Asylum:

Additional Actions Needed to Assess and Address Fraud Risks

GAO-16-50: Published: Dec 2, 2015. Publicly Released: Dec 2, 2015.

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What GAO Found

The total number of asylum applications, including both principal applicants and their eligible dependents, filed in fiscal year 2014 (108,152) is more than double the number filed in fiscal year 2010 (47,118). As of September 2015, the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has a backlog of 106,121 principal applicants, of which 64,254 have exceeded required time frames for adjudication. USCIS plans to hire additional staff to address the backlog.

USCIS and the Department of Justice's (DOJ) Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) have limited capabilities to detect asylum fraud. First, while both USCIS and EOIR have mechanisms to investigate fraud in individual applications, neither agency has assessed fraud risks across the asylum process, in accordance with leading practices for managing fraud risks. Various cases of fraud illustrate risks that may affect the integrity of the asylum system. For example, an investigation in New York resulted in charges against 30 defendants as of March 2014 for their alleged participation in immigration fraud schemes; 829 applicants associated with the attorneys and preparers charged in the case received asylum from USCIS, and 3,709 received asylum from EOIR. Without regular assessments of fraud risks, USCIS and EOIR lack reasonable assurance that they have implemented controls to mitigate those risks. Second, USCIS's capability to identify patterns of fraud across asylum applications is hindered because USCIS relies on a paper-based system for asylum applications and does not electronically capture some key information that could be used to detect fraud, such as the applicant's written statement. Asylum officers and USCIS Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) Directorate immigration officers told GAO that they can identify potential fraud by analyzing trends across asylum applications; however, they must rely on labor-intensive methods to do so. Identifying and implementing additional fraud detection tools could enable USCIS to detect fraud more effectively while using resources more efficiently. Third, FDNS has not established clear fraud detection responsibilities for its immigration officers in asylum offices; FDNS officers we spoke with at all eight asylum offices told GAO they have limited guidance with respect to fraud. FDNS standard operating procedures for fraud detection are intended to apply across USCIS, and therefore do not reflect the unique features of the asylum system. Developing asylum-specific guidance for fraud detection, in accordance with federal internal control standards, would better position FDNS officers to understand their roles and responsibilities in the asylum process.

To address identified instances of asylum fraud, USCIS can, in some cases, terminate an individual's asylum status. USCIS terminated the asylum status of 374 people from fiscal years 2010 through 2014 for fraud. In August 2015, USCIS adopted a target of 180 days for conducting initial reviews, in which the asylum office reviews evidence and decides whether to begin termination proceedings, when the asylee has applied for adjustment to lawful permanent resident status; however, this goal applies only to a subset of asylees and pertains to initial reviews. Further, asylees with pending termination reviews may be eligible to receive certain federal benefits. Developing timeliness goals for all pending termination reviews would help USCIS better identify the staffing resources needed to address the terminations workload.

Why GAO Did This Study

Each year, tens of thousands of aliens in the United States apply for asylum, which provides refuge to those who have been persecuted or fear persecution on protected grounds. Asylum officers in DHS's USCIS and immigration judges in DOJ's EOIR adjudicate asylum applications.

GAO was asked to review the status of the asylum system. This report addresses (1) what DHS and DOJ data indicate about trends in asylum claims, (2) the extent to which DHS and DOJ have designed mechanisms to prevent and detect asylum fraud, and (3) the extent to which DHS and DOJ designed and implemented processes to address any asylum fraud that has been identified. GAO analyzed DHS and DOJ data on asylum applications for fiscal years 2010 through 2014, reviewed DHS and DOJ policies and procedures related to asylum fraud, and interviewed DHS and DOJ officials in Washington, D.C., Falls Church, VA, and in asylum offices and immigration courts across the country selected on the basis of application data and other factors.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DHS and DOJ conduct regular fraud risk assessments and that DHS, among other things, implement tools for detecting fraud patterns, develop asylum-specific guidance for fraud detection roles and responsibilities, and implement timeliness goals for pending termination reviews. DHS and DOJ concurred with GAO's recommendations.

