July 15, 2002 | News Releases on Department of Homeland Security

Analyst: Put Department of Homeland Security in Charge of Visa Approval

WASHINGTON, July 15, 2002-Secretary of State Colin Powell says it's "absolutely imperative" that his department's consular service retain responsibility for entry visas to the United States. But a new Heritage Foundation paper says final say over whether visas are granted in foreign consulates should rest with President Bush's proposed Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

"The president has said that the Secretary of Homeland Security will have exclusive authority through the Secretary of State to approve visa applications, which sounds like the kind of confusing directive that could lead to years of bitter turf battles between the agencies," says John Tkacik, a research fellow in Heritage's Asian Studies Center and a 23-year veteran of the State Department.

But, he says, such a battle can be avoided by moving the State Department's Office of Visa Service-currently within the Bureau of Consular Affairs, which develops all visa policy and legal guidance for consular offices overseas-into DHS.

The State Department would still have a role to play in visa approval, Tkacik says: "Foreign Service officers should continue to process requests because of their experience in this area. And the State Department should retain its authority to reject visa applicants based on political considerations and to investigate visa fraud and related crimes." These investigations, unencumbered by the rules of evidence required in U.S. courts, have proven valuable as intelligence-gathering exercises, he notes.

But given that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers arrived in the United States with legal visas-some obtained through travel agents in Saudi Arabia-and given that more such terrorists may attempt to enter the country, visa processing has become a front line of homeland defense, and final authority over who receives visas should rest with the new agency charged with ensuring homeland security, Tkacik says.

"If the new department is to be effective in strengthening the nation's security by exercising control over who enters the country by legal visa, the Secretary of Homeland Security must assume total control over visa policies and support services," he says.

To do this, DHS must assign supervisory attachés, commissioned as U.S. consuls or vice consuls, to embassies and visa-issuing consulates to supervise visa approvals, he says. The attaché should have access not only to the databases State now uses in evaluating applications but also to stateside databases such as the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) used by local law enforcement agencies.

"Effective homeland defense requires extensive control over who enters the country," Tkacik says. "And that means DHS should control visa policies and functions. To do so, it must have a meaningful presence overseas. And it must take responsibility for training, indoctrinating and equipping the visa officers stationed abroad and for ensuring they have access to the relevant intelligence and name-check databases needed to screen visa applicants effectively."

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