The Office of Inspector General (OIG) has identified issues with the Visa Security Program (VSP) during an audit to assess Department of Homeland Security component collaboration.
VSP assigns special agents to diplomatic posts worldwide to conduct law enforcement visa security activities and provide training to Department of State Consular Affairs officers regarding threats, trends and other topics affecting visa adjudication. The program utilizes the automated screening capabilities of the Pre-Adjudicated Threat Recognition and Intelligence Operations Team (PATRIOT) to screen, vet, recommend visa eligibility and investigate visa applicants at posts around the world.
VSP’s critical mission is to maximize the visa process as a counterterrorism tool to identify, exploit and disrupt transnational terrorist and criminal networks seeking to harm the United States. This is done through the following processes:
- Screen visa applications at the earliest point of the visa process.
- Vet applications with derogatory information using law enforcement, open source and classified systems.
- Coordinate with law enforcement, intelligence and host country partners to maximize investigative efforts.
- Provide a unified DHS recommendation to the State Department on an applicant’s visa eligibility.
- Conduct criminal investigations to exploit and disrupt criminal and terrorist organizations, maximizing the visa process for investigative gain.
A 2018 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report previously stated that DHS needed to strengthen performance management for VSP. Then, GAO found that VSP agents were not consistently providing training to consular officers, and that while U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) developed performance measures for VSP, none of them were outcome-based.
ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are the primary collaborators on the VSP, with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) having a limited role. CBP systems screen visa applications for potential derogatory information about the applicants, and CBP and ICE analysts manually vet the applications containing such information and provide recommendations to the Department of State on whether to issue or deny the visas.
Although the components collaborate, OIG has identified issues involving VSP processes and systems. First, although CBP and ICE informed the watchdog that CBP’s screening system compares 36 data points in each application to information in other databases, CBP does not keep detailed records of this screening. As a result, OIG could not verify that CBP had fully screened every application.
OIG also reviewed 120 applications that underwent the vetting process and found 13 in which analysts did not sufficiently support their conclusions. In another two of the 120 applications, data transfer issues in an ICE system resulted in incomplete case notes.
In addition to these issues, OIG has found that CBP does not track its costs associated with the program. According to ICE, the VSP cost about $64 million in FY 2021. The FY 2021 budget for CBP’s National Targeting Center was about $203 million to operate several screening and vetting programs. However, CBP could not estimate its VSP costs because it does not allocate costs to the different programs and thus does not separately track its VSP-related costs. As the VSP continues to grow, the absence of accurate program costs or estimates hinders DHS’ ability to oversee the VSP.
OIG’s audit resulted in three recommendations, with which DHS has concurred:
- ICE’s Acting Executive Associate Director of Homeland Security Investigations and CBP’s Executive Assistant Commissioner of the Office of Field Operations should ensure analysts are following the requirements in the VSP’s standard operating procedures and other guidance as they vet visas and document their activities.
- ICE’s Acting Executive Associate Director of Homeland Security Investigations should correct the character limit and data transfer issues in the VSP Tracking System.
- CBP’s Executive Assistant Commissioner of the Office of Field Operations should develop and implement a plan to track, if possible — or estimate, if tracking is not possible — the costs of National Targeting Center activities associated with the VSP and report those costs to ICE.
DHS said ICE and CBP have already taken steps to promote compliance in the VSP. On August 2, 2022, ICE gave all VSP users a copy of the Homeland Security Investigations Visa Security Program Handbook and the Visa Security Program PATRIOT Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). ICE is also updating the VSP’s internal SharePoint website to include the handbook and SOP. ICE and CBP will disseminate the VSP requirements, SOP, and standardized case note language to its personnel, and ensure that new employees receive this documentation as part of a standard “onboarding” process. The estimated completion date for this work is November 30, 2022. DHS also expects to complete an annual cost estimate, in line with the third recommendation, by the end of November. In relation to OIG’s second recommendation, DHS said the system has been updated to correct the character limit and that ICE is redesigning it to address the data transfer issue.