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

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To provide reasonable assurance that EOIR's fraud prevention controls are adequate, the Attorney General should direct EOIR to conduct regular fraud risk assessments across asylum claims in the immigration courts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  2. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In February 2016, DHS indicated that the Asylum Division and Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations (RAIO) Directorate's FDNS are reviewing fraud trends reported at each of the asylum offices to evaluate needs, capabilities, and requirements for developing a risk assessment tool. The Asylum Division and RAIO FDNS plan to develop an assessment tool and implementation plan for completing regular fraud risk assessments of the affirmative asylum process, with the first assessment to be completed no later than the end of fiscal year 2017. In October 2016, DHS indicated that the Asylum FDNS Chief has collected fraud trend information from all eight asylum offices as part of USCIS efforts to develop a fraud risk assessment tool and implementation plan. USCIS is forming a working group to develop this tool, which will meet for the first time during the first quarter of fiscal year 2017. Regularly assessing fraud risks across the affirmative asylum process would provide USCIS more complete information on risks that may affect the integrity of the process and therefore help USCIS target its fraud prevention efforts to those areas that are of highest risk.

    Recommendation: To provide reasonable assurance that USCIS's fraud prevention controls are adequate and effectively implemented, and ensure that asylum officers and FDNS immigration officers have the capacity to detect and prevent fraud, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct USCIS to conduct regular fraud risk assessments across the affirmative asylum application process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In January 2016, USCIS reported that FDNS is making improvements in its database for maintaining data and information on all FDNS activities, including activities associated with asylum fraud investigations. USCIS reported that FDNS planned to update database system guides and associated training materials, and conduct training for all users by September 2016. As of October 20, 2016, USCIS had not provided GAO with additional updates to the status of this recommendation. Developing and implementing a mechanism to collect reliable data, such as the number of referrals to FDNS from asylum officers, should help FDNS's efforts to combat asylum fraud.

    Recommendation: To provide reasonable assurance that USCIS's fraud prevention controls are adequate and effectively implemented, and ensure that asylum officers and FDNS immigration officers have the capacity to detect and prevent fraud, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct USCIS to develop and implement a mechanism to collect reliable data, such as the number of referrals to FDNS from asylum officers, about FDNS's efforts to combat asylum fraud.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In February 2016, DHS indicated that USCIS had allotted fiscal year 2016 funds in support of initial acquisition activities for tools to detect potential fraud patterns across affirmative asylum applications. USCIS reported that FDNS and DHS's Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency are conducting an Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) to evaluate and compare operational effectiveness, suitability, costs, and risks associated with alternative solutions. In October 2016, DHS officials indicated that FDNS and DHS's Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency have completed an AoA and presented the results to FDNS leadership. According to USCIS, FDNS identified a hardware solution and began acquisition planning for this hardware in September 2016. As of October 2016, RAIO FDNS is working with USCIS's Office of Information Technology and other DHS components, including the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, to study options. Based upon this additional work, and dependent on securing necessary funding, USCIS reported that it expects to complete the analysis of additional tools by September 30, 2017. Identifying and implementing new tools to detect fraud patterns would help USCIS ensure that asylum officers and FDNS immigration officers have the capacity to detect and prevent asylum fraud.

    Recommendation: To provide reasonable assurance that USCIS's fraud prevention controls are adequate and effectively implemented, and ensure that asylum officers and FDNS immigration officers have the capacity to detect and prevent fraud, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct USCIS to identify and implement tools that asylum officers and FDNS immigration officers can use to detect potential fraud patterns across affirmative asylum applications.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  5. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: We reported in December 2015 that some asylum offices have strengthened their capability to detect and prevent fraud by using FDNS immigration officers to prescreen affirmative asylum applications; however, the use of this practice varied across asylum offices. In October 2016, DHS stated that RAIO FDNS has completed an initial review of all locally-developed prescreening policies and is working to analyze them comprehensively. After completing this analysis, the Chiefs of the Asylum Division and RAIO FDNS plan to issue a joint memorandum and companion guidance to the asylum offices by December 31, 2016, which will establish the framework for a national prescreening program. Greater use of prescreening could allow FDNS to identify fraud trends and detect patterns that may not be evident in a small sample of asylum applications.

    Recommendation: To provide reasonable assurance that USCIS's fraud prevention controls are adequate and effectively implemented, and ensure that asylum officers and FDNS immigration officers have the capacity to detect and prevent fraud, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct USCIS to require FDNS immigration officers to prescreen all asylum applications for indicators of fraud to the extent that it is cost-effective and feasible.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In December 2015, we reported that FDNS's standard operating procedures for fraud detection were intended to apply across USCIS, and therefore did not reflect the unique features of the asylum system. On September 27, 2016, the Chiefs of the Asylum Division and RAIO FDNS issued a memorandum delineating the roles and responsibilities of FDNS immigration officers working in asylum offices. This asylum-specific guidance should better position officers to understand their fraud detection roles and responsibilities, tools that are available to them in carrying out those roles and responsibilities, and features that are unique to the asylum system.

