State Department: Efforts to Reduce Visa Fraud

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-05-20.

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

                     United States General Accounting Office

GAO                  Testimony
                     Before the Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on
                     Immigration and Claims, House of Representatives

For Release
on Delivery
Expected at
                     STATE DEPARTMENT
9:30 a.m. EDT
May 20, 1997
                     Efforts to Reduce Visa
                     Statement of Benjamin F. Nelson, Director,
                     International Relations and Trade Issues,
                     National Security and International Affairs Division

                           Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

                           I am pleased to be here today to discuss our 1996 report1 on the
                           Department of State’s progress in making its visa issuance process more
                           efficient and less vulnerable to fraud. The State Department is responsible
                           for the issuance and integrity of the U.S. passport and visa, the world’s
                           most sought-after identity documents. State’s visa issuance process is the
                           first line of defense against fraudulent entry into the United States.

                           At the time of our review, State’s strategy for reducing the potential for
Summary                    visa fraud was to (1) issue visas that are machine readable, (2) expand
                           automated name-check capability to all posts, (3) form so-called “lookout”
                           committees to identify suspected terrorists and others ineligible for visas,
                           and (4) strengthen compliance with management controls. In May 1996,
                           we issued a report assessing State’s progress on these key initiatives based
                           on our work at the State Department and nine overseas posts.2

                           In summary, we found mixed results. While the automation initiative had
                           progressed after some delay, operational problems at some locations
                           diminished the effectiveness of these efforts. These include

                       •   technical problems that limited the availability and usefulness of the
                           automated data base,
                       •   inadequate cooperation by some key U.S. agencies in State’s lookout
                           committees, and
                       •   lack of compliance with management control procedures.

                           While State has continued to move forward in automating its visa-issuance
                           process, a recent report by State’s Inspector General concluded that many
                           problems still exist.

                           As this Subcommittee is well aware, illegal immigration is a growing and
Nature of the Threat       complex problem. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)
                           estimates that as of October 1996, 5 million illegal aliens were residing in
                           the United States. INS estimates that this number is increasing by about
                           275,000 persons annually. While not the primary source of illegal

                            Passports and Visas: Status of Efforts to Reduce Fraud (GAO/NSIAD-96-99, May 9, 1996).
                            The nine posts are Canberra and Sydney, Australia; London, England; Guatemala City, Guatemala;
                           Tokyo, Japan; Nairobi, Kenya; Seoul, Republic of Korea; Mexico City, Mexico; and Johannesburg,
                           South Africa.

                           Page 1                                                                       GAO/T-NSIAD-97-167
                        immigration into the United States, visa fraud is a matter of concern.
                        Illegal aliens are creative in their use of fraudulent documents to gain
                        entry into the United States. A common practice is to paste the photo of an
                        ineligible individual into a stolen passport with a valid visa or otherwise
                        alter the data on the visa. Criminal passport and visa fraud arrests by
                        State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security have more than doubled from 256 in
                        1992 to 567 in 1996.

                        Controlling immigration to the United States is primarily INS’
State’s Role            responsibility. State helps INS by issuing visas to citizens of other
                        countries who want to visit the United States and identifying persons who
                        should be excluded. Issuance of a visa, however, does not guarantee that
                        the holder will be permitted to enter the United States. Rather, it permits
                        the holder to apply at a port of entry. Responsibility for granting entry
                        rests with the INS officer who conducts the inspection at the port of entry.
                        In fiscal year 1996, State processed nearly 8 million nonimmigrant visa
                        applications at over 200 visa-issuing posts. Thus, it is important that State’s
                        system work as efficiently and effectively as possible.

                        Since 1987, State has recognized the lack of adequate controls over visa
Weaknesses in State’s   processing as a material weakness and an area of high risk.3 State’s Office
Processes               of Inspector General has also identified a number of problems with visa
                        operations. In response to these weaknesses and concerns about the
                        growing problem of illegal immigration, State, beginning in 1989,
                        developed a strategy to reduce the vulnerability of its processes to fraud.
                        This strategy included improving and expanding automated systems and
                        establishing embassy committees to identify individuals ineligible for
                        visas. Full implementation of the machine-readable program was the
                        primary initiative for eliminating visa fraud. State’s plan also called for
                        providing all visa-issuing posts with automated access to its global data
                        base containing names of individuals ineligible for a visa. Later, State
                        established embassy lookout committees designed to promote closer
                        cooperation with other agencies in identifying individuals ineligible for
                        visas. These efforts were to be combined with a greater emphasis on
                        enforcement of internal management controls.

