US to Implement Immediate Heightened Screening and Vetting of Visa Applications

Posted: 4:08 am ET
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Read the cables via Reuters:

1) CABLE 23338 – Guidance to Visa-Issuing Posts; March 10, 2017

2) CABLE 24324 – Implementing Immediate Heightened Screening and Vetting of Visa Applications; March 15, 2017

3) CABLE 24800 – Halt Implementation; March 16, 2017

4) CABLE 25814 – Implementing Immediate Heightened Screening and Vetting of Visa Applications; March 17, 2017

 

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State Dept’s Overseas Passport and Visa Systems Hit By Glitch Again, Suspends Issuance

Posted: 11:09 pm EDT
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Somebody sent us a note on June 11 asking, “Do you think the Chinese hackers could fix the Consular Consolidated Database?” Fix, how, we asked the white, empty space of the burn bag email.

Today, this pops up:

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Here is the information provided by the State Department to the public:

Passport/Visa Systems Errors

  • The Bureau of Consular Affairs is currently experiencing technical problems with our overseas passport and visa systems.
  • This issue is not specific to any particular country, citizenship document, or visa category.
  • The Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) problems we are experiencing are not the same challenges we overcame last summer. We are working urgently to correct the problems and restore our system to full operational status as soon as possible.
  • We apologize to applicants who are experiencing delays or are unable to obtain a passport overseas, Consular Report of Birth Abroad, or U.S. visa at this time. Domestic passport issuances are not affected at this time. We are able to issue emergency passports to U.S. citizens overseas for urgent travel.
  • We are seeking to assist non-immigrant visa applicants with urgent humanitarian travel. Travelers with an urgent humanitarian need for travel should contact their nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
  • We are aware of pending overseas adoption cases, including in China. We are prioritizing these cases and seek to issue these visas with few delays.
  • We regret the inconvenience to travelers, and remain committed to facilitating legitimate travel while protecting our borders. We are working urgently to correct the problem and expect our system to be fully operational again soon.
  • We will post updates to Travel.State.Gov as more information becomes available.

How is this affecting consular operations?

      Passports

  • Passport applications accepted overseas on or after May 26, 2015 are affected. If you applied for a U.S. passport during this time frame and have travel plans within the next 10 business days, please consider requesting an emergency passport at the U.S. embassy or consulate at which you originally applied. Information about how to apply for an emergency passport is available on the website of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.

      Visas

  • A hardware failure on June 9 halted the flow of biometric clearance requests from posts to the Consular Consolidated Database (CCD). Individuals who submitted online applications or were interviewed for visas on or after June 9 may experience a delay in the processing.
  • The systems in place to perform required national security checks before we issue visas are experiencing technical difficulties. As a result, we are unable to print visas, regular passports overseas, and other travel documents.
  • We cannot bypass the legal requirements necessary to screen visa applicants before we issue visas for travel.
  • As a result, there is a backlog of visas waiting to be processed. We are working as quickly as possible to resolve the issue and to clear the backlog.
  • The technical issues we are experiencing have disrupted or prevented some of the Department’s primary data-share partners from accessing visa records.

The public notice notes that visas cannot be printed without using the CCD system as security measures prevent consular officers from printing a passport, report of birth abroad, or visa until the case completes the required national security checks.visas

On the CA Q&A whether this was a malicious action or hack, the public response only says that the State Department is “working urgently to correct the problem and expect the system to be fully operational again soon.”  There is currently no available timeline on when full system functionality may be restored.

Read the full notice here.

We should note that the person in charge of the CA Bureau’s response the last time the CCD had a meltdown was  Greg Ambrose, a career IT official who was the chief of consular systems and technology (State/CA/CST). FCW previously reported this:

He has been working on a modernization project at State that involves taking the Consular Consolidated Database, a massive system of 12 databases used to process passport and visa applications, from Windows 2003 to Linux. He is also moving the data warehouse to the more powerful Oracle 11g platform. The goal is to give the stovepiped legacy systems a single look and feel.

Not this time around.

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Citing internal State Department email, FCW says that Mr. Ambrose is scheduled to leave his CST job on June 11.  As of today, Kenneth Reynolds, Ambrose’s deputy reportedly replaced him on an acting capacity.

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Related posts:

 

 

US Embassy Yemen: How to Catch the Visa Malfeasance Pokemons? Very Quietly.

— Domani Spero
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Via NY Daily News:

An employee at the embassy may have given out more than 50 sham visas to people who falsely claimed they needed to enter the U.S. to attend an oil industry conference in Texas, according to unsealed papers in Brooklyn Federal Court. The feds learned the Yemeni citizens never went to the conference. It was not clear if the fraudulent visas were connected to terrorism. The feds have uncovered a breach of security inside the U.S. Embassy in Yemen that led to bogus visas being issued, the Daily News has learned.

