HSToday: Bilirakis demands funding for more VISA security units

HSToday: ICE agents investigating visas in US consular posts would stop would-be terrorists like the Christmas Day Bomber, congressman argues.

About a year ago, Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) introduced a bill (HR 2892) to shift $1.7 million in the fiscal 2010 homeland security appropriations bill to fund an additional Visa Security Unit in a high-risk consular post overseas.

The bill passed the House, 423-6, but the budget conference committee between House and Senate negotiators reduced that amount to $500,000 in the final version of the appropriations bill.

Then on Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to bomb Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit, Mich., after having boarded it in Amsterdam. Abdulmutallab had a US visa.

But a Visa Security Unit in the United Kingdom, where Abdulmutallab lived as a student for some time, would have investigated his visa and revoked it after the United Kingdom cancelled his UK visa, Bilirakis told HSToday.us.

“That’s what they do. They are trained ICE officers. They look into backgrounds, scrutinize visas, and share information,” Bilirakis commented. “They are supposed to work with consular officers and train them.”

But the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has staffed only 14 of the Visa Security Units with agents from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) around the world, Bilirakis said. Meanwhile, DHS has identified at least 40 high-risk locations around the world that should receive Visa Security Units.

Each unit would require an annual appropriation of $1.7 million to operate, Bilirakis estimated.

Not only is there not a unit in the United Kingdom, but DHS has no Visa Security Units in high-risk nations like Yemen and Nigeria, Bilirakis said. He has heard the US State Department may have resisted placing some Visa Security Units in particular embassies around the world.

“Diplomacy is okay but we are talking about security and preventing potential terrorists from coming over here and doing us harm,” Bilirakis fumed. “This needs to be a priority. We need to keep these potential terrorists out of our country, and this is a way to do it. It’s very simple.”

Bilirakis asked President Barack Obama about the problem during the Republican retreat visited by the President in January. Obama assured him there would be more money in the budget for Visa Security Units in fiscal 2011, but instead the White House budget proposal was flat on funding for them, Bilirakis said.

“At the rate we are going, it’s going to take about 20 years to get all of these locations in place and that’s unacceptable. It’s a first line of defense,” the congressman lamented.

This year, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) intends to introduce a bill to fund additional Visa Security Units, Bilirakis revealed. Bilirakis intends to work with Smith on the details of the bill.

Budget hearing

Bilirakis asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about Visa Security Units during a budget hearing on Feb. 25.

Napolitano could not identify the number of current Visa Security Units, but she acknowledged they existed only in a small percentage of 220 US consular posts globally.

The secretary revealed that two were added in the previous week and that it was “reasonable” to staff them in high-risk areas around the world.

Napolitano acknowledged that the State Department had resisted Visa Security Units in some locations.

“This is not just the Department of Homeland Security’s decision,” she told the House Homeland Security Committee. “This is really the Department of State where the Department of Homeland Security will be allowed into an embassy facility to work there. So that is something that we are having to work through at the interagency level.”

Bilirakis requested a report on the locations where State objected and the specifics of its objections. Napolitano agreed to produce such a report.

His questions on the matter followed up a letter that he sent Napolitano on Jan. 21 to inquire about any resistance DHS may have encountered in establishing Visa Security Units.

“I am greatly troubled that expansion of this vital terrorist screening program does not appear to be a priority of the Administration, especially since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab reportedly received a visa in London, which does not have a Visa Security Unit. Although ICE has a plan for deploying additional Visa Security Units in the coming years, the Administration’s fiscal year 2010 budget request only included funding to continue visa security activities at existing high-risk locations,” Bilirakis wrote.

At the hearing, Napolitano agreed that an investigation by a Visa Security Unit could have stopped Abdulmutallab from perpetuating the Christmas Day bombing attack by withdrawing his visa, thus barring him from flying to the United States.

Congress authorized DHS to assign personnel to consular posts overseas to review visa applications in Section 428 (e) of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (Public Law 107-296).