The Department of Homeland Security’s effort to place trained
officers in embassies and other State Department posts has led to
a falling out between the two agencies, according to a report by
the Government Accountability Office.
As part of a larger security program, DHS is determined to place
visa security officers, or VSOs, inside embassies and consulates
overseas. Currently, the only facilities with these staffers are
in Saudi Arabia.
DHS officials said they want the visa-security officers because
they can delve more deeply into the background of subjects than
the State Department’s consular officers.
“VSOs have access to and experience using immigration and
law enforcement databases that are not readily available to consular
officers, who are not classified as criminal justice or law enforcement
personnel,” GAO said. “As law-enforcement agents, the
visa security officers can access detailed criminal history records
and immigration information” not available to embassy staff,
who must route all such requests through Washington, D.C.
DHS planned to expand its visa security program to five locations
in fiscal year 2005, with further increases to come. However, chiefs
of mission at those posts delayed approval, said the GAO report.
“Embassy and State officials attributed the delays to questions
about the program’s goals, objectives and staffing requirements,
as well as DHS’s plans to coordinate with existing law-enforcement
and border-security staff and programs at post,” the report
Other problems were reported when staff at embassy posts wondered
why their sites had been selected to receive the additional security
agents, or asserted too many agents had overly broad mandates.
Embassy officials also questioned the reasoning behind the number
of VSOs that DHS wanted to assign. In 2004, the department requested
21 VSO positions for five posts. A year later, only four posts had
approved just 13 of the positions.
The Homeland Security Act of 2002, which established DHS, gave
it responsibility for visa policy, and authorized DHS immediately
to assign personnel to Saudi Arabia to review all visa applications
before final adjudication. In 2003, DHS created the office of international
enforcement within the border and transportation security directorate
to oversee this work.
Four DHS officers were deployed to Saudi Arabia to kick start the
program. The quartet was on temporary assignment, the report noted,
which hindered the program’s ability to maintain focus and
smooth relations with embassy officials.
There also have been questions about the wisdom of checking every
applicant. The GAO report also recommended that Congress amend the
Homeland Security Act to allow VSOs the “flexibility”
to prioritize their reviews, focusing on those who may pose a risk.
In short, the effort in Saudi Arabia unmasked an overall effort
that was suffering from a lack of preparation, said the GAO report.
“DHS has not developed a strategic plan for visa security
operations in Saudi Arabia or the future expansion posts,”
GAO said. “The development of a plan may address questions
from chiefs of mission and prevent delays in approving the assignment
of VSOs during future expansion of the visa security program.”
The Department of Homeland Security announced that it will not sanction
employers for hiring victims of Hurricane Katrina who are unable
to provide documentation normally required under Section 274A of
the Immigration and Nationality Act.
DHS will not bring sanction actions against employers for hiring
individuals evacuated or displaced as a result of Hurricane Katrina
otherwise eligible for employment but who currently lack personal
documents. U.S. employers are responsible for completing and retaining
employment eligibility verification (I-9) forms for individuals
they hire. This form requires employers to verify employment eligibility
and establish identity through original documents presented by the
As a result of the widespread damage and destruction to government
facilities in the area affected by the hurricane it can be expected
that many victims will be unable to apply and receive new documents
in the period of time required by the employment verification rules.
Employers will still need to complete the I-9 form as much as possible
but should note at this time that the documentation normally required
is not available due to the events involving Hurricane Katrina.
At the end of 45 days—the measure took effect on September
6—the Department of Homeland Security will review this policy
and make further recommendations.