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs
and State’s overseas consular posts. We found that State had not
consistently followed its informal policy of entering a lookout into its
CLASS lookout system at the time of the revocation. State officials said
that they post lookouts on individuals with revoked visas in CLASS so that,
if the individual attempts to get a new visa, consular officers at overseas
posts will know that the applicant has had a previous visa revoked and
that a security advisory opinion on the individual is required before issuing
a new visa. Without a lookout, it is possible that a new visa could be issued
without additional security screening. We reviewed CLASS records on all
240 individuals whose visas were revoked and found that the State
Department did not post lookouts within a 2-week period of the revocation
on 64 of these individuals.

The second arrow depicts the information flow on revocations between
State and the INS Lookout Unit, which is the inspections unit that posts
lookouts on INS’s watch list to prevent terrorists (and other inadmissible
aliens) from entering the United States. Officials from the INS Lookout
Unit told us they had not received any notice of the revocations from State
in 43 of the 240 cases. In another 47 cases, the INS Lookout Unit received
the revocation notice only via a cable; however, these cables took, on
average, 12 days to reach the Lookout Unit, although in one case it took 29
days. An official from the INS communications center told us that, because
State’s cables were marked “information only,” they were routed through
the Inspections division first, which was then supposed to forward them to
the Lookout Unit. He told us that if the cables had been marked as “action”
or “urgent,” they would have been sent immediately to the Lookout Unit.
In cases where the INS Lookout Unit could document that it received a
notification, it generally posted information on these revocations in its
lookout database within one day of receiving the notice. When it did not
receive notification, it could not post information on these individuals in
its lookout database, precluding INS inspectors at ports of entry from
knowing that these individuals had had their visas revoked.

The third arrow on the diagram shows the communication between State
and INS’s National Security Unit that is responsible for investigations. This
broken arrow shows that the State Department did not send copies of the
faxed revocation certificates or cables to the unit. Further, in cases where
the INS Lookout Unit received the revocation notification from State, INS
Lookout Unit officials said that they did not routinely check to see
whether these individuals had already entered the United States or notify
investigators in the National Security Unit of the visa revocations. Without

Page 6                                                           GAO-03-908T
                    this notification, the National Security Unit would have no independent
                    basis to begin an investigation. In May 2003, an official from the Lookout
                    Unit said that her unit recently established a procedure in which, upon
                    receiving notification of a revocation, she will query the Interagency
                    Border Inspection System to determine if the individual recently entered
                    the country. She will then give this information to investigators in the
                    National Security Unit, which is now part of the Bureau of Immigration
                    and Customs Enforcement.

                    The bottom arrow on the diagram shows the information flow on visa
                    revocations from State to the FBI’s Counterterrorism units. We found that
                    that these units did not consistently receive information on visa
                    revocations. FBI officials said that the agency’s main communications
                    center received the notifications but the officials could not confirm if the
                    notifications were then distributed internally to the appropriate
                    investigative units at the FBI or to the agency’s watch list unit, known as
                    the Terrorist Watch and Warning Unit. The Department of Justice said that
                    to add a person to its watch list,8 additional information must be provided
                    to the FBI, such as the person’s full name, complete date of birth, physical
                    descriptors, and watch list-specific classification information. The
                    revocation notifications did not include most of this information.


                    Our analysis shows that thirty individuals with revoked visas have entered
Individuals with    the United States and may still remain in the country. Twenty-nine of these
Revoked Visas May   individuals entered before State revoked their visas. An additional person
                    who may still be in the country entered after his visa was revoked. INS
Be in the United    inspectors allowed at least three other people to enter the country even
States              though their visas had already been revoked, largely due to breakdowns in
                    the notification system. These three people have left the country.

                    Despite these problems, we noted cases where the visa revocation process
                    prevented possible terrorists from entering the country or cleared
                    individuals whose visas had been revoked. For example, INS inspectors
                    successfully prevented at least 14 of the 240 individuals from entering the
                    country because the INS watch list included information on the revocation
                    action or had other lookouts on them. In addition, State records showed
                    that a small number of people reapplied for a new visa after the



                    8
                     This watch list, known as the Violent Gang and Terrorist Organization File, is accessed by
                    local and state law enforcement officials via the National Crime Information Center.



                    Page 7                                                                       GAO-03-908T
                        revocation. State used the visa issuance process to fully screen these
                        individuals and determined that they did not pose a security threat.


                        The INS and the FBI did not routinely attempt to investigate or locate any
INS and the FBI Did     of the individuals whose visas were revoked and who may be in the
Not Routinely Take      country.
Action on Individuals   Due to congressional interest in specific cases, INS investigators located
with Revoked Visas      four of the persons in the United States but did not attempt to locate other
                        revoked visa holders who may have entered the country. INS officials told
Who Had Entered the     us that they generally do not investigate these cases because it would be
United States           challenging to remove these individuals unless they were in violation of
                        their immigration status even if the agency could locate them. A visa
                        revocation by itself is not a stated grounds for removal under the
                        Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Investigators from INS’s National
                        Security Unit said they could investigate individuals to determine if they
                        were violating the terms of their admission, for example by overstaying the
                        amount of time they were granted to remain in the United States, but they
                        believed that under the INA, the visa revocation itself does not affect the
                        alien’s legal status in the United States—even though the revocation was
                        for terrorism reasons. They and other Homeland Security officials raised a
                        number of legal issues associated with removing an individual from the
                        country after the person’s visa has been revoked. Our report discusses
                        these issues in detail.

