Interesting hearing Wednesday on visa security at the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration policy enforcement, where I testified alongside Security Debrief co-contributor Janice Kephart and officials from State and ICE. (Check out my testimony on the Judiciary Committee website.)
The hearing was called to consider the Secure Visas Act, legislation introduced by committee chairman Lamar Smith that calls for expansion of the number of ICE agents deployed in overseas embassies, and does certain other things to strengthen the DHS role in visa adjudication. Two issues stood out: first, can the Visa Security Program be made more effective? A recent GAO report suggests that too little is known about how VSP agents are actually spending their time in overseas posts. I argued that if all they are doing is routine screening against existing databases, then the expense of locating ICE agents in overseas embassies is probably not warranted. Such screening can be done from the United States. Instead, ICE needs to be developing a staff of experts with language training, local law enforcement contacts, and expertise in the modes of terrorist travel in order to help consular officers identify terrorist threats that might be missed through other forms of screening.
The second issue, which I focused on, was the broader one of how to improve visa security screening. Currently, about 300,000 visa applicants each year are thrown into the Security Advisory Opinion (SAO) process, in which State refers the applicant to multiple agencies for background checks. Resolution can take months, as I wrote about in a recent Newsweek piece.
Government officials tell me that a very high percentage of those checked are false positives as a result of inadequate name matching systems. The administration has been pilot-testing a new screening system that is much faster, more effective at identifying potential security threats, and largely resolves the problem of false positives. But it has been unfortunately slow in moving to full implemention.
This is very costly, as a comprehensive and timely new report from the U.S. Travel Association out today points out.
Unnecessary visa delays that do not enhance security are simply a cost for the U.S. economy with no benefit. With near double-digit employment, it is not a cost we as a country can afford to keep paying.