Immigration Benefits:

Improvements Needed to Fully Implement the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act

GAO-15-3: Published: Dec 10, 2014. Publicly Released: Dec 10, 2014.

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What GAO Found

The Departments of Homeland Security (DHS), Justice (DOJ), and State (State) have processes to help ensure compliance with the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act of 2005 (IMBRA), as amended, but State could better document information on IMBRA disclosures. Specifically, consistent with IMBRA, DHS's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) collects information from petitioners—U.S. citizens who apply to bring noncitizen fiancé(e)s, spouses, and their children (beneficiaries) into the country—through I-129F petitions for K visas. DOJ is responsible for pursuing federal civil and criminal penalties for IMBRA violations. State has guidance on processes for providing IMBRA information to beneficiaries (referred to as disclosures), such as a pamphlet outlining for beneficiaries the K visa process and legal rights and resources available to immigrant crime victims. Specifically, State's guidance requires consular officers to document within case notes in State's database whether they made all of the IMBRA-required disclosures to the beneficiary during the visa interview. However, GAO's review of a sample of K visa applications showed that in about 52 percent of interview case notes (76 of 147), consular officers did not document that they had provided beneficiaries the IMBRA pamphlet as required by State's guidance. In October 2014, State drafted a guidance cable for consular officers on IMBRA implementation, including a reminder to follow guidance regarding IMBRA documentation. State's consular officer training courses, however, do not cover IMBRA-related documentation procedures outlined in its guidance. Incorporating IMBRA-related documentation requirements into training courses could help State better ensure that consular officers are aware of the requirements for documenting IMBRA disclosures.

Consistent with IMBRA, USCIS is to collect and maintain data on, among other things, eight elements in the K visa process for GAO reporting purposes; however, six of the eight elements are either not reliable or are not collected or maintained in a reportable (i.e., electronic) format. Thus, these elements were not readily available for GAO's review. For example, USCIS is to collect and maintain data on I-129F petitions where the petitioner had one or more criminal convictions. This information is maintained in hard copy in the petition file and thus was not readily available for GAO's review. USCIS has begun planning to electronically capture I-129F petition data under the agency's overarching transformation to an electronic immigration benefits system. However, this transformation has faced significant delays, and as of September 2014, the electronic I-129F petition design requirements have not been finalized. Consistent with federal internal control standards, ensuring that all of the IMBRA-related requirements will be captured with the release of the I-129F electronic petition would better position USCIS to collect and maintain complete data on petitioners for reporting purposes and management oversight. Further, USCIS officers have not consistently adjudicated I-129F petitions or recorded complete and accurate data. Specifically, GAO found that USCIS's data are not reliable for determining the number of I-129F petitions filed by persons who have previously filed I-129F petitions for a fiancé(e) or spouse or that required IMBRA waivers because of, among other things, officer error in recording data on petitions. Additional training for officers could help USCIS better ensure its officers are aware of IMBRA requirements to assist them in maintaining petitions data consistent with IMBRA.

Why GAO Did This Study

Enacted in January 2006, IMBRA was passed by Congress to address reports of domestic violence and abuse of foreign beneficiaries married or engaged to U.S. citizens who have petitioned for them to enter the United States on a K visa. As amended, IMBRA requires that the federal government collect and provide to beneficiaries information about petitioners' prior K visa petitions and criminal histories. USCIS is responsible for collecting this information and adjudicating petitions, State is responsible for disclosing information to beneficiaries, and DOJ is authorized to enforce IMBRA. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013 mandates that GAO report on IMBRA implementation.

This report examines the extent to which (1) DHS, State, and DOJ have implemented processes to ensure compliance with IMBRA, and (2) DHS collects and maintains reliable data to manage the K visa process. GAO analyzed IMBRA, USCIS, and State policies, procedures, and guidance, and K visa petition data from March 2012 through March 2014. GAO also interviewed USCIS, State, and DOJ officials regarding their agencies' implementation of IMBRA.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that State provide training to consular officers on IMBRA documentation requirements. GAO also recommends, among other things, that USCIS ensure that all IMBRA-related data will be captured with the planned electronic release of the I-129F petition and that its officers receive additional training on IMBRA requirements. State and DHS concurred with our recommendations.