    Recommendation: To provide reasonable assurance that USCIS's fraud prevention controls are adequate and effectively implemented, and ensure that asylum officers and FDNS immigration officers have the capacity to detect and prevent fraud, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct USCIS to develop asylum-specific guidance on the fraud detection roles and responsibilities of FDNS immigration officers working in asylum offices.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2016, the Asylum Division finalized a new training module for asylum officers on asylum fraud. USCIS began delivering the new training to new officers beginning in May 2016 as part of its RAIO Combined Training and Asylum Division Officer Training Course. In May 2016, the Chief of the Asylum Division also issued a memorandum requiring all existing asylum officers and supervisors to review the new module by May 31, 2016. The memorandum also states that each asylum office will offer mandatory fraud training, with local FDNS personnel presenting information specific to that office. In October 2016, DHS stated that FDNS will deliver this training at all asylum offices by October 31, 2016. To fully implement this recommendation, it will be important for FDNS to deliver this training to all asylum offices.

    Recommendation: To provide reasonable assurance that USCIS's fraud prevention controls are adequate and effectively implemented, and ensure that asylum officers and FDNS immigration officers have the capacity to detect and prevent fraud, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct USCIS to develop and deliver additional training for asylum officers on asylum fraud.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: In May 2016, USCIS issued a training needs survey to all asylum officers. USCIS plans to repeat this survey no less than once every two years. In October 2016, DHS stated that the Asylum Division completed the 2016 survey and is working to analyze the results. DHS expects to complete this analysis by December 31, 2016. To fully address this recommendation, it will be important for USCIS to ensure that training needs are regularly collected from asylum officers and, as such, GAO will follow up with USCIS to determine if the training needs survey, or other mechanisms, are implemented on a regular basis.

    Recommendation: To provide reasonable assurance that USCIS's fraud prevention controls are adequate and effectively implemented, and ensure that asylum officers and FDNS immigration officers have the capacity to detect and prevent fraud, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct USCIS to develop and implement a mechanism to regularly collect and incorporate feedback on training needs from asylum officers and supervisory asylum officers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  9. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2015, we reported that USCIS did not have readily-available data on asylum officer attrition. At the conclusion of our audit work, in September 2015, the Asylum Division provided attrition data that differed significantly from data previously provided. At the time, Asylum Division officials stated that they had compiled these data by manually reviewing all personnel changes in the Asylum Division for fiscal years 2010 through 2014, a process that was labor-intensive and required several weeks to complete. Since then, the Asylum Division has continued to track asylum officer attrition with expanded scope and frequency, updating its data on a bi-weekly basis. In June 2016, USCIS provided GAO with copies of these expanded attrition reports. The new data provide the rates of asylum officer transfers and promotions, as well as moves to other USCIS offices, outside employment, and denatures from the labor force. Collecting reliable data on attrition should better position USCIS to identify its staffing needs and address the increase in asylum applications.

    Recommendation: To provide reasonable assurance that USCIS's fraud prevention controls are adequate and effectively implemented, and ensure that asylum officers and FDNS immigration officers have the capacity to detect and prevent fraud, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct USCIS to develop and implement a method to collect reliable data on asylum officer attrition.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  10. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To provide reasonable assurance that USCIS's fraud prevention controls are adequate and effectively implemented, and ensure that asylum officers and FDNS immigration officers have the capacity to detect and prevent fraud, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct USCIS to include a review of potential fraud indicators in future random quality assurance reviews of asylum applications.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  11. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In December 2015, we reported that USCIS had not tracked asylum cases pending termination due to fraud and had limited timeliness goals for terminations. In February 2016, DHS reported that the Asylum Division had completed revisions to its case management system--the Refugee, Asylum, and Parole System (RAPS)--in order to improve its tracking of termination processing. On September 26, 2016, the Chief of the Asylum Division issued a memo establishing timeliness goals for pending termination reviews. Specifically, the memo states that the Asylum Division will review 85 percent of cases received for possible termination of asylum status within 120 days and 90 percent of cases within 180 days. Developing and implementing these goals should help USCIS to better address potential fraud before asylees receive other immigration or federal benefits.

    Recommendation: To provide reasonable assurance that USCIS's fraud prevention controls are adequate and effectively implemented, and ensure that asylum officers and FDNS immigration officers have the capacity to detect and prevent fraud, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct USCIS to develop and implement timeliness goals for all pending termination reviews of affirmative asylum cases.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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