Glenn A. Fine
House Judiciary Committee
"The Visa Waiver Program"
February 28, 2002
Mr. Chairman, Congresswoman Jackson Lee, and Members of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims:
Thank you for inviting me to testify before the Subcommittee about the Office of the Inspector General's (OIG) work on the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The VWP, a joint responsibility of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the U.S. Department of State, waives visa requirements for visitors from 28 countries who travel to the United States for business or pleasure. According to INS data, between 17 and 18 million nonimmigrants entered the United States under the visa waiver program during each of the past three fiscal years.
Our office testified before this Subcommittee two years ago about the OIG's March 1999 inspection of what was then called the "Visa Waiver Pilot Program." (The program was made permanent in October 2000.) The OIG's 1999 review assessed the INS's efforts at air ports of entry to minimize illegal immigration and national security threats posed by abuses of the visa waiver program.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the OIG conducted a follow-up review on the visa waiver program - and on a series of other INS programs that affect national security - because of concerns that the weaknesses in the programs that we previously identified could facilitate illegal entry of criminals and terrorists into the United States. Our follow-up review on the visa waiver program, conducted in October and November 2001 and released in December 2001, examined how well the INS had responded to the recommendations we made in our 1999 report. During our follow-up review, we concentrated on VWP issues for which the INS has direct responsibility, although we recognize that issues outside the INS's control can affect its operation of the program.
My testimony today will focus mainly on the OIG's findings in our recent follow-up review. For the Subcommittee's information, I have provided copies of the OIG's follow-up report as an addendum to my written statement.
Foreign travelers from non-VWP countries must first obtain a visa to enter the United States. To obtain a visa, individuals submit written applications and may undergo interviews and background checks by Department of State personnel at consular posts abroad.
In contrast, visitors traveling for business or pleasure under the VWP do not need a visa to request entry into the United States. Instead, VWP applicants present their passports and completed I-94W Forms (Nonimmigrant Visa Waiver Arrival/Departure Forms) to INS inspectors at U.S. ports of entry. The INS inspectors observe and question the applicants, examine the passports, and conduct checks against computerized databases to make decisions on whether to grant applicants entry into the United States. This review by INS inspectors is the principal and, in many cases, the only means of preventing the illegal entry of individuals claiming to possess a valid VWP passport. INS inspectors have, on average, less than one minute to check and decide on each applicant.
During the inspection process, the primary tool available to INS employees to prevent applicants from fraudulently entering the United States is the Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS), a computer database maintained by the U.S. Customs Service that is commonly known as the lookout system. The INS and other federal agencies, such as the Department of State, the Department of Agriculture, and the Customs Service, can access and enter data into the IBIS system. IBIS therefore allows INS inspectors at ports of entry to search various databases containing records of individuals who should not be allowed to enter the United States.
During primary inspection at a port of entry, an INS inspector examines the traveler's passport and checks the applicant for entry against IBIS. If the individual's passport is machine-readable, the INS inspector scans it into a reader and the individual's first name, last name, date of birth, and passport number are electronically checked against IBIS. If the passport is not machine readable, the inspector is supposed to enter the individual's name, date of birth, and passport number into the system to check against IBIS.
The March 1999 OIG report assessed the INS's efforts to minimize national security threats and decrease the potential for illegal immigration posed by VWP applicants. We found that INS inspectors were not consistently querying passport numbers against IBIS, either by scanning machine-readable passports or manually entering the passport number. In addition, we found that the INS had failed to enter information on lost or stolen passports from VWP countries into IBIS in a timely, accurate, or consistent manner, and the INS had not designated a single entity to collect information on lost or stolen passports.
The report noted the potential for criminals and terrorists to use the program to fraudulently enter the United States because visa waiver applicants can avoid the pre-screening normally performed by consular officers overseas. Overall, we found that the INS efforts to address the national security risks posed by the program were insufficient and were conducted in an ad hoc and sporadic manner.
In February 2000, in response to our report, INS officials provided the OIG with a policy memorandum, dated October 4, 1999, that provided guidance to INS field personnel addressing the three recommendations we made in our original OIG report. Specifically, the memorandum required INS inspectors to check passport numbers of all visa waiver applicants during primary inspection at ports of entry; designated the INS's Lookout Unit as the centralized INS entity to systematically collect information on stolen blank visa waiver passports; and included guidelines for entering passport numbers when creating lookout records. According to this memorandum, these new INS policies were to be "effective immediately." The INS also included these policies in its INS Inspector's Field Manual.
In our follow-up review, conducted in October and November 2001, the OIG collected data from various sources to assess whether the INS had effectively implemented our recommendations. We interviewed the head of the INS Lookout Unit, personnel from the INS Forensic Document Lab and INS's Inspections Division, and officials from the Department of Justice and Department of State.
We also interviewed senior INS managers at four air ports of entry to focus on policies and procedures implemented as a result of our original report. The four ports we contacted were the same ports we reviewed in 1999: Dulles International Airport, Honolulu International Airport, John F. Kennedy International Airport, and Miami International Airport.