 

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Via U.S. Consulate Amsterdam

Via U.S. Consulate Amsterdam

If these visas were issued at the embassy, these are authentic visas, using real foils –issued under fraudulent reasons. What are the typical types of visa fraud? Below according to state.gov:

  • Presenting false documents to apply for a visa
  • Concealing facts that would disqualify one from getting a visa, like a criminal history in the alien’s home country
  • The sale, trafficking, or transfer of otherwise legitimate visas
  • Misrepresenting the reasons for requiring a visa
  • Counterfeiting, forgery, or alteration of a visa

We must also add, procurement of authentic visa by malfeasance — bribing a consular employee.  For more on visa security, read Fred Burton’s Getting Back to the Basics here.

DSS Special Agent Bert Seay’s filed a court statement at the Eastern District of New York supporting probable cause to arrest one of those 50 individuals issued visas in Yemen:

In August 2014, DSS received information from the Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Inspector General (“DHS-OIG”) that DHS-OIG had received an anonymous tip that Yemeni national employees working in the non-immigrant visa unit of the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen were helping other Yemeni nationals to fraudulently procure non—immigrant visas in exchange for money. Based on information provided by DHS-OIG, DSS identified one specific Yemeni employee at the U.S. Embassy who submitted over 50 suspicious Bl/B2 visa referrals for Yemeni citizens.

DSS identified the visa applications as suspicious because, in the applications, the Yemeni visa applicants purported to be employed by Yemeni oil companies and stated that their reason for traveling to the United States was to attend an oil industry conference called the “Offshore Technology Conference” in Houston, Texas.  However, investigation by DSS determined that, in most instances, the Yemeni oil companies listed as employers on the visa applications were fictitious and, further, that the visa applicants did not, in fact, attend the “Offshore Technology Conference” after traveling to the United States.

The DS agent statement includes a caveat that the “complaint is to set forth only those facts necessary to establish probable cause to arrest,” but does not include “all the relevant facts and circumstances.” The complaint also notes that “DSS identified one specific Yemeni employee at the U.S. Embassy who submitted over 50 suspicious Bl/B2 visa referrals for Yemeni citizens.”

The allegations involved Yemeni national employees,more than one. Suspicious cases involved over 50 visas, and law enforcement got one arrest. Alert is now broadcasted on all channels. So, how do you catch the Visa Malfeasance and Visa Fraudster Pokemons? It’s not like you can now pretend to send a local employee to FSI for training then arrest him or her upon arrival at Dulles like this or this.

Also, for non-State readers, here is what the regs say about visa referrals:

“A referral is a written request, maintained permanently, to advocate for, or otherwise assist, your contacts at post in the visa application process. Referrals are the only allowed mechanism to advocate for or assist visa applicants prior to visa adjudication.” (See 9 FAM, Appendix K, Exhibit I – pdf).

The news report actually gave us more questions than answers. Visa issuance is a specific responsibility of a Consular Officer; it cannot be issued by just any embassy official or any embassy employee. The processing and issuance process is now automated and requires specific login credentials; it’s not like anyone can just stamp a visa foil on a passport with a stamp pad.

And when did foreign national embassy employees started issuing visa referrals? Only qualified and approved individuals may make visa referrals. But here’s the thing – the regs are clear, to qualify as a visa referring officer you must:

(1) Be a U.S. citizen, direct hire, encumbering an NSDD-38 authorized position or serving in a long-term TDY role (of more than 121 days) in place of a permanently stationed direct hire who falls under Chief of Mission (COM) authority and encumbers an NSDD-38 position as defined by the Human Resources section at post;

(2) Attend a referral briefing with the consular section; and

(3) Submit a signed and dated Worldwide NIV Referral Policy Compliance Agreement to the consular section.

Not only that, the chief of section/agency head of the referring officer’s section or agency must approve each referral (and must attend the briefing and sign the compliance document in order to do so). In the absence of a section/agency head or acting head, the Principal Officer (PO) (if at a consulate), or Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM), or Ambassador must approve the referral.

So, how is it possible for a Yemeni employee in this case (who has not been identified publicly or charged), to submit 50 visa referrals is seriously perplexing.

