Protecting the Visa Security Program

A recent report on a program to improve visa security caught my attention; having set up the program’s first two offices abroad, I was keen to learn what the auditors found

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued the report, entitled“The DHS Visa Security Program” (the VSP). It lays out the findings of the OIG’s audit of the VSP, which operates under the umbrella of the DHS subordinate agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The program grew out of a statutory mandate imposed following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The notion was to establish a separate avenue of law enforcement eyes and ears to assist consular officers in their adjudication of visas. The program is unique in that it places ICE agents into American embassies and consulates abroad that have significant terrorism and national security risk potential in their visa issuance processes.

In sum, the OIG reports that the program has, in many ways, not met expectations because it has only expanded to 20 posts worldwide and is underfunded. DHS and ICE have not established adequate metrics to determine the program’s mission success, have not made the kind of electronic linkages possible for agents to properly track or report cases or hours, and have not trained sufficient staff to ramp up the number of posts abroad. Finally, the OIG notes that in some cases a chief of mission (usually the ambassador) denied DHS requests to open a VSP office.

Although the findings are a disappointment, they are not a surprise to me. In the waning days of my active duty service with the federal government, I was made responsible for opening the first two VSP posts overseas, in Riyadh and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. By “made responsible” I mean that I was physically assigned to Saudi Arabia along with two other officers to establish an office and create preliminary procedures for how the VSP would work. Those two offices were not chosen by chance: they were specifically designated in the law that mandated creation of a VSP.

It was clear from the start that the State Department’s Bureaus of Consular Affairs (CA) and Diplomatic Security (DS) were not enamored of the new program, and it became increasingly obvious through my participation in implementation that many senior leaders in both bureaus would do what they could to obstruct, or at minimum impede, its establishment. Each in its own way felt threatened and offended that ICE had been dragged willy-nilly into what had been their respective backyards — CA as the visa issuing specialists, and DS as the visa integrity and enforcement arm of the Department of State (DOS).

Senior officials at DHS and ICE were not particularly enthralled at being given the assignment either: At DHS, they didn’t relish tangling with the 900-pound gorilla that DOS represented, and at ICE, the Customs Service officials who predominated within ICE’s investigative arm had little interest in taking on an immigration function they didn’t understand or assign value to.

Reading between the lines of the OIG report, it looks to me like little has changed in the intervening years. Chiefs of mission continue to be influenced by the DOS careerists who make up the front office cadres at embassies and consulates abroad (how could they not be?), and invent reasons why ICE agents should not be stationed within their domain. Conversely, ICE officials claim that they don’t have enough “trained” agents even though they have had a decade to develop such a cadre.

But here is what I observed after I and my two colleagues arrived in Saudi Arabia. Because we went out of our way to emphasize to all and sundry that we were not there to peer over anyone’s shoulder; not there to create a climate of finger-pointing and culpability; not there to do anything but assist in filling in the cracks of their knowledge and systems in any way that best served their needs in making good decisions, the consular officers overcame their reservations and began to see us as a part of a larger team.

More interestingly, we found that they were possessed of a great deal of curiosity about how the immigration system really worked, domestically — everything from how inspections were conducted at ports of entry, to how investigations were conducted, to how court proceedings were run, to how aliens were detained, charged, and ultimately removed. After all, their experience with the immigration system revolved around what was done prior to an alien’s arrival in the United States (presuming a visa was granted).

Looking back on the experience — which frankly did not last all that long for me since my job was simply to establish a beachhead and give way to the officers who would be stationed there on a permanent basis — I have concluded that the personal contact between consular officers and ICE agents was one of the very best things that the VSP established because mutual respect became the baseline from which effective cooperation developed, based on a more realistic understanding of one another’s respective roles domestically and abroad. It was also invaluable in that ICE agents were able, from time to time and at consular officers’ requests, to act as interviewing backstops of visa applicants — the equivalent of secondary inspectors physically on site within the consular interviewing space.

Sadly, ICE headquarters officials don’t seem to have grasped the importance or significance of this interaction, or perhaps they have just thrown in their cards because of continued resistance in some quarters of DOS. I say this because the OIG report tells us that, “According to ICE officials, a solution to the program’s slow expansion may be the Pre‐Adjudicated Threat Recognition and Intelligence Operations Team.” This team would consist of officers and agents working in some kind of operations and command center within the United States, whose job would be to manipulate data and turn around recommendations to consular issuing posts worldwide. There’s room for that, of course. It would be a welcome addition to a sadly neglected program.

But let us hope that wiser heads prevail and the VSP doesn’t end up being just another in the alphabet soup of “fusion centers” with which the federal government is awash because, make no mistake, an effective visa security program is not simply about statistical manipulation. To adequately counter the terrorist and national security threats that abound in our troubled world, there is no substitute for on-the-ground interaction between DOS and DHS officers and, with time and trust, a triangulation of different experiences and backgrounds to ensure that the best decisions are made where visa adjudications are concerned.

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