By Trenton Douthett
On a former U.S. Air Force base in Portsmouth, N.H., 400 Department of State employees and more than 1,000 contractors work cooperatively to strengthen national security on a case-by-case basis. The National Visa Center (NVC), National Passport Center (NPC), Northeast Regional Office for Passport Services (NE), and Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) personnel assigned to the Portsmouth Resident Office regularly collaborate and work with law enforcement partners, local government agencies, subject matter experts in Washington, and posts worldwide to maintain the integrity of U.S. passports and visas.
In 1994, the NVC started as a small office to facilitate the delivery of immigrant visa documents to posts. NVC has grown to include more than 700 contract employees working to ensure that the immigrant visa process runs smoothly for both the public and overseas posts. To that end, NVC ensures immigrant visa application packets are complete for consular officer adjudication and schedules the interviews on behalf of posts. NVC also has a telephone and written correspondence unit that averages 8,000 daily customer interactions. The biometric validation section reviews facial recognition returns for both visa and passport applications to ensure the adjudicating officer has the best available information when considering potential matches. NVC utilizes every available method to ensure that the immigrant visa process is secure and national security remains strong throughout the process.
NVC is also a technology incubator for the Bureau of Consular Affairs. In 2017, it led the transition from a paper-based immigrant visa system to electronic visa processing. NVC analyzes visa interview outcomes worldwide to identify trends, and they also have a team of developers that can both mine data and implement improvements in NVC’s systems to ensure accurate data is provided to Washington decisionmakers.
As one would imagine, rapidly evolving issues surrounding immigration policies and processes heavily impact NVC operations. From the Northern Triangle surge to the urgency of Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applications to implementing Executive Orders, through the close and careful coordination between the government and contract employees, NVC meets the challenge regardless of the obstacles.
Nearby, the NPC is an innovation leader in passport operations. NPC plays a critical role in national security by issuing U.S. passports. NPC is the largest passport agency with more than 650 employees, and each team member plays a critical role in its success. NPC adjudicates nearly 35 percent of all U.S. passport applications.
Examples of NPC’s modernization include using radio-frequency identification—also known as RFID—chips to quickly locate applications throughout NPC’s 100,000-square-foot building. NPC has also led the effort to reimagine adjudications to ensure quality and efficiency throughout the process. In fact, NPC has already significantly reduced the number of notations required on a passport application, leading to significant time savings.
The most exciting development is NPC’s work supporting the upcoming implementation of online passport renewal. Online passport renewals will eliminate the opportunity of bad actors to intercept mailed documents, mitigate potential malfeasance by distributing the workload across a larger geographic area and adjudicator pool, and move a vital public service online. In addition, the direct submission of passport application information makes it easier to safeguard all personally identifiable information.
NE has oversight responsibilities for a workforce of more than 900 employees working in a geographic region stretching from Arizona to Vermont, which includes the five passport agencies and two passport centers located in Boston; Buffalo, N.Y.; Norwalk, Conn.; New York City; Hot Springs, Ariz.; Tucson, Ariz.; and St. Albans, Vt. NE represents its region at Passport Services headquarters and influences national policy to ensure each passport agency/center has the leadership, support, resources, training, and guidance they need to continuously enhance their ability to provide great service to the American public and keep U.S. borders secure.
DSS has the largest global presence of any U.S. law enforcement agency and has a robust domestic mission in the United States. The DSS Portsmouth Resident Office is one of 33 domestic offices that implements DSS’s core statutory authority—to investigate U.S. passport and visa fraud. However, Portsmouth Resident Agent-in-Charge Charles Shannon and his team of special agents, analysts, and support staff frequently work with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies as well as foreign and international partners to investigate transnational crimes with a nexus to passport and visa fraud such as human trafficking; weapons, drug, and human smuggling; terrorism; identity theft; financial fraud; and child exploitation. They also assist federal, state, and local law enforcement partners in locating and returning fugitives who have fled to foreign countries.
The DSS Portsmouth Resident Office assists NPC and NVC with security risks and law enforcement-related issues. NPC routinely forwards suspect passport applications to the DSS office, which investigates and prosecutes when criminal activity is confirmed. DSS also assists both centers by leveraging relationships with local law enforcement, who can determine if an applicant is on probation, has an outstanding warrant, or is fleeing justice for any reason.
The DSS Portsmouth Resident Office strengthens these critical regional law enforcement relationships through long-term liaison activities and training events, such as a recent dignitary protection training series held in New Hampshire. This unique training provides DSS’s law enforcement partners with the skills to conduct protective details and in turn, they can assist the Department when an event occurs in the region that includes diplomats and other foreign dignitaries.
All four offices in Portsmouth recently teamed up for the Department’s first COVID-19 vaccination clinic outside the National Capital Region. Additionally, they joined together to participate in a large-scale active shooter exercise, coordinated by the Office of Emergency Management, which strengthened the physical security and personal preparedness of all staff.
Through cooperation and shared goals, Department employees at the Portsmouth Regional Offices have demonstrated their commitment to ensuring the safety and security of the region in which they serve and the entire United States.
Trenton Douthett is deputy director of the National Visa Center in Portsmouth, N.H.