                        FBI officials told us that they did not routinely attempt to investigate and
                        locate individuals with revoked visas who may have entered the United
                        States. They said that State’s method of notifying them did not clearly
                        indicate that visas had been revoked because the visa holder may pose
                        terrorism concerns. Further, the notifications were sent as “information
                        only” and did not request specific follow-up action by the FBI. Moreover,
                        State did not attempt to make other contact with the FBI that would
                        indicate any urgency in the matter.




                        Page 8                                                           GAO-03-908T
                      The weaknesses I have outlined above resulted from the U.S. government’s
Systemic Weaknesses   limited policy guidance on the visa revocation process. Our analysis
Were the Result of    indicates that the U.S. government has no specific policy on the use of visa
                      revocations as an antiterrorism tool and no written procedures to guide
Limited Guidance on   State in notifying the relevant agencies of visa revocations on terrorism
Visa Revocation       grounds. State and INS have written procedures that guide some types of
                      visa revocations; however, neither they nor the FBI has written internal
Process               procedures for notifying their appropriate personnel to take specific
                      actions on visas revoked by State Department headquarters officials, as
                      was the case for all the revoked visas covered in our review. While State
                      and INS officials told us they use the visa revocation process to prevent
                      suspected terrorists from entering the United States, neither they nor FBI
                      officials had policies or procedures that covered investigating, locating,
                      and taking appropriate action in cases where the visa holder had already
                      entered the country.

                      In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, the visa process could be an important tool
                      to keep potential terrorists from entering the United States. Ideally,
                      information on suspected terrorists would reach the State Department
                      before it decides to issue a visa. However, there will always be some cases
                      when the information arrives too late and State has already issued a visa.
                      Revoking a visa can mitigate this problem, but only if State promptly
                      notifies appropriate border control and law enforcement agencies and if
                      these agencies act quickly to (1) notify border control agents and
                      immigration inspectors to deny entry to persons with a revoked visa, and
                      (2) investigate persons with revoked visas who have entered the country.
                      Currently there are major gaps in the notification and investigation
                      processes. One reason for this is that there are no specific written policies
                      and procedures on how notification of a visa revocation should take place
                      and what agencies should do when they are notified. As a result, there is
                      heightened risk that suspected terrorists could enter the country with a
                      revoked visa or be allowed to remain after their visa is revoked without
                      undergoing investigation or monitoring.

                      State has emphasized that it revoked the visas as a precautionary measure
                      and that the 240 persons are not necessarily terrorists or suspected
                      terrorists. State cited the uncertain nature of the information it receives
                      from the intelligence and law enforcement communities on which it must
                      base its decision to revoke an individual’s visa. We recognize that the visas
                      were revoked as a precautionary measure and that the persons whose
                      visas were revoked may not be terrorists. However, the State Department
                      determined that there was enough derogatory information to revoke visas
                      for these persons because of terrorism concerns. Our recommendations,

                      Page 9                                                           GAO-03-908T
                      which are discussed below, are designed to ensure that persons whose
                      visas have been revoked because of potential terrorism concerns be
                      denied entry to the United States and those who may already be in the
                      United States be investigated to determine if they pose a security threat.

                      To remedy the systemic weaknesses in the visa revocation process, we are
                      recommending that the Secretary of Homeland Security, who is now
                      responsible for issuing regulations and administering and enforcing
                      provisions of U.S. immigration law relating to visa issuance, work in
                      conjunction with the Secretary of State and the Attorney General to:

                  •   develop specific policies and procedures for the interagency visa
                      revocation process to ensure that notification of visa revocations for
                      suspected terrorists and relevant supporting information are transmitted
                      from State to immigration and law enforcement agencies, and their
                      respective inspection and investigation units, in a timely manner;

                  •   develop a specific policy on actions that immigration and law enforcement
                      agencies should take to investigate and locate individuals whose visas
                      have been revoked for terrorism concerns and who remain in the United
                      States after revocation; and

                  •   determine if any persons with visas revoked on terrorism grounds are in
                      the United States and, if so, whether they pose a security threat.

                      In commenting on our report, Homeland Security agreed that the visa
                      revocation process should be strengthened as an antiterrorism tool. State
                      and Justice did not comment on our recommendations.

                      I would be happy to answer any questions you or other members of the
                      subcommittee may have.


                      For future contacts regarding this testimony, please call Jess Ford or John
Contacts and          Brummet at (202) 512-4128. Individuals making key contributions to this
Acknowledgments       testimony included Judy McCloskey, Kate Brentzel, Mary Moutsos, and
                      Janey Cohen.




(320197)
                      Page 10                                                         GAO-03-908T
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