                         Annual reports are required by the Federal Managers’ Financial Integrity Act.

                        Page 2                                                                           GAO/T-NSIAD-97-167
Technical Problems        In 1989, State began the machine-readable visa program as its primary
Reduce Effectiveness of   initiative for eliminating the use of fraudulent nonimmigrant visas. The
Visa Automation           machine-readable visa is considered a more secure document than its
                          predecessor because the new visa is printed on synthetic material that is
                          more secure than paper, is attached to the passport, and has a
                          machine-readable zone with an encryption code. At the ports of entry, INS
                          and the U.S. Customs Service can check names by scanning the
                          machine-readable zone of the visa. The visas also include a photograph of
                          the traveler.

                          The machine-readable visa, in conjunction with expanded access to the
                          automated lookout system, can significantly reduce the vulnerability of the
                          system to fraud. State originally intended to have the machine-readable
                          visa system installed by 1991. However, the program suffered from delays
                          and insufficient funds. In addition, automated access to the lookout
                          system was not available at all posts. In 1994, after the World Trade Center
                          bombing, the Congress directed State to install automated lookout systems
                          at all visa-issuing posts by October 30, 1995. State also made a
                          commitment to install the machine-readable visa system at all visa-issuing
                          posts by the end of that fiscal year. The Congress authorized State to
                          retain machine-readable visa processing fees to fund these and other

                          At the time of our review, State had installed the machine-readable visa
                          system at 200 posts. In addition, all of the posts had automated access to
                          the Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS) either through direct
                          telecommunications lines to the CLASS data base in Beltsville, Maryland,
                          or via the distributed name check (DNC) system, a stand-alone personal
                          computer system with the CLASS data base on tape or compact disk.

                          In April 1997, State testified that (1) every visa-issuing post has the
                          machine-readable visa system installed, and had direct access to CLASS;
                          and (2) it had developed and is now installing a new version of the
                          machine-readable system, called MRV-2, at all visa-issuing posts. State
                          spent about $12.9 million on installation of the MRV-2 in fiscal year 1996,
                          plans to spend $24 million in fiscal year 1997, and has requested
                          $32 million for fiscal year 1998.

                          Although most posts had automated name-check capability and
                          machine-readable visa systems at the time of our review, technical
                          problems limited their usefulness and availability. Posts often experienced
                          transmission problems with the telecommunications lines that support the

                          Page 3                                                     GAO/T-NSIAD-97-167
                             system. U.S. missions in Mexico City, Guatemala City, Sydney, Nairobi,
                             and Seoul experienced problems with the telecommunications lines and
                             interruptions of CLASS. These disruptions resulted in considerable delays
                             in visa issuance and weakened visa controls. For example, during our visit
                             to Mexico City we noted that consular staff were using the old microfiche
                             system to check names during telecommunications disruptions rather than
                             the DNC that was designed as backup. They used the microfiche system
                             because using the DNC to check names was often a slow process. By
                             doing so, the post ran the risk of approving a visa for an applicant who had
                             been recently added to CLASS but had not yet been added to the
                             microfiche list.

                             State’s Diplomatic Telecommunications Service Program Office works
                             with international telecommunications carriers to find solutions where
                             possible. However, if the problem is in the telecommunications lines of the
                             host country, little can be done except to improve the post’s backup

Lack of Cooperation Limits   Effective efforts to limit visa fraud call for the skills, resources, and
Usefulness of Lookout        coordination of many U.S. government agencies. In the aftermath of the
Committees                   World Trade Center bombing, State directed all diplomatic and consular
                             posts to form committees with representatives from consular, political,
                             and other appropriate agencies to meet regularly to ensure that the names
                             of suspected terrorists and others ineligible for a visa are identified and
                             put into the lookout system. Of the nine posts we visited, all but the
                             consulates in Sydney and Johannesburg had lookout committees, and
                             those two posts were represented by the lookout committees at their
                             embassies in Canberra and Pretoria, respectively.