The complaint identified one defendant as ABDULMALEK MUSLEH ABDULLAH ALZOBAIDI. He allegedly submitted a visa application dated March 8, 2014 presented to an in-person interview with “a Consular Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa,Yemen on April 14, 2014.”  In his visa application, the defendant allegedly stated, among other things, that he was a “manager” of “Jaber Oil Company.” The defendant allegedly further provided the Consular Officer with a business card for Jaber Oil Company. The defendant also allegedly stated in his visa application that the purpose of his trip to the United States was to attend the “Offshore Technology Conference” in Houston, Texas for approximately 15 days.

According to court docs, in September 2014, DSS agents received information from the Yemeni Ministry of Commerce and Information confirming that the Jaber Oil Company is not a registered or legitimate company in Yemen. That Houston conference is an annual event.

Since this individual has now been charged, he will have his day in a New York court but this brings up an even troubling scenario.

According to 2009 unclassified cable published by WikiLeaks, Yemen security conditions prevent the embassy’s Fraud Prevention Unit (FPU) from performing field investigations so post rely almost exclusively on telephone investigations to combat fraud.  So, if there’s a universe with 50 suspicious cases, how many were investigated by FPU prior to visa issuance? This would have been a pretty standard practice in a high fraud post like Yemen.

In a 2010 inspection review of US Embassy Sana’a, OIG inspectors noted (pdf) that “Because of staffing limitations, Embassy Sanaa is not doing the required annual reviews of its visa referral system. This important internal control is mandated by 9 FAM Appendix K 105(d). Not regularly reviewing referrals deprives consular management of important information on the adjudication process and potentially improper behavior.”

That report, although old, also noted at that time that nonimmigrant visa processing is “a relatively small part of the post’s consular workload, and it is managed successfully by one part-time officer.”

Embassy Sana’a has suffered from staffing and security limitations for many years. We can’t imagine that the staffing situation at post has grown any better since that 2010 report. Has it?

And this makes one wonder — if Sanaa is under “ordered departure”and has limited staff, why do we insist on processing visas there?  Embassy Sana’a did not respond to our inquiry on this case but says on its website that “requests for U.S. tourist and business visa appointments continues to grow.”  Also that “Visa services are an important Embassy function, and the robust demand for tourist and business visas reflects the strong continuing relationship between Yemen and the United States.”

The continuing relationship is so strong that no one has been arrested for the multiple attacks of the U.S. mission in Yemen.

According to AQAP, it has targeted US interests in Yemen three times in the last 60 days alone: shelling of compound on September 27, targeting Ambassador Tueller with IEDs on November 6, and the detonation of two IEDs on post’s northern gate on November 27. The attack last week reportedly resulted in embassy guard death/s; this has not been mentioned, confirmed, or denied by the State Department. This news has not made it to the front pages, so you know they will try again.

via UKFCO

via UKFCO

On a related note, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is now advising against all travel to Yemen and strongly urge British nationals to leave the country.

Is this what we should call expeditionary consular diplomacy now?

 


 

 

State Dept/CBP Reportedly Announced Fix for Certain Applicants Ensnared By Visa Glitch

— Domani Spero
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The State Department’s Consular Consolidated Database has been having performance issues since July 19th. We have written about it in this blog (see State Dept Answers FAQ on Ongoing Visa and Passport Database Performance Issues and  State Dept’s Critical National Security Database Crashes, Melts Global Travelers’ Patience).

Last week, Greenberg Traurig posted on The National Law Review that the State Department and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have reportedly announced a fix for certain visa applicants affected by the technical glitch.

“DOS and CBP will, on a case-by-case basis, waive nonimmigrant visa (H-1B, L-1, O-1, etc.) requirements for admission into the United States. In particular, applicants whose U.S. travel involves an “emergency” (i.e., humanitarian travel and life-and-death situations) or impacts U.S. national interests may request consideration for special travel permission.”

The post further states that if “emergency” travel is approved, the embassy or consulate will issue a transportation letter for presentation to common carriers to allow boarding of international U.S.-bound flights. (See DOS and CBP Announce Fix for Certain Visa Applicants Who Are Experiencing Consular Delays Due to Recent Technical Challenges).

This information is nowhere to be found on the State Department’s website or on the Visa Section of travel.state.gov nor the FB page of the Bureau of Consular Affairs. No such announcement is made available from the CBP website.

An  August 10 update from U.S.-China Visa Law Blog includes the following details:

A nonimmigrant visa applicant whose U.S. travel is urgent because it either involves an “emergency” or impacts U.S. national interests, may request consideration for special travel permission to the United States if their visa issuance is delayed as a result CCD systems problems. “Emergencies” in this instance include urgent humanitarian travel and life-and-death situations. Upcoming business engagements and U.S. employment needs are “not typically considered humanitarian emergencies and likely will not be considered as such in most cases.”

