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

    Comments: In February 2016, DHS indicated that the Asylum Division and Refugee, Asylum, and International Operations (RAIO) Directorate 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. 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: 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 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

    Comments: In February 2016, DHS indicated that USCIS has allotted fiscal year 2016 funds in support of initial acquisition activities for tools to detect potential fraud patterns across affirmative asylum applications. 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. They plan to complete the Analysis of Alternatives report by the third quarter of fiscal year 2016 and begin procurement activities after the report is completed. 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

    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 February 2016, DHS indicated that RAIO FDNS is evaluating local asylum offices' prescreening policies and guidance materials to analyze their feasibility and identify procedures that may be appropriate for national standardization while balancing resource and workload constraints. In addition, DHS noted that the fraud detection tools USCIS is developing pursuant to our recommendations will inform the development of an effective and efficient prescreening program. DHS plans to implement this recommendation by September 30, 2016. 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: Open

    Comments: In December 2015, we reported that 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. In February 2016, DHS stated that the RAIO FDNS Chief drafted a new memorandum that will clearly delineate the roles and responsibilities of FDNS immigration officers working in asylum offices. This memorandum is currently in the review process, and FDNS plans to issue the memorandum by September 30, 2016. Issuing asylum-specific guidance on the fraud detection roles and responsibilities of FDNS immigration officers working in asylum offices would better position those 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 February 2016, DHS stated that the Asylum Division, in conjunction with RAIO Training, continues to make progress toward the completion of an updated lesson plan to address fraud in asylum claims. The Asylum Division plans to deliver this training to all asylum officers by September 30, 2016. Providing asylum officers with additional training on asylum fraud would better position USCIS to ensure that asylum officers have the training and skills needed to detect and address fraud indicators.

    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: 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 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: 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 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: Open

    Comments: 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. Specifically, in November 2015, the Asylum Division updated RAPS to capture the review of cases for termination or Post Adjustment Eligibility Review processing and issued procedural guidance for the RAPS update. In December 2015, the Asylum Division developed an initial report that it will use to monitor cases pending termination review and develop timeliness goals. The Asylum Division will then analyze the terminations processing data collected and develop timeliness goals for termination cases by September 30, 2016, with implementation completed by December 31, 2017. Developing and implementing timeliness goals for all pending termination reviews of asylees granted affirmative asylum would help USCIS to better identify the staffing resources needed to address the terminations workload and better utilize existing resources to 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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