For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or gamblerr@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2014, we reported that DHS's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) collects information from petitioners--U.S. citizens who apply to bring noncitizen fianc(e)s, spouses, and their children (beneficiaries) into the country--through I-129F petitions for K visas. However, we reported that the I-129F petition contains errors and omissions that may limit or affect the accuracy of information disclosed by a petitioner to the beneficiary, in accordance with the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act of 2005 (IMBRA). Specifically, we reported that the I-129F petition inaccurately describes IMBRA's filing limits and does not fully address IMBRA's disclosure requirements. As of August 2014, USCIS was in the process of revising the current version of the I-129F petition, but USCIS Service Center Operations officials stated that there was no target time frame for completing revisions to the I-129F petition within USCIS before DHS and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) undertakes their respective reviews. Therefore, to better ensure the consistent application of IMBRA waiver requirements and adjudication of I-129F petitions, we recommended that USCIS set a target time frame for completing the agency's review of revisions to the I-129F petition. In April 2015, USCIS's Office of Policy and Strategy reported that it anticipated USCIS would complete the reviews of the petition with the department and submit the revised petition to OMB by December 30, 2015. Establishing this target time frame for when USCIS will complete its review of the I-129F petition should help the agency better monitor progress toward finalizing revisions to the petition, which are intended to ensure that IMBRA's disclosure requirements are met. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To better ensure the consistent application of IMBRA waiver requirements and adjudication of I-129F petitions, the Director of USCIS should set a target time frame for completing the agency's review of revisions to the I-129F petition.

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

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In January 2015, USCIS reported that it expected to start development for the electronic I-129F petition in March 2016. As of March 2016, USCIS officials confirmed that the electronic I-129F petition is tied to the Family-Based Adjustment of Status (AOS) product line for USCIS ELIS. USCIS officials stated that, as of March 2016, the requirements-gathering phase for this product line is underway and, as of June 2016, USCIS began the requirements-gathering phase. In October 2016, the Office of Transformation Coordination reported that there have been some delays in the product line that includes the I-129F petition and the tentative expected completion date is the second quarter of fiscal year 2018. To fully implement this recommendation, USCIS should ensure that IMBRA-required data elements are collected in an automated manner with the release of the electronic I-129F petition.

    Recommendation: To ensure data required by IMBRA are collected, maintained, and reliable, the Director of USCIS should ensure that IMBRA-required data elements will be collected in an automated manner with the release of the electronic I-129F petition.

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

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2014, we reported that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officers were not consistently adjudicating I-129F petitions for K visas or recording complete and accurate data. Specifically, we found that USCIS's data were not reliable for determining a number of elements required under the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act of 2005 (IMBRA because of, among other things, officer error in recording data on petitions. Therefore, to ensure data required by IMBRA are collected, maintained, and reliable, we recommended that USCIS provide additional training to officers who adjudicate I-129F petitions on the IMBRA-related requirements in the adjudication process. In December 2014, USCIS's Service Center Operations officials developed IMBRA-related training documents and distributed them to all Service Centers that adjudicate I-129F petition and required that all officers currently adjudicating I-129F petitions receive this IMBRA training. In addition, USCIS's Service Center Operations officials stated that this training will be required in the future for every officer who is given I-129F training. As of the end of January 2015, all Service Centers reported delivering the additional IMBRA-related training to its officers. By providing additional training, USCIS will better ensure its officers are aware of IMBRA requirements to assist them in maintaining petitions data consistent with IMBRA. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To ensure data required by IMBRA are collected, maintained, and reliable, the Director of USCIS should provide additional training to officers who adjudicate I-129F petitions on the IMBRA-related requirements in the adjudication process.

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

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2014, we reported that the Department of State (State) had guidance on processes for providing International Marriage Broker Regulation Act (IMBRA) information to beneficiaries (referred to as disclosures), such as a pamphlet outlining for beneficiaries the K visa process and legal rights and resources available to immigrant crime victims. Specifically, we reported that State's guidance requires consular officers to document within case notes in State's database whether they made all of the IMBRA-required disclosures to the beneficiary during the visa interview. However, our review of a sample of K visa applications showed that in about 52 percent of interview case notes, consular officers did not document that they had provided beneficiaries the IMBRA pamphlet as required by State's guidance. We reported that State's consular officer training courses did not cover IMBRA-related documentation procedures outlined in its guidance. Therefore, we recommended that State incorporate the IMBRA-related documentation requirements into the Foreign Service Institute's training curriculum for entry-level and midlevel consular officers. In response to our recommendation, in April 2015, State reported that it had incorporated IMBRA-related requirements in several consular training courses, including the basic consular course and courses for mid-level consular officers. Incorporating IMBRA-related documentation requirements into training courses should help State better ensure that consular officers are aware of the requirements for documenting IMBRA disclosures.

    Recommendation: To ensure that fiance(e)s and spouses applying for K visas receive and understand the information to be provided to them under IMBRA and that consular officers adhere to documentation guidance in the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM), the Secretary of State should incorporate the FAM's IMBRA-related documentation requirements into the Foreign Service Institute's training curriculum for entry-level and midlevel consular officers.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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