Immigration Benefits:

Actions Needed to Address Vulnerabilities in Process for Granting Permanent Residency

GAO-09-55: Published: Dec 5, 2008. Publicly Released: Jan 5, 2009.

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Since September 11, 2001, a concern has been that terrorists or their supporters would seek to immigrate to the United States (i.e., seek lawful permanent residency (LPR)). The Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) conducts background checks and the FBI conducts name checks for those applying for LPR. GAO was asked to review USCIS's processes for screening individuals applying for LPR. GAO assessed: (1) what available data show about the extent to which national security concerns were discovered during USCIS background checks for LPR applications, (2) what issues USCIS has encountered in its background check processes and what actions have been taken to resolve those issues, and (3) the extent to which USCIS has addressed fraud vulnerabilities in its adjudication procedures for LPR. To conduct this work, GAO analyzed USCIS background check and adjudication procedures, USCIS data on adjudications, and its assessments of fraud in applications for LPR, and interviewed USCIS and FBI officials.

Available data show that of the approximately 917,000 applications for LPR USCIS received from January 1, 2006, through May 31, 2007, 516 (0.05 percent) were referred to USCIS's Office of Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) for national security concerns. According to FDNS, the cases referred to it involved individuals on a watch list which included names of known and suspected terrorists, or posed other national security concerns such as individuals who associated with suspected terrorists or engaged in espionage. While USCIS's application case management system was not designed to capture and routinely generate detailed statistics on those posing national security concerns, FDNS has developed a separate system to capture such data. USCIS had encountered delays in obtaining the results of FBI name checks--FBI checks of its investigative files--for LPR applicants and others, and had issues regarding the usefulness of these results, but USCIS and the FBI have taken a number of actions that have improved these checks. The FBI dedicated more staff to process name checks, and USCIS provided additional funding and training to FBI staff. As a result, the number of pending name checks has decreased 90 percent, from 329,000 in May 2007 to 32,000 as of September 30, 2008. The FBI plans on being able to complete all name checks within 90 days of receipt by June 2009. USCIS has taken some actions to address vulnerabilities identified in one of its assessments of fraud, called Benefit Fraud and Compliance Assessments (BFCA), but has yet to complete actions to address vulnerabilities identified in four other BFCAs. To conduct BFCAs, FDNS selected a sample of petitions to determine the extent of fraud and identify any systemic vulnerabilities in USCIS's adjudications processes. Internal control standards call for agency managers to promptly evaluate findings from audits and reviews, determine proper actions to take, and complete them within established time frames. Although FDNS completed all of these assessments between June 2006 and September 2007, USCIS has not established time frames for evaluating these findings and implementing any necessary corrective actions. Until USCIS takes corrective actions, vulnerabilities identified by these BFCAs will persist, increasing the risk that ineligible individuals will obtain LPR status. Lack of verification of the evidence submitted with petitions is one of the major vulnerabilities identified in these BFCAs. For example, FDNS staff found that individuals claiming to be married were not, employers did not exist, and aliens did not have the education or skills they claimed. USCIS procedures give its staff discretion on deciding whether to verify evidence submitted with petitions. The BFCAs have shown that adjudicators following these procedures have approved fraudulent petitions. Verifying all petitioner-submitted evidence is impossible. Procedures that require verifying certain evidence under certain circumstances would help adjudicators better detect fraud and help USCIS maintain the balance between fraud detection and USCIS's customer service and production-related objectives.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help ensure that findings from USCIS benefit fraud and compliance assessments are acted upon, and to enhance USCIS's overall fraud detection efforts, the Director of USCIS should prepare a roadmap for each of the four outstanding benefit fraud and compliance assessments (petitions for skilled and unskilled workers, spouses, and relatives from Yemen, and applications for asylum) that delineates (1) timetables for deciding what actions to take, (2) which USCIS organizational units will be responsible for implementing those actions, and (3) a timetable for implementing agreed-upon actions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, we reported on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services's (USCIS) processes for screening individuals applying for lawful permanent residency (LPR). Part of that evaluation examined the extent to which USCIS has addressed fraud vulnerabilities in its adjudication procedures for LPR applications. At the time of our report, USCIS had taken some actions to address vulnerabilities identified in one of its Benefit Fraud and Compliance Assessments (BFCA), but had yet to complete actions to address vulnerabilities identified in four other BFCAs. Although USCIS's Office of Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) completed these assessments between June 2006 and September 2007, USCIS had not established time frames for evaluating these findings and implementing any necessary corrective actions. We recommended that the Director of USCIS, among other things, establish timetables for addressing findings from its four fraud assessments. In fiscal year 2012, USCIS informed GAO that, in response to our recommendations, its Office of Policy and Strategy developed a two-part plan to assess the quality of the previous BFCA reports and to create a program that will have the capacity to readily address a variety of issues concerning benefit fraud. The first part utilizes a contract vehicle to assess the BFCA reports while creating template methodologies that can be used to conduct future studies with greater effectiveness and efficiency. The second part involves the application of the newly-developed methodologies to focus on areas of concern as identified by ongoing operational and risk management efforts. USCIS informed GAO of its timetables for assessing the quality of BFCA reports, developing methodologies for future studies, and implementing those methodologies. According to USCIS, the Office of Policy and Strategy's Research and Evaluation Division will be responsible for monitoring the contract for assessing past BFCAs and for implementing any newly-developed methodologies. USCIS's plan to assess the quality of previous fraud assessments and to create a program to readily address benefit fraud issues meets the intent of our recommendation. With these new measures, USCIS should be able to better ensure that findings from fraud and compliance assessments are acted upon and enhance USCIS's overall fraud detection efforts.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that findings from USCIS benefit fraud and compliance assessments are acted upon, and to enhance USCIS's overall fraud detection efforts, the Director of USCIS should modify adjudication procedures for family- and employment-based petitions to include requirements on what evidence should be verified.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, we reported on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' (USCIS) processes for screening individuals applying for lawful permanent residency (LPR). Part of that evaluation examined the extent to which USCIS has addressed fraud vulnerabilities in its adjudication procedures for LPR applications. At the time of our report, USCIS had taken some actions to address vulnerabilities identified in one of its Benefit Fraud and Compliance Assessments (BFCA), but had yet to complete actions to address vulnerabilities identified in four other BFCAs. To fully implement our recommendation, USCIS needed to first release the findings from the four outstanding BFCA's and then based upon these findings modify adjudication procedures to include requirements on what evidence should be verified. In May 2012, USCIS had yet to release the findings from the 4 BFCAs and as a result had no modified adjudication procedures to include requirements on what evidence should be verified. In June 2013, USCIS told us that the four reports will not be released given their lack of scientific rigor. In addition, USCIS informed us that it did not plan to make modifications to any adjudication procedures. Therefore, this recommendation is closed as not implemented.

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