Senators Schatz and Klobuchar Call on State Department to Use GAO Findings to Streamline Visa Processing

Senators Request Additional GAO Report On Foreign Service Staff


Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), members of the Senate Commerce Committee and Co-Chairs of the Senate Tourism Caucus, wrote to the State Department to follow up on a recently released report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that evaluated the State Department’s capacity to meet the expected increase in demand for travel visas.  The report, which was requested by Senators Schatz and Klobuchar, found that while the State Department has taken a number of steps to meet the current visa demand, more needs to be done to ensure that the department can meet the rising demand for visas.

In their letter to the State Department, the Senators wrote, “In its recent report, GAO recognized State’s efforts—such as dedicating more personnel to consular services and opening additional consulates—to increase NIV processing capacity and shorten applicant interview wait periods.  However, GAO raised concerns about State’s ability to meet the visa demand in the long-term given hiring constraints and that the NIV demand is expected to increase 45 percent by 2019.  It is clear that State should conduct a comprehensive assessment of its efforts and develop a strategy on how it plans to meet the rising visa demand.  Should State fail to take the necessary actions, our country could revert to pre-2012 excessive visa processing delays, which would have a costly impact on the U.S. travel and tourism industry and our overall economy.” 

The GAO’s key findings:

  • Visa demand has historically impacted State’s ability to efficiently process visas.  State projects that the number of nonimmigrant visa applicants will rise worldwide from 12.4 million in FY 2014 to 18 million in FY 2019, a 45% increase.  In addition, East Asia and Pacific region will increase by 98% and the South and Central Asia region will increase by 91%.
  • While State Department has taken a number of steps to reduce interview wait times, it has not evaluated the impact of its efforts.  Without this, State does not know how to best to direct resources to those activities that offer the greatest likelihood of success.
  • State Department acknowledges that long interview wait times for tourist visas may discourage travel to the United States, potentially costing the country billions of dollars in economic benefits over time and adversely influencing foreigners’ opinions of our nation.


Read the full report here.

To follow up on the findings, the Senators made an additional request for a GAO report on U.S. Foreign Service staff levels in more than 270 embassies and consulates around the world. U.S. Foreign Service employees help process visas for millions of international travelers every year.  In 2014, those travelers contributed more than $200 billion to the American economy.  With international travel expected to grow, the Senators asked the GAO to identify any gaps in State’s staffing requirements, and the consequences of such gaps in diplomatic readiness and other foreign service efforts, including nonimmigrant visa processing.

The full text of the GAO request can be found here.

The full text of the letter to the State Department follows:

Dear Secretary Kerry:

In light of the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) recent review (GAO-15-773) of the U.S. Department of State’s efforts to expedite the visa process for nonimmigrants, we write in regards to State’s long-term plans to ensure low nonimmigrant visa (NIV) interview wait times. 

Recognizing the economic importance of the U.S. travel and tourism industry, President Obama established a national goal of attracting 100 million international visitors annually by 2021.  Travel and tourism generates more than $2 trillion in economic activity and supports nearly 15 million jobs in the United States.  Facilitating international travel to the United States is critical to the strength of the industry, as foreign tourists visiting the United States reduce our trade deficit by exchanging foreign currency for U.S. goods and services.

In the past, the U.S. visa process has been a barrier to the growth and competitiveness of U.S. travel and tourism.  In 2007, GAO reported that 20 overseas posts were experiencing maximum monthly wait times of more than 90 days at least once over the past year.  In recent years, NIV wait times reached 100 days at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China, in 2010, and more than 140 days at the U.S. Consulate in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2011.  According to GAO, “State has acknowledged that long interview wait times for NIVs may discourage legitimate travel to the United States, potentially costing the country billions of dollars in economic benefits over time and adversely influencing foreign citizens’ opinions of our nation.” 

President Obama’s executive order (EO 13597) to improve visa processing was an important step forward to addressing these issues.  We commend State’s dedicated efforts to increase the department’s visa processing capacity and make the NIV process more efficient without compromising the security of our country.  State’s persistent efforts has yielded substantial and positive results, which has been integral to State’s success in achieving the goals set by the executive order. 

In its recent report, GAO recognized State’s efforts—such as dedicating more personnel to consular services and opening additional consulates—to increase NIV processing capacity and shorten applicant interview wait periods.  However, GAO raised concerns about State’s ability to meet the visa demand in the long-term given hiring constraints and that the NIV demand is expected to increase 45 percent by 2019.  It is clear that State should conduct a comprehensive assessment of its efforts and develop a strategy on how it plans to meet the rising visa demand.  Should State fail to take the necessary actions, our country could revert to pre-2012 excessive visa processing delays, which would have a costly impact on the U.S. travel and tourism industry and our overall economy. 

Earlier this year, the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board (TTAB), consisting of key industry leaders, made five recommendations on areas to focus on during the remaining time of this administration.  Among TTAB’s recommendations, the board advised that the federal government maintain world-class visa processing rates, especially in countries with a high potential of international travelers.  We agree with this recommendation given the competitiveness of the global travel market. 

It is critical that State continues to ensure that the NIV process is efficient, effective, and sustainable in the long-term given the importance of travel and tourism to the U.S. economy.  Therefore, we request that State provide a strategic plan describing current and planned efforts to meet the rising demand for NIV.  We also ask that the department provide recommendations on what congressional action is needed, if any, to ensure that the department can maintain an efficient and productive NIV process.

We are committed to working with you to ensure that we meet our nation’s goal of attracting 100 million international visitors annually by 2021. 

Regards,

###