                             Embassy officials at two of the nine posts we visited questioned the value
                             of the committees, mainly because of the lack of cooperation from some
                             agencies. A number of agency representatives were reluctant to provide to
                             the consular sections the names of suspected terrorists or others the U.S.
                             government may want to keep out of the country. They attributed their
                             reluctance to the sensitivity of the information and restrictions on sharing
                             information. Officials from one of the law enforcement agencies contacted
                             expressed concern that the information entered into CLASS could be
                             traced to the originating agency and compromise its work. Only one of the
                             agency officials we interviewed said that he had seen guidance from his
                             agency on the extent to which this agency could share information. In
                             addition, not all agencies were represented on these committees. For

                             Page 4                                                    GAO/T-NSIAD-97-167
                            example, according to a consular official, the committee in Pretoria did
                            not include representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the
                            Customs Service, and the Drug Enforcement Agency. The committee in
                            Tokyo also lacked key representatives.

                            Consular officials told us that the lookout committees are intended to
                            augment rather than replace coordination activities at headquarters.
                            Additionally, according to consular officials, they are (1) working closely
                            with individual posts to resolve coordination problems, (2) maintaining
                            close liaison with participating agencies at the headquarters level to
                            ensure continued cooperation and commitment, and (3) soliciting
                            increased participation from agencies whose contributions were limited in
                            the past. State says that it has also taken steps to clarify terrorist reporting
                            channels. We have not assessed the effectiveness or extent of these
                            headquarters’ initiatives.

Overseas Posts Do Not       Maintaining the integrity of the process requires that posts adhere to
Always Adhere to Internal   established controls. This was not always the case. One common
Controls                    shortcoming we observed was the use of foreign service nationals (FSN)
                            to check names through CLASS without the direct supervision of a U.S.
                            officer. FSNs were responsible for checking names at five of the posts we
                            visited. The consular officers at these posts relied on FSNs to notify them
                            when an applicant’s name matched one in the CLASS data base. At the
                            time of our review, three of the posts also were not equipped with the
                            machine-readable visa system, which automatically provides the results of
                            the name check for the U.S. officer’s review. Officials of State’s Bureau of
                            Consular Affairs told us that the machine-readable system has since been
                            installed at these locations and improved procedures and software
                            enhancements now make unsupervised name checks impossible. Consular
                            officers are now required to certify in writing that they have checked the
                            automated lookout system and that there is no basis for excluding the
                            applicant. We have not assessed the extent or the effectiveness of
                            compliance with this new requirement.

                            Other internal control shortcomings were the lack of security over
                            controlled equipment and supplies and the failure to report and reconcile
                            daily activities and follow cashiering procedures. Bureau of Consular
                            Affairs officials attributed some of these problems to a lack of resources.

                            Page 5                                                       GAO/T-NSIAD-97-167
Inspector General Reports   In May 1997, State’s Office of Inspector General issued a report that
That Some Problems          concluded that some of the problems with the machine-readable visa
Remain                      program still exist. The Inspector General reported that some posts are
                            still having difficulties accessing CLASS as a result of interruptions to
                            telecommunications lines or the mainframe computer. Further, the
                            Inspector General identified significant software limitations with the DNC
                            that may prevent posts from having full information at the time of visa
                            adjudication. The report stated that the Bureau of Consular Affairs has
                            developed and distributed a newer version of the DNC that will address
                            these limitations.

                            The Inspector General further reported that, although all posts now have
                            the machine-readable visa system, the border security and inspection
                            process remains vulnerable with respect to validating a visa. There is no
                            automated mechanism for transmitting data about nonimmigrant visa
                            issuance to ports of entry to determine whether the machine-readable visa
                            being presented for entry into the United Sates is a valid visa issued by the
                            Department. Moreover, INS is not reading the encryption code to
                            authenticate the visa. According to State, the new machine-readable visa
                            will have the capability to electronically transmit relevant nonimmigrant
                            visa data to ports of entry. The Inspector General also reported that
                            management and accountability over machine-readable visa supplies and
                            equipment continues to be a problem.

                            The report attributed some of the problems to severe staffing shortages
                            and the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ failure to address software and
                            hardware problems early in the development of the machine-readable visa
                            program. While recognizing that the new version of the machine-readable
                            visa is designed to correct some of the shortcomings, the Inspector
                            General made a number of recommendations to address other weaknesses
                            in the process.

                            In closing, the State Department has made progress in automating and
Conclusion                  modernizing its visa-issuance process to reduce its vulnerability to fraud.
                            However, improvements are still needed to better protect the integrity of
                            U.S. entry documents.

                            This concludes my prepared remarks, Mr. Chairman and Members of the

(711273)                    Page 6                                                     GAO/T-NSIAD-97-167
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