The question of who gets a visa to visit the United States has been a security issue at least since the country was seized by the fear of infiltration by German spies during World War I. In this era of terrorism and Trump, it has come to be one of the foremost security issues of our day. For a century now, the State Department has been at the center of the process, in coordination with various U.S. intelligence services. Recently, however, the Trump administration floated the idea of moving the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs to the Department of Homeland Security as part of the overall effort to restructure the federal government. Given the present political climate and the fact that Carl C. Risch, the person soon to be nominated to head the Bureau of Consular Affairs, once proposed moving the visa function to the Department of Homeland Security, the change seems to be a serious possibility. However, this move is a bad idea. It would endanger services vital to the protection of Americans abroad while doing nothing to protect Americans at home against terrorists or other malefactors.
The precise motivations behind this proposed move are not clear, but reportedly White House policy adviser Stephen Miller has been demanding that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson get “tougher” on immigration and related issues. In addition, a study of the State Department commissioned by Tillerson recommended that the “issuance of passports, visas and other travel documents” should be shifted to the Department of Homeland Security. The study claims that this would increase both “efficiency” and border security.
Tillerson reportedly opposes all this, and he has good reason to. To begin with, there is no reason to expect that the Department of Homeland Security could do any better job overseeing the granting of visas than could the State Department. Consular officials take their role seriously and are not known for their flexibility with regard to the rules. Moreover, under an inter-departmental Memorandum of Understanding dating to 2002, the Department of Homeland Security already establishes visa policy, reviews implementation of said policy, and has final say over State Department regulations implementing that policy. So it is not clear why the Department of Homeland Security would do any better adjudicating visas than Foggy Bottom. It is true that there are occasional cases of State Department consular officers being bribed and issuing visas to people who should not have had them. However, the Department of Homeland Security has had corruption problems, too, as has pretty much every other government agency.
In addition, the State Department draws on and contributes to the same watchlist and intelligence databases that the Homeland Security Department does. In fact, the State Department has been working with those databases since before the Department of Homeland Security even existed. It is hard to escape the suspicion that underlying this proposed move is a belief on the part of some in the administration that foreign service officers are limp-wristed and disloyal and that what is needed to save the day is a bunch of patriotic, square-jawed law enforcement officers.
The Department of Homeland Security Is Ill-Equipped to House Consular Affairs
Bowing to such prejudices by moving Consular Affairs to the Department of Homeland Security would guarantee major problems in recruiting, training, and retaining the necessary people. For starters, the department would have to find a new labor force. Much of Consular Affairs’ work is done by foreign service officers in the consular “cone,” the State Department term for a career field. However, almost all foreign service officers, whatever their particular field, do a consular tour (usually their first) at an embassy or consulate overseas. A Bureau of Consular Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security will not be able to continue to benefit from that ready State Department labor pool. If the members of the State Department’s consular cone are forcibly reassigned to the Department of Homeland Security, we should expect mass resignations. These officers joined the Foreign Service to see and experience the world and represent the United States to it. They believe they are part of an elite. They will not be inclined to join a sprawling department renowned for morale and management problems every bit as bad as those in the State Department. I’d expect the Department of Homeland Security to have a hard time staffing the visa lines, let alone protecting Americans. In fact, the State Department itself is having trouble keeping up with rapidly increasing demand for visa adjudicators. Moving Consular Affairs will just dig that hole deeper and make the U.S. government look feckless and disorganized.
Over the longer term, the Department of Homeland Security would face daunting training challenges. Consular officers presently serve two- to three-year tours abroad and require some training before most new postings overseas, which sometimes takes months or even years. This includes language training and area training and familiarization, all functions presently performed by the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute. The Department of Homeland Security would have to duplicate these functions, likely at great cost, or try to negotiate another Memorandum of Understanding with the State Department to buy its students back into the Foreign Service Institute.
Moving the Bureau of Consular Affairs from one department to another would not just invite personnel problems. It would also be positively damaging to the security of Americans. To understand why, it is important to know that the Bureau of Consular Affairs does not just issue visas to non-American visitors and passports to Americans. It is also responsible for “the welfare and protection of U.S. citizens abroad.” This involves a wide variety of functions that require experienced and internationally engaged personnel and institutions. For instance, if an American is thrown in prison abroad, consular officers visit that person regularly to check on his or her welfare, ensure access to legal counsel, attend trials, and provide other services, some of which involve detailed knowledge of the legal and political systems in the country in question. In fiscal year 2015, consular officers made 9425 prison visits. If an American goes missing abroad, consular officers respond to queries from worried family members and work with authorities, media, the Peace Corps, and diplomats from third countries to find the person. Consular officers work with family members to handle those unfortunate cases where Americans die overseas. There were 10,589 such cases in FY15. Children who have been abducted abroad and Americans who get robbed overseas also benefit from the work of this bureau.
The bureau also runs the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which helps the State Department keep track of what Americans are abroad so it can contact them in case of a disaster, violence, or unrest in the area they are visiting or if there is a family emergency. Consular Affairs sent out 1,773 emergency messages in FY15 alerting Americans abroad to potentially dangerous situations. Most dramatically, if the situation in a country goes south and American citizens need to be evacuated by the U.S. military in a noncombatant evacuation operation, the consular section is the military’s main point of contact with the embassy. The consular section will have drawn up the embassy’s evacuation plan and will be responsible for identifying evacuees at the Evacuation Control Center and otherwise facilitating the evacuation and even searches for missing Americans.
Why would the White House want to take these important services away from the department with decades of experience doing all these things? As I discuss above, they can’t hope to keep the same personnel on the job. In short, if the Department of Homeland Security takes over the Bureau of Consular Affairs, it will inherit a wide array of tasks that are related to protecting Americans abroad but not protecting the homeland per se. Many of these duties involve expert knowledge of the country and tasks in question. Defending “the welfare and protection of U.S. citizens abroad” is a mission that at best sits uneasily with the idea of “homeland security” in an agency that has far less particular expertise with overseas affairs.
A Better Idea
A simpler approach might be to leave the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department and move only the visa function to Homeland Security. This would have some merit: Those with final say over crafting visa policy would work in the same department as those who implement it. However, the Department of Homeland Security would still face the problems of recruitment and retention. Not to put too fine a point on it, but working the visa line is not generally considered a fun job and it gets even less fun when it is done in a hardship post. This is not an enormous problem at the State Department presently, because time on the visa line is a rite of passage for all foreign service officers, and officers in the consular cone get to do a wide variety of tasks beyond visa work. The Department of Homeland Security, however, should expect to have difficulty recruiting and retaining qualified people to do this work if they have no reasonable prospect of career progression to other kinds of consular work. In addition, of course, moving only the visa function would double the amount of Washington-based management needed to oversee the same amount of work being done in the field.
If the intent of the Trump administration is to tighten up the implementation of the visa process, then it should do so by writing new laws, policies or regulations or by tightening up training or oversight. Moving the Bureau of Consular Affairs would not address the problem the administration apparently sees — and it would create new problems to boot.
Dr. Mark Stout directs graduate programs in Global Security Studies and Intelligence at Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences Advanced Academic Programs in Washington, DC. He has previously worked for the Department of the Army, the State Department, the CIA, and the Institute for Defense Analyses.