GAO-15-404SP: Information technology: 10. DHS Processing of FOIA Requests

Information technology > 10. DHS Processing of FOIA Requests

To address duplication in the processing of Freedom of Information Act requests, the Department of Homeland Security should determine the viability of re-establishing an agreement between two of its component agencies that process immigration files.

Why This Area Is Important

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires federal agencies to provide the public with access to government information on the basis of the principles of openness and accountability in government. Each year, federal agencies release information in response to hundreds of thousands of FOIA requests. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is one of the many agencies that respond to these requests. The department receives and processes requests for information related to immigration, border crossings, law enforcement, natural disasters, maritime accidents, and agency management, among other topics. This information is compiled and maintained throughout the department and its seven component agencies. DHS reported processing approximately 200,000 FOIA requests in fiscal year 2013—the most of any federal government agency.

The department has experienced an increase in requests received every year since 2009, and it also has reported the largest backlog of unprocessed requests of any federal agency.[1] At the end of fiscal year 2013, approximately half of all reported backlogged federal FOIA requests (about 50,000 of 95,000) belonged to DHS.Among the most frequent FOIA requests made to DHS are those for immigration files. These files usually contain various types of information pertaining to immigrants, including asylum applications, law enforcement records, and border crossing documents. As such, they may contain information and records that are generated by various DHS components or other agencies. For example, three DHS component agencies—U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—create most of the documents included in immigration files.



[1]Backlogs are requests that are pending at an agency at the end of the fiscal year that are beyond the statutory time period for a response.

What GAO Found

GAO reported in November 2014 that two DHS component agencies—USCIS and ICE—process certain immigration-related requests twice.  USCIS is the custodian of immigration files, and all FOIA requests for such files are either initiated with, or referred to, this component for processing. However, GAO found that certain requests are first processed by USCIS and then by ICE. Contributing to this duplication is the absence of an agreement between the two components to process all immigration-related requests.

To process a FOIA request for an immigration file, the USCIS staff member to whom the request is assigned first manually enters the requester’s data, such as a name and address, into USCIS’s FOIA system to establish a record of the request. Next, the staff member retrieves and scans the documents in the requested file and reviews the documents. If all of the documents were generated by USCIS, the staff member makes redactions as needed, sends the documents to the requester, and closes out the request. Further, if the FOIA request covers files containing documents generated by CBP, then USCIS is able to process the request on the basis of an agreement to that effect with CBP. By having USCIS process such requests for CBP documents, the two components avoid duplication in their response to a FOIA request.

On the other hand, USCIS and ICE do not have such an agreement for documents generated by ICE. Thus, the USCIS staff member is to identify any such documents and make them available to ICE’s FOIA staff for their separate processing.[1] In doing so, USCIS and ICE currently engage in duplicative processing of FOIA requests for those immigration files containing documents related to law enforcement activities that were generated by ICE. To facilitate ICE’s review of such files, USCIS staff transfer copies of the ICE-generated documents to a temporary electronic storage drive that USCIS maintains. According to USCIS officials, ICE has been granted access to this electronic storage drive so that it can retrieve files containing the documents that it generates. ICE retrieves the documents, and the ICE staff then re-enter the data to create a new FOIA request in ICE’s FOIA processing system. The staff then proceed with processing the requested documents and release them to the requester—in essence, undertaking a new, and duplicate, effort to respond to the FOIA request.

The figure depicts the duplication that occurs in USCIS’s and ICE’s downloading and re-entering of data to respond to FOIA requests for immigration files.

Referral Process for Documents in an Immigration File

Referral Process for Documents in an Immigration File

aUSCIS processes all CBP documents in the file under a service level agreement.
bOther agencies may include the Department of State, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

In its November 2014 report, GAO noted that, in prior years, up until April 2012, the two components had an agreement whereby USCIS processed ICE’s documents contained in an immigration file. However, the components’ officials stated that, since that agreement ended, the components have not made plans to enter into another such agreement. According to ICE’s FOIA Officer, USCIS’s processing of ICE’s documents in immigration files was viewed as being too costly. While there would be costs associated with USCIS processing ICE’s documents in immigration files, the potential exists for additional costs to be incurred in the continued duplicate processing of such files.

Furthermore, the duplicate processing of a single FOIA request by USCIS and ICE staff contributes to an increase in the time needed to respond to a FOIA request for immigration files. Because USCIS does not send the immigration file to ICE until it has completed its own processing of the relevant documents—which, according to USCIS, takes on average 20 working days—ICE usually does not receive the file to begin its own processing until the 20-day time frame established by the 1996 e-FOIA amendments[2] for responding to a request, has passed.[3] The average time for USCIS to close a request as of fiscal year 2013 was 19.73 days, while the average time for ICE to close a request was 52.79 days.




[1]Where applicable, USCIS also refers the immigration file documents to other agencies, such as the Department of State or Federal Bureau of Investigation, for further processing.

[2]Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-231,110 Stat. 3048 (1996).

[3]The typical 20-day time period may be extended to 30 days in unusual circumstances, such as when a request involves a voluminous amount of records or requires consultation with another agency.

 

Actions Needed

To improve the management of DHS FOIA requests, GAO recommended in November 2014 that the Secretary of Homeland Security take the following action:

  • Determine the viability of re-establishing the service-level agreement between USCIS and ICE to eliminate duplication in the processing of immigration files. If the benefits of doing so would exceed the costs, re-establish the agreement.

GAO was unable to estimate the financial benefits associated with this action due to the lack of reliable cost data from DHS. However, the implementation of this recommendation would likely help DHS ensure that its resources are used efficiently to process FOIA request.

How GAO Conducted Its Work

The information contained in this analysis is based on the findings from the product listed in the related GAO product section. To determine if duplication existed, GAO examined policies and procedures, viewed demonstrations of how automated systems are used to manage and process requests, and interviewed agency officials to clarify workflow. GAO also evaluated the processes against recommended practices discussed in its previously issued reports that addressed duplication in federal government programs.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

In commenting on the November 2014 report on which this analysis is based, DHS concurred with GAO’s recommendation. The department noted that a working group would be formed to determine the viability of re-establishing the service level agreement on FOIA processing between its components. Further, in February 2015, the department stated that it had begun taking action in this regard.

GAO provided a draft of this report section to DHS for its review and comment. In response, DHS provided technical comments that reflected the ICE FOIA Officer’s general disagreement with our characterization of “duplication” as it related to ICE’s processing of the FOIA requests received from USCIS.  Specifically, the official stated that ICE records in immigration files are not processed by USCIS and that there is no duplicative processing of records. However, GAO stands by its finding in this report that duplication occurs because, when a FOIA request for immigration files is received, two components—USCIS and ICE—must separately process the request.

For additional information about this area, contact Valerie C. Melvin at (202) 512-6304 or melvinv@gao.gov.