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Homeland Security

Washington File

18 June 2003

U.S. Government Watchdog Finds Problems in Visa Revocation

(General Accounting Office recommends reforms) (1510)
The General Accounting Office (GAO) presented a report to a
congressional committee June 18 finding that the U.S. government
doesn't have good procedures in place to find a suspected terrorist
who is already in the United States on a revoked visa.
In an earlier report conducted in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist
attacks, the GAO had discovered that more than 100 foreign nationals
suspected of terrorist involvement had received visas through some
lapse in the process of conducting background checks. The House
Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International
Relations asked the GAO, often considered a watchdog of government
performance, to investigate further.
GAO reported that, "The U.S. government has no specific written policy
on the use of visa revocations as an antiterrorism tool and no written
procedures to guide State in notifying the relevant agencies of visa
revocations on terrorism grounds." The lack of such policies, GAO
says, may "increase the probability of a suspected terrorist entering
or remaining in the United States."
GAO is recommending that the Attorney General and the Secretaries of
Homeland Security and the State Department develop better procedures
to inform each other and react in a situation when a visa is revoked
because of terrorism concerns.
The full GAO report is available at www.gao.gov
(begin text)
U.S. General Accounting Office 
Report to Congressional Requesters
New Policies and Procedures Are Needed to Fill Gaps in the Visa
Revocation Process
Results in Brief
Our analysis indicates that the U.S. government has no specific
written policy on the use of visa revocations as an antiterrorism tool
and no written procedures to guide State in notifying the relevant
agencies of visa revocations on terrorism grounds. State and INS have
written procedures that guide some types of visa revocations; however,
neither they nor the FBI have written internal procedures for
notifying their appropriate personnel to take specific actions on
visas revoked by the State Department. State and INS officials could
articulate their informal policies and procedures for how and for what
purpose their agencies have used the process to keep terrorists out of
the United States, but 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.
The lack of formal, written policies and procedures may have
contributed to systemic weaknesses in the visa revocation process that
increase the probability of a suspected terrorist entering or
remaining in the United States. In our review of the 240 visa
revocations, we found that (a) appropriate units within INS and the
FBI did not always receive notification of the revocations; (b)
lookouts were not consistently posted to the agencies' watch lists of
suspected terrorists; (c) 30 individuals whose visas were revoked on
terrorism grounds entered the United States either before or after
revocation and may still remain in the country;[7] and (d) INS and the
FBI were not routinely taking actions to investigate,[8] locate, or
resolve the cases of individuals who remained in the United States
after their visas were revoked. For instance:
. In a number of cases, notification between State and the appropriate
units within INS and the FBI did not take place or was not completed
in a timely manner.[9] For example, INS officials said they did not
receive 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, State's backup method of
notification. However, these cables took, on average, 12 days to reach
the Lookout Unit. Although State generally sent information cables to
the FBI's main communications center to notify it of the revocations,
FBI officials could not provide us with evidence that the
communications center sent these cables to the appropriate
counterterrorism units.
. 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 1 day of receiving the notice. When the
Lookout Unit 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. Moreover, the State Department neglected
to enter the revocation action for 64 of the 240 cases into its own
watch list. As a result, these individuals could apply at an overseas
post for a new visa, and consular officers would not necessarily know
that their previous visas had been revoked for terrorism concerns. FBI
officials in mid-May 2003 had not determined whether the agency's
Terrorist Watch and Warning Unit had received any notice of visa
. Twenty-nine individuals entered the United States before their visas
were revoked and may still remain in the country. INS inspectors
admitted at least 4 other people after the visa revocation, 1 of whom
may still remain in the country. However, INS inspectors prevented at
least 14 others from entering the country because the INS watch list
included information on the revocation action or had another lookout
on them.
. INS and the FBI did not routinely attempt to investigate or locate
any of the individuals who entered the United States either before or
after their visas were revoked and who may still remain in the
country. Due to congressional interest in specific cases, INS
investigators located 4 individuals in the United States; however,
they did not attempt to locate other revoked visa holders who may have
entered the country. INS officials told us that they generally do not
investigate these cases because it would be 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).[10] FBI officials told us that they were not
being alerted by State that persons with revoked visas could be
"possible terrorists." As a result, the FBI did not routinely attempt
to investigate and locate individuals with revoked visas who may have
entered the United States.
On March 1, 2003, the Secretary of Homeland Security became
responsible for issuing regulations and administering and enforcing
provisions of U.S. immigration law relating to visa issuance.[11]
Therefore, we are making recommendations to the Secretary of Homeland
Security, in conjunction with the Secretary of State and the Attorney
General, to ensure that when State revokes a visa because of terrorism
concerns, the appropriate units within State, Homeland Security, and
the FBI are notified immediately and that the appropriate actions are
taken. We provided a draft of this report to the Departments of
Homeland Security, State, and Justice for their comment. Homeland
Security agreed that the visa revocation process should be
strengthened as an antiterrorism tool and said that it looked forward
to working with State and Justice to develop and revise current
policies and procedures that affect the interagency visa revocation
process. State and Justice did not comment on our recommendations.
7 This number is based on our analysis of data we received from INS as
of May 19, 2003. On May 20 and 21, INS and the FBI, respectively,
provided additional information related to this matter. We were not
able to complete anlaysis of the data prior to the release of this
report due to the nature and volume of the data. The data could show
that the actual number of persons is higher or lower than 30.
8 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 report, we are not prescribing which
level of investigative activity is appropriate for persons with
revoked visas who may be in the United States.
9 We found no evidence of written procedures that define timeliness,
but State officials told us that they try to send notification to the
Lookout Unit the same day the revocation certificate is signed.
10 8 U.S.C.  1101 et seq. The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act
has been amended several times, more recently by the Illegal
Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (P.L.
104-208), the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing
Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA
PATRIOT) Act of 2001 (P.L. 107-56), the Enhanced Border Security and
Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-173), and the Homeland
Security Act of 2002 (P.L. 107-296).
11  See section 428 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002.
(end text)
(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S.
Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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