Overall, our follow-up review found that the INS has implemented our recommendations in an inconsistent and incomplete manner. I will address each of the three recommendations from our March 1999 report and what we found during our follow-up review:
Recommendation #1: Modify primary inspection policy to ensure that the passport number of each visa waiver applicant is checked against IBIS.
In its October 1999 memorandum, the INS directed immigration inspectors at air and sea ports of entry to query the passport number of each applicant for admission, including VWP applicants, in IBIS during primary inspection. However, our interviews with INS managers at the four ports of entry for our follow-up report found that, contrary to this policy, the passport number of each VWP applicant was not being checked consistently against IBIS. For example:
We concluded in our 1999 report that the national security and law enforcement benefits of IBIS are lost for many visa waiver applicants whose passports are not machine-readable or if the passport numbers were not manually entered into the system. Entering an individual's name and date of birth might not register a "hit" in IBIS. That individual, however, could be fraudulently seeking to enter the United States with a lost or stolen passport that would not register if the passport number is not queried properly. Although only one VWP country, Switzerland, does not currently produce machine-readable passports, many passports presented to inspectors from VWP countries such as Belgium, France, Italy, and Norway are older and therefore not machine-readable.
There is also a modification of the IBIS system that we believe would be useful in checking passports. Prior to our 1999 report, INS inspectors were not required to enter an alien's passport number into IBIS during primary inspection. To address the recommendations in our original report, the INS in October 2000 asked the Customs Service - which manages IBIS - to make changes so that the IBIS system would prompt inspectors to enter the passport number when checking IBIS if the passport number was not entered by the inspector. This change would make the passport number a mandatory data field during a primary inspection query. In July 2000, the INS submitted 22 projects to modify IBIS, including this system change. According to an INS official we contacted in mid-February 2002, the INS received funding for all of the IBIS modifications in its fiscal year 2002 budget and is developing an interagency agreement with the Customs Service to transfer the money to pay for the system changes to IBIS.
Recommendation #2: Designate a unit to systematically collect information on stolen blank VWP passports and ensure timely and accurate entry of stolen passport numbers into IBIS.
Our follow-up review found that, contrary to this recommendation, information about missing passports still is not consistently being forwarded to the INS's Lookout Unit. Moreover, we found a significant backlog in the Lookout Unit in entering missing passports.
According to an official from the Lookout Unit, immigration inspectors at ports of entry are entering the vast majority of lookouts on their own. INS officials at the four ports of entry contacted during our follow-up review confirmed that they are not consistently forwarding information on missing passports to the Lookout Unit.
The intent of our original recommendation was for the INS to designate a centralized unit to collect information on missing visa waiver passports to ensure that this information was entered quickly and accurately into IBIS. Our follow-up review shows that the INS policy is being disregarded and that reporting of this information by INS field personnel to the Lookout Unit is not systematic. Consequently, the responsibility for entering stolen passport information into IBIS appears to be fragmented, and there still is no centralized place to ensure that lost or stolen passports are being entered in a timely, comprehensive, or uniform manner. To provide for effective and reliable entry of information on missing passports into IBIS, the INS needs to revisit its current policy to determine whether the Lookout Unit, INS field personnel, some combination of these groups, or another INS unit is the most appropriate entity to perform this crucial function.
Recommendation #3: Develop clear guidelines for the entry of passport numbers when creating lookout records.
Our interviews with INS officials at the four ports of entry indicate a lack of uniformity among ports as to which number in a passport should be used in creating and querying lookout records. Responses from the port officials as to which number should be entered ranged from the document number on the passport's biographical page to merely the alien's name without any passport number.
In response to the original OIG report, the INS issued guidelines for entering passport numbers into IBIS when creating lookouts and when querying the system. Specifically, if a non machine-readable passport is presented during primary inspection, the policy listed the hierarchy of passport numbers that should be entered into IBIS, beginning with the perforated number on the passport. However, our follow-up review found that this policy has not been fully disseminated or uniformly implemented by INS field personnel who query IBIS.
Our follow-up review found that INS inspectors still are not consistently entering passport numbers into IBIS to identify applicants who are attempting to use the VWP to enter this country illegally. In addition, we found that the INS does not systematically collect and report missing passport information. Consequently, our follow-up review recommended that the INS renew its efforts to ensure compliance with the recommendations made in our original report. Specifically, we recommended that the INS:
In addition to reissuing this guidance, we believe the INS must follow up to ensure that field personnel understand and follow these procedures.
Finally, our report notes that many issues related to VWP are beyond INS's control, such as the Department of State's nomination of countries for the VWP, the processes used by VWP countries for issuing passports, and the failure by participating countries to report stolen passports. For example, VWP countries are not obligated by statute to report information on missing passports to the United States in order to participate in the VWP. According to INS officials, some VWP countries are more cooperative than others in reporting missing passport information to U.S. authorities, but as a whole VWP country reporting of this information is sporadic and incomplete.
Despite the issues that are outside the control of the INS, our inspection identified several important areas in which the INS needs to improve its efforts to reduce risks posed by abuses of the VWP. We again recommend that the INS take aggressive action to ensure that these improvements are made.
This concludes my prepared remarks. I would be pleased to answer any questions.