State, Justice haggle over criteria to deny visas

The Justice and State departments can't agree on how much evidence is needed to deny visas to foreign applicants, making it easier for terrorists to enter the country's borders, according to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.

Grassley sent letters last week to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft urging them to "get on the same page" and break the stalemate over the criteria for issuing visas.

"This stalemate is a potentially serious danger for our country because it could make it easier to allow terrorists to enter our borders," Grassley wrote in the Oct. 31 letter. "In addition, this rift can pose serious problems for the Immigration and Naturalization Service's border work."

Before citizens of most countries can enter the United States, either temporarily or on a permanent basis, they must first apply for a visa at an American embassy or consulate. There, officers of the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs review applications and interview visa candidates, deciding whether to let people into the country. The INS, which is part of the Justice Department, enforces the terms of visas and is responsible for tracking down people who overstay temporary visas. INS inspectors also have the power to turn foreigners away at the border.

The Justice Department would like consular officers to deny visas to applicants whose names come up in government databases listing suspected terrorists. But State Department officials have said that a name match alone is not enough proof to deny a visa for security reasons.

An October General Accounting Office report brought the departments' divergent opinions to Grassley's attention.

The report (GAO-03-132NI) praised the State Department for installing the technology necessary to make sure its "lookout" list of possible terrorists is updated routinely. But GAO also cited the disagreement that arose between the two departments over whether an applicant's name appearing on the lookout list or the Foreign Terrorist Tracking database is a valid reason for rejecting a visa application.

As of Aug. 1, 567 visa applicant names matched information in the Foreign Terrorist Tracking database.

Under Title 8, Chapter 12, Section 1182 of the U.S. Code, consular officers can deny visas to applicants if they have "reasonable grounds" to believe those applicants are likely to engage in terrorist activity upon entering the United States.

Justice Department officials told GAO that they believe a name match provides "reasonable grounds" for suspicion, while the State Department pointed out that an applicant could happen to have the same name as a suspected terrorist in the terrorist database, but not be the same person. In this type of case, consular officers need evidence to prove that the visa applicant is, in fact, the suspected terrorist if they want to deny the person entry to the country, the State Department says.

The Justice Department agreed that "it will often be impossible to know for sure if a visa applicant is the same person contained in the relevant databases," but told GAO that even so, "the department thinks it appropriate to proceed cautiously and deny a visa on the theory that the name check match does provide a reasonable ground to believe that the applicant presents a threat to national security."

Grassley urged the departments to agree on a policy as soon as possible. "With this dual system, we have the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing-and it is national security that suffers," he wrote.

Grassley sent a copy of his letter to Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, requesting Ridge's input and his help to settle the "conflict."

A spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs said that his department plans to respond to Grassley's letter, but commented that "conflict" is probably too strong a word to describe what is going on. "It is just a matter of constant discussion between the departments so that when we give Congress a report that explains the reasons for a visa denial, we have enough evidence," he said.

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