Lawmakers cite visa loopholes

Border Security: New Policies and Procedures Are Needed to Fill Gaps in the Visa Revocation Process

Concerned lawmakers drilled intelligence officials June 18 about the reported lack of policies and procedures regarding visas.

In theory, all intelligence agencies, including local law enforcement, should immediately be alerted when a visa is revoked on the grounds of terrorism.

Although information sharing systems have been put in place to try and ensure that this happens, the General Accounting Office reported June 18 that these systems do not always work, making it easier for terrorists to slip through immigration security and move about the country.

"Our analysis shows that the visa revocation process was not being fully utilized as an anti-terrorism tool. . . . Weaknesses resulted from the U.S. government's limited policy guidance on the process. None of the agencies have specific, written policies on using the visa revocation process as an anti-terrorism tool," said GAO's Jess Ford, director of the International Affairs and Trade Division during a hearing of the House Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations.

The greatest breach cited in the discussion of the effectiveness of information sharing was the failure of the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now part of the Homeland Security Department) to routinely "investigate, locate, or resolve the cases of individuals who remained in the United States after their visas were revoked," Ford said.

Agencies claim there is no policy in place permitting them to remove a person from the United States if that person's visa was revoked after entrance. The information necessary to remove an alien from the country does not follow the same criteria as the process for revoking a visa.

Once people have entered the country, they maintain the legal right to stay unless the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement can present clear evidence to an immigration judge that they are a threat to national security or should be removed on other statutory grounds.

"A visa is only a travel document . . . it has no legal authority once someone is permitted into the United States," said the State Department's Catherine Barry, managing director of the Office of Visa Services in the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

This loophole frustrated and baffled lawmakers, who were unable to comprehend how such a gap could exist two years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. If there was no policy to effectively combat terrorism, they felt it was irrelevant how well information sharing systems work.

"It's inconceivable to me that . . . we keep them [aliens with revoked visas] out, but once they're here, we're going to let them stay here," Rep. Bill Janklow (R-S.D.) said at the hearing.

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