President Barack Obama, meanwhile, is planning to freeze the program’s budget for fiscal 2011.
The VSP, established by the Homeland Security Act of 2002, puts Department of Homeland Security officials in the field at U.S. consulates to vet the backgrounds of people applying for U.S. visas. DHS uses a broader range of databases than the State Department to review the backgrounds of visa applicants. Also, many policymakers believe DHS officials tend to be more security-minded than State Department consular officers when reviewing visa applications.
While administration officials have said publicly that five additional VSP units should be in place at high risk consulates by the end of 2011, President Barack Obama’s fiscal Year 2011 budget for DHS–submitted almost two months after the Christmas Day bombing attempt—does not increase funding for the program from its fiscal 2010 level.
In fiscal 2010, Obama requested $32.2 million for the Visa Security Program and Congress approved $30.7 million, of which $7.3 million was earmarked for opening four new VSP units at high risk consulates. For fiscal 2011, Obama requested $30.7 million for the DHS, the same amount Congress approved for this year.
According to a March 8 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, a lack of funding could hamper expansion of the Visa Security Program to the many high-risk consulates that still do not have a unit.
“The Obama administration is requesting that the VSP be funded at the same level in FY 2011 as Congress’ funding in FY 2010–$30.7 million,” says the report. “The modest size of VSP with 67 full-time equivalent staff has led some to question how many VSP units DHS will be able to realistically staff.”
President Obama’s proposed freeze on VSP funding and the administration’s slow pace in putting new VSP units in high risk consulates is unacceptable to some congressional Republicans, who have introduced legislation to address these issues.
The Secure Visas Act (HR 4758), introduced in March by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), would allocate $60 million to the program for fiscal 2010 and another $60 million for fiscal 2011 for placing VSP units in the 15 “highest risk” consulates beyond the 14 that already have units in place. That bill would approximately double the funding the Obama administration has allocated for the program in fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2011.
“The visa security process is our first line of defense against terrorists and others who wish to do us harm,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the lead sponsor of the Secure Visas Act, told CNSNews.com. “But under President Obama, new Visa Security Units ground to a halt.”
“If the Obama administration will not exercise its authority to develop new VSUs (Visa Security Units) at the highest risk posts identified by its own Department of Homeland Security, Congress must step in,” said Smith.
“That’s why I introduced the Secure Visas Act–otherwise, continued delays amount to continued danger for the American people,” Smith said.
In a March 10 commentary in the Houston Chronicle, Smith and Secure Visas Act co-sponsor Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) noted that it took 12 months for the DHS to start the process for putting a VSP unit in Yemen, the country where Christmas Day bombing suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was radicalized.
“Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano waited 12 months before even sending a request to the State Department to open a unit in Yemen,” the senators wrote. “And only after increased pressure from Congress did the State Department and DHS see the value of approving more visa security units and authorize personnel to be placed in Yemen and Jerusalem.”
The visa-issuing process and the progress of the VSP came under scrutiny after the failed Christmas Day attack Northwest Flight 253, when the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held hearings on the incident.
At the April 21 hearing, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the committee, said the Obama administration was not making the expansion of VSP a priority.
“Here’s why I reached that conclusion,” Lieberman (I-Conn.) said. “DHS and the State Department have identified 57 high-risk consular posts around the world – that’s out of 200 posts that issue visas. But only 14 of those have received … Visa Security Program offices.”
John Morton, assistant secretary with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which runs the VSP through its Office of International Affairs (OIA), testified at the hearing that 14 VSP units were in place in 12 countries, including one in London, which he said he personally helped establish.
The report states: “The first VSP units were established in Saudi Arabia, as required by §428. In October 2005, VSP units were set up in: Manila, Philippines; Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates; and Islamabad, Pakistan. By the end of 2007, there were VSP units in: Cairo, Egypt; Caracas, Venezuela; Montreal, Canada; Hong Kong, China; and Casablanca, Morocco.”
“That year, the VSP proposed a five-year expansion plan, which proposed to concentrate expansion to the highest risk posts with the goal of covering 75% of the highest risk visa activity by 2013,” states the CRS report.
At the current rate of VSP placement–about five consulates every two years–it would take until 2021 for 75 percent of high-risk consulates to have the program in place.
At a Mar. 11 hearing of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism, Raymond Parmer, director of OIA, testified that the $7.3 million included in the fiscal 2010 budget for VSP expansion would pay for four more VSP units at high-risk consulates. He also said that the State Department’s chief of mission at each consulate has the final say about placement of the DHS’s Visa Security Program.
“Securing the homeland is now a global enterprise,” Lieberman said in a press release issued on the day of the April 21 hearing. “It begins well before people come into the United States.
“The Department of Homeland Security and the State Department need to work together to ensure that prospective travelers are fully vetted before boarding a plane bound for this country,” Lieberman said.
“Expanding the Visa Security Program is a key part of this global enterprise,” Lieberman said, “and we are prepared to be the bad cops if that’s what it takes to make sure that this happens.”