Permanent legal immigration to the United States stood at 705,000 in fiscal year (FY) 2003 after topping one million people in the previous year, according to the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics released by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in September. DHS approved 19 percent fewer citizenship applications and 34 percent fewer permanent residency applications than in FY 2002.
The percentage drop in legal permanent entry is due mainly to Congressional guidelines that require more stringent review of petitions for immigration benefits. DHS officials and immigration analysts indicate that many applications have been pulled to undergo security clearance or to add information to terrorism-related databases, and caution that the numbers do not reflect fewer individuals attempting to enter the country.
The biggest processing slowdown occurred in applications for permanent residency by people already in the United States ("adjustment of status"). Approximately 347,000 applicants gained permanent residency through adjustment of status in 2003 – a sharp decline from the nearly 680,000 that were approved in 2002, and a fraction of the 1.2 million backlog of residency applications that DHS has promised to clear before 2006.
The 9/11 Commission has released a supplemental staff report, "9/11 and Terrorist Travel," which includes new details on the disconnect between terrorist border-crossing tactics and American immigration, interior enforcement, and border security. The staff report was made public to support the full commission's recommendations for improving U.S. immigration and border enforcement, in particular a key commission recommendation that intelligence agencies analyze and track the travel patterns of terrorists and their affiliates.
The staff report explains how all 19 airplane hijackers from September 11 broke U.S. immigration laws. As many as seven of the 19 hijackers had fraudulent or manipulated passports. While U.S. intelligence had identified at least three of the hijackers as affiliated with terrorist groups, they were never placed on border inspectors' watch lists. The report also includes photographic reproductions of recovered travel documents used by the September 11 hijackers.
According to the report, both the U.S. Department of State, which issues visas in consular offices abroad, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS – now a part of the Department of Homeland Security), which inspects travelers at ports of entry and airports, had little infrastructure and inadequate training to detect and track terrorist travel before the September 11 attacks. The CIA used to produce an unclassified manual and training video for border inspectors highlighting features of visa stamps and forged passports, but abandoned its efforts in 1992 after the materials were not widely distributed.
The report also reveals that the Visa Express program in Saudi Arabia was initiated for embassy security reasons associated with overcrowding at the consular posts. The program allowed travel agencies to facilitate non-immigrant visa processing without requiring applicants to personally visit the embassy. Four hijackers received their visas to the United States through the program, which was cancelled in July 2002.
The commission staff dedicated to immigration, non-immigrant visas, and border security issues released the report on August 21 as the commission formally ended its work after a 20-month investigation. The report concludes by pointing out the lack of tools available to consular and border officials to determine admissibility and detect fraudulent documents.
The full 9/11 Commission report, which the bipartisan commission released in July, appealed for a standardized, comprehensive screening system at external borders, airports, and other security checkpoints, as well as for improved cooperation among the 15 national intelligence agencies. (See the August 2004 Policy Beat for more information on the 9/11 Commission report).
Two recent reports released by government agencies suggest the need for additional reforms in both the biometric visa screening procedure and the visa security program.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, "State Department Rollout of Biometric Visas on Schedule but Guidance is Lacking," states that the department will meet its September 30 deadline for capturing biometric data from visa applicants at all 207 overseas posts, having already completed implementation at all but six sites. However, it criticizes both the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for not providing comprehensive guidance on when visa process prints are to be scanned and how visa officers should use information from the visa applicant database.
The second report, submitted to the House Government Reform Committee by the DHS Inspector General, indicates that some homeland security officers in US embassies are not qualified to perform their duties. Officers assigned to the embassies in Saudi Arabia as part of the visa security program have not received specialist training, cannot speak the native language, and perform duplicative data-entry work.
The Inspector General report also states that DHS has failed to develop a plan for homeland security training of Department of State consular officers, and has not trained DHS employees assigned to U.S. embassies and consular posts in relevant languages, interview procedures, or fraud detection tactics.