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U.S. Department of State

Proposal to Establish a Department of Homeland Security: the Visa Function

Marc Grossman, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
Testimony before the House International Relations Committee
Washington, DC
June 26, 2002

As Prepared

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, thank you for inviting my comments on the most extensive re-organization of the Federal Government since the 1940s.

The Department of State supports the Presidentís proposal. September 11, 2001 brought a vigorous, determined, and effective response from the people and government of the United States, but, as the President said in transmitting his bill to Congress, also the knowledge that we can do better. The Presidentís proposal shows the way ahead as we do everything in our power to protect our country and its people from terrorism. The Department of State has been and continues to be fully committed to this effort.

The State Department has no more important work then the protection of Americans at home and abroad. On any given day, about 3 million Americans are overseas. Americans abroad give birth to 44,000 children whom we document as US citizens; 2,000-3,000 Americans are arrested each year in other countries and need to be visited, helped, and their cases monitored. Some 6,000 Americans die each year with 2,000 families choosing to have their loved onesí remains sent back to the US for burial.

We search for and assist over 40,000 Americans abroad whose families have either lost track of them or become alarmed about events where they are living or traveling. When a plane crashes overseas our officers help parents, spouses, and children cope with the tragedy and navigate a foreign bureaucracy. 114,000 Americans study abroad every year; this number is going up by 10% annually. Our passport offices at home and abroad issued 7,000,000 US Passports to our fellow citizens last year.

Who does this work on what Secretary Powell likes to call the first line of Americaís "offense"? Why are they drawn to this career? How does what they do help protect us at home and abroad? What is the State Departmentís value added?

Foreign Service Officers and Civil Service employees of the State Department are drawn from among the best talent in the U.S. They are entering motivated by patriotism, curiosity about life abroad, and a desire to serve their fellow citizens. More Americans than ever are taking the Foreign Service written exam: 8,000 took the exam in September of 2000, 13,000 in September of 2001 and 14,000 in April of 2002. Our officers learn foreign languages, prepare to live in some of the least hospitable parts of the world, face grave danger (as the Africa bombings of 1998 and the bombing of Consulate in Karachi witness)in order to protect Americans.

The amount of work on our visa lines is staggering. In Fiscal Year 2001, the Department adjudicated nearly 10.5 million non-immigrant visa applications at 196 posts. Out of this total, we issued visas to over 7.5 million people or about 71 percent of applicants. We also handled 628,000 immigrant visa cases.

The Department has committed nearly 75 percent of the total 880 plus overseas consular officers to the visa adjudication process, either as officers providing direct interview services on a regular basis or as the managers of this function. Applications are reviewed in every case by American consular officers. Our name checking system is consulted in every case, documents are verified and often the applicant is personally interviewed by a consular officer. During FY-2001, more than 68 percent of posts interviewed at least 50 percent of their visa applicants. Experienced consular supervisors review issuances and refusals, anti-fraud units monitor attempts at deception and only then is a visa issued. People who say that consular work is only done by "visa stampers" or disgruntled junior officers who all want to be Ambassadors donít get it.

The majority of Foreign Service Officers recognize the value to their careers of the knowledge of a foreign society, its people, and the complex web of US immigration law and regulations gained in doing consular work. That most officers move on to other specialties within the Foreign Service is a testament to our career pattern and the variety of work we do overseas, but the career track of consular officers is one of the five core competencies of the Foreign Service. I find it heartening that an increasing number of people joining the Foreign Service are choosing to do consular work as their specialty. Consular is now the third most popular choice for new candidates, following the political and public diplomacy cones.

Here are some real-life examples of the value-added I describe:

  • Consular Officers in two different posts refused student and tourist visas to Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni who allegedly conspired with Zacarias Moussaoui and the 19 9/11 hijackers. They believed him to be an intending immigrant and therefore ineligible under the law.
  • A female visa applicant in Manila was closely questioned by a consular officer, who elicited information substantiating her ties to the Abu Sayyaf Group. Her visa was refused for involvement in terrorist activities.
  • A consular officer in Germany thought the multiple visa applications of a retired refugee from Kosovo odd: how could this man spend so much time in the US, even with his generous pension? Looking more deeply into the case the consular officer found that the man was getting welfare benefits in Germany and the US, and was a member of an alien smuggling ring that had moved 2,000 aliens into the US, and was involved in gun-running and counterfeiting.

The nineteen terrorists who attacked the US on 9/11 entered the United States on legally issued visas and proceeded on to their deadly mission undeterred by US authorities. Why did we not recognize who they were and what they planned to do and refuse those visas? Because there was no way, without prior identification of these people as terrorists through either law enforcement or intelligence channels and the conveyance of that knowledge to consular officers abroad, for their intentions to be uncovered.

Identification by intelligence and law enforcement and the sharing of that data with consular officers abroad remains the key to fighting terrorism with visa policy. We have come a long way in a short time towards the comprehensive data sharing we must have to prevail in this area of the war against terrorism. Executive orders and The USA Patriot Act now require such sharing, and our files on potential terrorists are far better now than they have ever been in the past.

The new Department of Homeland Security will assure consular officers timely access to the best data the US Government keeps on terrorists. A better flow of information is another reason to support the Presidentís proposal.

In creating the new Department, with its proper emphasis on homeland defense and law enforcement, it is important to recognize that visa policy plays a vital role in foreign policy concerns of the United States. For example, the US uses visa policy to advance our goals of promoting religious freedom, opposing forced abortion and sterilization, enforcing the reciprocal treatment of diplomats, and in punishing the enemies of democracy around the world. These priorities will continue to inform our policy and the Secretary of State will support the Homeland Security Department to advance them.

Thank you very much. I look forward to your questions.




    Released on July 3, 2002

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