Measuring Effectiveness in the Visa Security Program

By Dan Cadman on March 31, 2018

On March 20, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report captioned "Actions Needed to Strengthen Performance Management and Planning for Expansion of DHS's Visa Security Program".

The Visa Security Program (VSP) is a matter of personal interest to me because I was instrumental in its development and implementation after creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and was physically present to open and supervise, for a period of time, the first two VSP offices in Riyadh and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

I've watched the program's fortunes wax and wane within the DHS subordinate agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). There were years under the Obama administration when the program's own agency and department targeted it for virtual starvation and elimination through zero-funding budget requests, although it seems to be on a sound footing at present.

But in fairness to the Obama White House, even the Bush administration was not fully enamored of the VSP, and did much to curtail its potential utility, as well as tiptoe around the statutory authority for final say over visas granted to DHS by the Homeland Security Act, for reasons that I've explored in prior blog posts.

That latter point, DHS tiptoeing around its own statutory authorities, brings us back to the current audit. Here's what GAO has to say in one of its key findings:

ICE developed objectives and performance measures for VSP, but its measures are not outcome-based and limit the agency's ability to assess the effectiveness of VSP. As of fiscal year 2017, none of VSP's 19 established performance measures are outcome-based. For example, ICE measures its activities, such as number of visa refusals VSP agents recommended, rather than the outcomes of those recommendations.

Translated into plain English, GAO is saying that ICE chooses to measure effectiveness by what its agents recommend to consular officers, rather than what consular officers ultimately decide to do. This is an important distinction because consular officers are, in fact, free to ignore or override recommendations to deny in favor of granting a visa. There is an important caveat to that fact, but it's not one over which ICE agents have any direct control.

The Homeland Security Act doesn't just invest visa issuance policies in the secretary of Homeland Security (as opposed to the secretary of State), it also gives the DHS secretary authority to direct that a particular visa be denied.

Those provisions were written into law after the disastrous 9/11 attacks because of congressional belief that visas were too often granted on the basis of geopolitical and foreign policy considerations, as opposed to the bona fides (or mala fides) of the actual applicant. It was believed that those considerations would not likely weigh heavily in the minds of DHS officers responsible for domestic immigration control and enforcement functions, given that they are the ones who have to police the after-effects of poor visa decision-making when it plays second fiddle to bilateral relationships.

I have to say that Congress probably had that right, and even in a post-9/11 environment foreign policy relations with the host country often outweigh visa considerations within embassy and consulate establishments. The problem is that, in the context of the presidential cabinet structure, secretaries of State carry more status and weight than DHS secretaries, as a consequence of which DHS has been loath to actually exercise either the policy or individual case authorities granted it by law and risk running afoul of irritated secretaries of State.

DHS has therefore created an internal policy and rules structure that requires ICE VSP agents to send visa denial requests through multiple levels of their own bureaucracy, and from there into DHS and onward to the highest echelons of the department before a consular officer's decision to grant can be overridden. There has been no substantive delegation downward, as so often happens on other enforcement, control, or immigration benefits matters. Thus, while the policy provides a theoretical avenue to force a visa denial, anyone can readily recognize that taking such a step would be fraught with peril for the VSP agent who goes down that path, especially if his "appeal" were ultimately to be chucked aside and the visa approval remained in place. He would effectively become persona non grata within the embassy/consular structure in which he works, with all of the shunning that would entail, and he would probably pay an internal price inside his own agency as well for having forced an interdepartmental row with all of the behind-the-scenes bureaucratic power plays that can involve.

For all of these reasons, it's easy to see why ICE chose the measurement structure that it did for purposes of determining how its VSP units abroad are doing. I also have no doubt that the measurement structure that's in place, which GAO questions, is also used in the annual ratings of individual VSP agents — certainly understandable, given the kinds of ground realities I've just described.

Having said that, I'm a contrarian by nature. I tend to agree with GAO's recommendation to amend the measurement structure, although not for the reasons it asserts. I find no problem with ICE limiting its measurements of effectiveness to those things truly under its control. By the same reasoning, however, it seems to me that if DHS is ever to jettison its pusillanimous approach to visa policy and decision-making and exercise its authorities as envisioned, there must be a statistical basis, and what better way than to be able to measure when, and how often, consular officers ignore VSP recommendations? The mere fact that both measurements are being taken would almost certainly have a salutary effect, as consular officials at all levels would in short order become aware that their shoulders are not immune to being looked over.

One final comment: In many U.S. diplomatic establishments abroad, VSP agents have developed cordial and professional working relationships with their consular counterparts, as all sides come to realize that they share responsibility (and potentially blame) for both good and bad decision-making where visa issuance is concerned. No one walks away clean when there are screw-ups, even when they show up significantly after the fact.

This may be a dim and cynical view of the world, but it's a ground reality, and once that recognition sinks in among both VSP and consular staff, it is amazing what can be accomplished in establishing an atmosphere of thorough vetting before anyone receives a visa to enter the United States.