If approved jointly by the State Department and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the consular post that accepted the visa application will release the traveler’s passport and will issue a transportation letter, which can be presented to the airlines to allow boarding of international U.S.-bound flights. Upon arrival to a U.S. port of entry and presentation of the transportation letter, CBP will waive the nonimmigrant visa requirement for admission.

Read more:  An Computer Crash Hobbles U.S. Visa, Passport Operations in China (Aug. 10 Update).

It is, of course, just a coincidence that the two sources noting the transportation letter fix are both law firms working on immigration, right? 😉  CA bureau’s FB page does not have an August 8 or August 10 update that includes this information. If there was an announcement, are we to understand that it was done on limited distribution with the State/CBP telling lawyers about this but not releasing this guidance to the general public?

We must confess that we’ve made a mistake of asking for clarification about this from the press office of the Bureau of Consular Affairs.  It turns out that some  folks there are unable to answer “yes” or “no” questions and are only able to provide cut and paste “on background” information for recycled details already publicly available.

Don’t get us wrong. It certainly is impressive cut and paste skills, but we won’t help them recycle the canned info and add to the glut.

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Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program To End on December 31, 2013

— Domani Spero

We previously posted about Iraqi SIVs in September. (See Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program for Iraqi Nationals to End Sept 30, Or How to Save One Interpreter At a Time).  The Department of State’s authority to issue Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to Iraqi nationals under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 has now been extended until December 31, 2013.  The US Embassy in Iraq cautions that “No matter what stage of the process you are in, all selected and eligible applicants must obtain their visa by December 31, 2013. There is no guarantee that the SIV program authority will be extended; therefore, you are strongly encouraged to act quickly to ensure you have the best possible chance to complete your case by December 31, 2013.” US Mission Iraq has updated its information on the Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program with the following details:

  • Our authority to issue SIVs to principal applicants ends on December 31, 2013. We cannot issue SIVs to any principal applicants after this date.
  • Derivative family members (i.e., spouses, children) of principal applicants who were issued SIVs can still be issued SIVs after December 31, 2013.
  • Applicants are advised to check their email accounts and consult our website regularly for the most recent information regarding the SIV program.
  • Applicants whose cases are pending for additional documents are advised to send the required documents to our office immediately to the address listed in the instructions we provided to you.  Failure to do so may result in your visa not being issued before the December 31, 2013 deadline (principal applicants).
  • Applicants who have been scheduled for an interview are strongly encouraged to attend their appointment as scheduled.  Given the extremely high demand of appointments, we will be unable to reschedule your appointment, should you be unable to attend your interview.
  • The separate U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for U.S.-affiliated Iraqis remains in place and will continue to be available after December 31, 2013 regardless of whether the Iraqi SIV program ends at that time.  The Embassy encourages SIV applicants to seek out information about the USRAP as the eligibility criteria are very similar to those of the SIV program.  For more information on USRAP, please visit:http://iraq.usembassy.gov/refugeesidpaffairs.html.

Click here for more details including frequently asked questions.

Unless extended by Congress, the State Department’s authority to issue Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to Afghan nationals will also expire in September 2014.

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US Embassy Guyana Rumor Galore: Another Visa Scandal Ready to Break?

— By Domani Spero

 

There is another alleged visa shenanigans involving a visa officer making the news.  The Guyana Observer reported on July 4 that a US embassy official in Georgetown, Guyana is alleged to have issued “dozens of visas to Guyanese women for sex” and as well as reportedly being “accused of selling visas to many corrupt businessmen, drug dealers etc. for as low as US$15,000.”

The Kaieteur News of Georgetown, Guyana also reported on July 4 that the Foreign Service Officer was “a frequent patron of a popular Middle Street restaurant where he would meet with brokers, some of whom were prominent local businessmen.”

Large numbers are being thrown about – from reportedly $10,000 for a new visa issuance to$30,000-$40,000 for alleged re-issuance of visas previously cancelled or revoked.

According to AFP, its government sources said that the officer had been removed from his post, two months before his tour of duty was due to end in September 2013.

The Daily Caller picked up the news and described the report as this: “A State Department officer has been accused of selling visas for sex and money in what may have been a massive human trafficking operation” citing two Guyanese journalists.  One of the Guyanese journalists says that “We became aware of a scam going on at the embassy when many legitimate visa applicants were being turned down.”

Many applicants who are turned down for visas think they are legitimate and ought to get visas, so that in itself does not hold much water as an argument that there is a scam going on.   Issuance, cancellation, revocation of visas all have electronic trails since no one does paper and pen adjudications anymore. If there is anything there, the investigators will find it. More importantly, the money trails, because you got to have a way to take all that alleged dirty money out of the country.  Any witness to the sex for visa exchange should contact Diplomatic Security here.

