Secure Borders, Open Doors: Visa Procedures in the Post 9-11 Era
Improved Intelligence and Interagency Cooperation Must Be Top Priorities, Finds New MPI Report
The U.S. visa policy program has become a key tool in promoting national security, but vulnerabilities remain and government agencies must work together to ensure that security measures do not compromise U.S. economic competitiveness and foreign policy goals, find the authors of a new MPI study.
Secure Borders, Open Doors, written by Stephen Yale-Loehr, Demetrios Papademetriou and Betsy Cooper, is the most comprehensive nongovernmental analysis of post-September 11 visa changes to date. It is available here. In addition to outlining the current status of visa policy and discussing needed reforms, the report includes a chronology of major actions related to visas, terrorism, and travel from 1980 to the present, as well as a spotlight on student visa policy.
The authors find that a comprehensive vision for the U.S. visa program and a strategic plan for implementation are critical. While visa policy and numerous oversight functions are currently assigned to the Department of Homeland Security, its implementation and operational management are the responsibility of the State Department. This nebulous arrangement must be clarified, with responsibilities clearly delineated. The State Department and Department of Homeland Security should coordinate decisions, avoid the current duplication of duties, and facilitate better information-sharing and cross-training. Additionally, Congress should require the establishment of a comprehensive interagency evaluation process to review incidents of admitting people who present security risks.
Since September 11, the purpose of different visa classes and the process for getting a visa have remained the same, with the most frequent reason for denying a nonimmigrant application still being the person’s inability to prove that they do not intend to stay in the United States permanently.
However, many administrative procedures have changed significantly, including a requirement for personal interviews with almost all visa applicants. The government has more closely scrutinized visa waiver countries, curtailed airline passengers’ ability to travel through the U.S. en route to other countries without visas, and established requirements for visa waiver countries to have machine-readable passports with biometric identifiers by October 1, 2005.
The authors find that one of the most improved elements of the visa system has been the security check process of visa applicants’ names, which is now far more thorough. While the State Department is working to address delays caused by additional checks and mandatory interviews, the authors recommend changes to clarify the application process and make it more transparent; facilitate visa re-issuance from the United States; and waive interviews for travelers who have been issued visas recently. The authors also recommend improving the quality of interviews through the use of a secondary-like inspection at consular posts to target possible security risks.
A major weakness continues to be variable access to information through different agencies’ databases. Improved intelligence-gathering, greater investments in staff expertise and training, and online access to all relevant information about applicants are essential. The report states, “An integrated national watch list that is constantly checked for quality … together with a stronger communications system between agencies for security advisory opinions, are essential domestic security priorities.”
Additionally, to make the best possible use of biometrics, “The State Department, DHS and the FBI must agree on a truly compatible fingerprinting system and adopt standards that can be used both among US agencies and in conjunction with the development of biometric passports from other countries.”
Of equal importance for the visa program – and one of its greatest challenges – will be countering international perceptions that the United States has become more hostile to visitors. Losses to tourism and industry have been significant in recent years, with nonimmigrant visa applications dropping by 35 percent between 2001 and 2003, international enrollment in U.S. schools for 2003/2004 down for the first time in three decades, and the number of tourists visiting the United States plummeting by over 10 million people between 2000 and 2003. There are also reports of billions of dollars lost in foreign direct investment in the United States and contracts for U.S. exports.
In recent months, a sense of balance, proportion and flexibility has been gradually reintroduced into the visa program. Improved interagency planning, coordination and evaluation and more robust investments in intelligence, among other things, may help to deliver a visa program that successfully achieves both secure borders and open doors.
To read the full report, please click here.
To read the Executive Summary, including Key Recommendations, please click here.
The report is the third in a series of three released by MPI this summer for its project Assessing Selected Border Control Measures After September 11. Other releases include:
One Face at the Border: Behind the Slogan
Policy Analyst Deborah Meyers finds that in less than two years, the Department of Homeland Security’s ambitious One Face at the Border initiative has made strides toward creating a unified agency to inspect people and goods at U.S. air, land and sea ports. However, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) must address significant weaknesses that could undermine border security if they are not confronted squarely and soon.
Real Challenges for Virtual Borders: The Implementation of US-VISIT
By Rey Koslowski, Associate Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University-Newark
The US-VISIT program may deter terrorists from attempting to enter the United States through legal channels but alone probably will not catch them. The entry-exit tracking system for foreign nationals traveling to the United States was initially designed as an immigration enforcement tool and then recast into a counterterrorism role after September 11. However, author Rey Koslowski finds that the program will need a clearer mandate and serious investments of political and economic capital to provide more than an illusion of national security.