New Report Examines State and Homeland Security Roles in Visa Security Policy

After Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, often referred to as the “Underwear Bomber”, allegedly tried to detonate a bomb on a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009, questions have arisen regarding the roles of the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in matters of visa security and whether any changes in law are warranted.

Abdulmutallab’s father had warned the U.S. Embassy at Abuja, Nigeria that his son might be a threat to the United States a month before the alleged bomb attempt. Officials at the Embassy sent a cable to the National Counterterrorism Center about Abdulmutallab, but no action was ever taken. State Department officials said that they did not have enough information to revoke his visa at that time. Abdulmutallab had been traveling on a multi-year, multiple-entry tourist visa that was issued in June 2008.

A recent Congressional Research Service report addressed the roles that the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security play in visa security and the conflicting positions about the role intended for each department.

Under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the State Department is to issue regulations governing visa issuance, staff U.S. consular posts abroad to advise and investigate as needed, and have consular officers bear responsibility for issuing visas. DHS’ U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) approves immigrant and nonimmigrant petitions, DHS’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement operates the Visa Security Program, and DHS’ Customs and Border Protection inspects people who apply for admission to the U.S. The Department of Justice also plays a role in visa policy by making adjudicatory decisions on specific immigrant cases that it receives.

The report acknowledges the opinion of some that the DOS exercises too much control over the visa process, asserting that the intent of the Homeland Security Act was to have DHS be the lead agency with DOS merely administering the process. The opposing view is that DOS has officers on the ground in consular posts worldwide with country-specific knowledge and is in the best position to play the lead role in visa processing. Cost plays a role too, in that expanding DOS’ role may be prohibitively expensive for that Department.

Recently, a bill passed the House Committee on the Judiciary that would give the Secretary of Homeland Security exclusive authority on matters of visa security. The issue of changes to current processing, it appears, remains up in the air awaiting Congressional action.

Stewart Rabinowitz is President of Dallas-based Rabinowitz & Rabinowitz, P.C. Mr. Rabinowitz is Board Certified in Immigration and Nationality Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. To contact a Dallas immigration lawyer or Dallas immigration attorney, please visit,