The DC and Guyanese news outlets have identified and published a photo of the FSO. We have chosen not to name the FSO here since he has not been charged with a crime.

A source did tell this blog that the person in question in Guyana (we don’t have a confirmed name) a first tour FSO, was sent back to Washington during the investigation, and is currently working in a regional bureau pending the criminal investigation.

Local media published a statement from the US Embassy in Georgetown (not posted online):

“The Department of State is aware of allegations of improprieties relating to a Consular Officer formerly assigned to Georgetown, Guyana.

The Department takes all allegations of misconduct by employees seriously. We are reviewing the matter thoroughly. If the allegations are substantiated, we will work with the relevant authorities to hold anyone involved accountable.”

We have previously blogged about the US Embassy in Georgetown (See US Embassy Guyana: Is this a consequence of midlevel staffing/experience gaps?).

The embassy is headed by D. Brent Hardt who was sworn in as Ambassador to the Cooperative Republic of Guyana on August 19, 2011. According to the embassy website, the “Chief, Consular Affairs” is Mark O’Connors.

On the same week that FSO Michael T. Sestak (See USDOJ:  FSO Michael Todd Sestak Charged With Conspiracy to Defraud and Conspiracy to Commit Bribery and Visa Fraud) was formally charged charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States and conspiracy to commit bribery and visa fraud at the District Court of the District of Columbia, we heard that former FSO, Thomas Patrick Carroll was released from a Chicago federal prison.  Mr. Carroll, a former vice consul at US Embassy Georgetown in Guyana who notably kept some of his ill gotten assets in gold bars, was arrested in 2000.  He was originally sentenced to 21 years imprisonment in 2002, a term that was subsequently reduced on appeal.

Perhaps it should not be a surprise that visa fraud is big news in Guyana.  The Thomas Carroll incident was huge, huge news over there. There is an ebook written about it — The Thomas Carroll Affair: A Journey through the Cottage Industry of Illegal Immigration by David Casavis available at amazon.com. We have not read the book but  according to News Source Guyana,  “the author considers it one of his best works.”

We will have a follow-up post if there are further developments on this case.

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Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa Program: Potential Termination on September 30, 2013

— By Domani Spero 

Section 1244 of the Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, authorizes the issuance of up to 5,000 Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) annually through fiscal year (FY) 2012 to Iraqi nationals who have worked for or on behalf of the U.S. Government in Iraq and who meet certain requirements. The Act opens the SIV process to Iraqi employees and contractors who have been employed by or on behalf of the U.S. Government in Iraq on or after March 20, 2003, for a period of one year or more, and who have experienced or are experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment.

The recent OIG inspection report on the US Embassy in Baghdad and it constituent posts indicate that the impending termination of Iraqi SIVs at the end of September this year has not been publicized because they (embassy, CA and PRM bureaus) “expect the program to be extended.”

Excerpt from the report below:

Applications for the Iraqi special immigrant visa program make up approximately 65 percent of immigrant visa cases. The special immigrant visa program, designed for employees and former employees of the U.S. Government in Iraq with at least 1 year of service, was instituted by law in 2008 and will terminate at the end of FY 2013 unless Congress extends the program. Embassy Baghdad, the Bureau of Consular Affairs, and the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, each of which handles a portion of the program, have not publicized the imminent termination of the program because they expect the program to be extended. The proposed legislation would extend the application deadline until the end of FY 2018 for applicants who began their employment with the U.S. Government before October 1, 2012. Announcement of the impending termination of the program to affected applicants will allow those individuals who may have qualifying U.S. Government employment to make an informed decision as to whether to apply before the program ends. The approximately 2,000 Iraqi special immigrant visa cases in the Washington pipeline for administrative processing may not be completed before the program’s termination.

Recommendation 18: Embassy Baghdad, in coordination with the Bureau of Consular Affairs and the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, should alert pending applicants about the potential termination of the Iraqi special immigrant visa program on September 30, 2013. (Action: Embassy Baghdad, in coordination with CA and PRM)

The immigrant visa unit has been holding thousands of Iraqi passports for special immigrant visa applicants and their immediate family members pending the results of administrative processing. Consular sections worldwide are advised not to retain travel documents for indefinite periods because those documents belong to the applicants, not to the U.S. Government. These families cannot leave the country because the consular section has their passports. In addition, if the embassy were to draw down or evacuate, the section would have to destroy these travel documents. Some of these passports have been held for several years.

Recommendation 19: Embassy Baghdad should return the Iraqi passports of special immigrant visa program applicants. (Action: Embassy Baghdad)

The full report is here.