DHS Secures Funding, Authority in Visa Matters
Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and Secretary of State Colin Powell on September 29 signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) transferring visa policy and oversight authority from the Department of State to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This change, pursuant to section 428 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, mandates that the State Department continue to manage the visa issuance process and execute foreign policy, while DHS assumes control of establishing and administering the majority of rules governing visas. Moreover, DHS will now offer individual visa guidance to consular staff and will have the authority to override practically all State Department visa-issuance decisions if deemed necessary. The Office of International Enforcement of DHS will oversee implementation of the MOU. Some policy analysts believe that power struggles between the departments may occur as a result of the new procedures, and observe that continuous cooperation and information-sharing is critical to maintaining national security standards for visa issuance.
The first Homeland Security Appropriations bill was signed into law on October 1, granting $37.6 billion for the Department of Homeland Security's FY2004 budget. This figure is $1.4 billion more than that proposed by President George W. Bush in February (See March Policy Beat for more information). Approximately one quarter of all funding will be provided for emergency preparedness and response activities. Border security and immigration enforcement will receive over $410 million, with $330 million designated for the new US-VISIT entry/exit tracking system (See May, June, and October Policy Beats for more information on US-VISIT). The immigration services budget will total $1.8 billion, $100 million of which will go toward reducing the backlog of naturalization processing to six months by FY2007. Although satisfied with the increase in appropriations, immigrant advocacy groups have voiced concerns over what they consider inadequate funding to improve immigration services and reduce the backlog.
In October, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) began training individual officers for a position that combines customs, immigration and agricultural functions—duties that were formerly performed by three separate people. The intent of CBP's "One Face at the Border" program is three-fold: streamline the inspection process by unifying functions; enhance anti-terrorism efforts by reducing the number of primary inspectors and deploying additional employees at secondary inspections; and eliminate disparities in personnel policies among the three workforces. The program's mission is to "facilitate the entry of legitimate goods at the nation's [land, sea, and air] ports of entry." However, several members of Congress have expressed concerns that the streamlined 71-day training course for all new officers may be inadequate given the intricacies of law and policy. The program is scheduled to be fully implemented by the spring of 2004.
The U.S. government on October 1 restored the provision of food stamps to low-income immigrant children, as mandated in the 2002 Farm Bill. Previous legislation granted eligibility to those immigrant children who were lawfully residing in the U.S. for five or more years; as of last month, all those under 18 years of age became eligible to receive food stamps regardless of date of entry. These benefits are expected to affect 60,000 immigrant children nationwide. The law does not apply to those foreign youth who have been granted temporary protected status or those who are unauthorized residents. Disabled immigrants who are receiving benefits for their condition are also now eligible to receive food stamps regardless of date of entry.