Immigration Status Verification for Benefits:

Actions Needed to Improve Effectiveness and Oversight

GAO-17-204: Published: Mar 23, 2017. Publicly Released: Mar 23, 2017.

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What GAO Found

The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has taken steps to assess the accuracy of the information reported by its Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) system. For example, since 2014 USCIS has conducted monthly checks to ensure SAVE is accurately reporting information contained in its source systems. In addition, USCIS reports that SAVE status verifiers, who manually research a benefit applicant's immigration status during a process known as additional verification, accurately reported the applicant's status 99 percent of the time. However, from fiscal year 2012 through fiscal year 2016, GAO found that the majority of SAVE user agencies that received a SAVE response prompting them to institute additional verification did not complete the required additional steps to verify the benefit applicant's immigration status. USCIS does not have sufficient controls to help ensure agencies are completing the necessary steps because of inconsistent guidance, and lacks reasonable assurance that SAVE user agencies have completed training that explains this procedure. Improving guidance and ensuring training on verification requirements could help USCIS better ensure agencies have complete and accurate information for making eligibility determinations.

USCIS has taken actions to protect the privacy of personal information related to SAVE, such as requiring SAVE user agencies to sign a memorandum of agreement (MOA) stating the intended use of the system and provisions for safeguarding information. USCIS has also established mechanisms for access, correction, and redress regarding use of an individual's personal information; however, GAO found these mechanisms were largely ineffective and unlikely to enable benefit applicants to make timely record corrections. Specifically, USCIS provides a fact sheet for benefit applicants stating their immigration status could not be verified, along with information on contacting DHS to update or correct their records. However, the fact sheet's guidance on contacting DHS was not specific or clear, which could hinder benefit applicants' efforts to contact DHS. Without an effective method for ensuring individuals can access and correct their information, benefit applicants may face challenges ensuring accurate information is used in a SAVE check and appealing potentially erroneous denials of benefits with the user agency in a timely manner.

USCIS's SAVE Monitoring and Compliance (M&C) branch monitors user agencies' use of SAVE in accordance with their MOA. However, SAVE M&C's monitoring efforts have not improved agency compliance rates for the two monitored behaviors—deleting inactive user accounts and instituting additional verification when prompted. For example, GAO found that only 4 of 40 agencies monitored from fiscal years 2013 through 2015 had improved their compliance with requirements to complete additional verification when prompted. Further M&C does not have a documented, risk-based strategy for monitoring. Without such a strategy, USCIS is not well-positioned to target its monitoring efforts on the agencies most in need of compliance assistance or ensure the most effective use of its limited resources.

Why GAO Did This Study

Millions of applicants for healthcare, licenses, and other benefits rely on DHS's SAVE system to verify their immigration or naturalized or derived citizenship status at the request of over 1,000 federal, state, and local user agencies. Agencies use the information from SAVE to help determine an applicant's eligibility for benefits. Programs required or authorized to participate include Medicaid, certain license-issuing programs (such as driver's licenses), federal food and housing assistance, and educational programs. The House Appropriations Committee Report accompanying the DHS Appropriations Act, 2016, included a provision for GAO to review the SAVE program.

This report examines the extent to which USCIS has (1) determined the accuracy of SAVE information, (2) instituted safeguards to protect privacy and provide the ability to correct erroneous information, and (3) monitored user agency compliance with SAVE program policies. GAO analyzed SAVE policy documents and performance data, interviewed DHS officials, and interviewed officials from a non-generalizable sample of 13 SAVE user agencies selected to reflect the variety of types of agencies that use SAVE.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making nine recommendations to USCIS, including, that USCIS improve guidance and ensure training on verification requirements; develop and implement a more effective method for record correction; and develop a documented, risk-based strategy for monitoring and compliance. DHS concurred with our recommendations.

For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler, (202) 512-6912, gamblerr@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2017, we found that the majority of SAVE user agencies that received a SAVE response prompting them to institute additional verification did not complete the required additional steps to verify the benefit applicant's immigration status. USCIS did not have sufficient controls to help ensure agencies were completing the necessary steps because of inconsistent guidance. We recommended that USCIS ensure SAVE guidance, including written materials and instructional videos, clearly and accurately reflects user agencies' responsibilities for completing each step of a SAVE check, as outlined in each agency's memorandum of agreement. As of December 2017, USCIS's SAVE Program reported evaluating written materials and had made changes to the SAVE Program Guide and the SAVE User Reference Guide. SAVE updated the User Reference Guide by adding a note about additional verification requirements. The Program Guide and the User Reference Guide have been posted for use by User Agencies. Additionally, revisions and corrections to the two instructional videos were completed and posted to the internal and public SAVE websites. This recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve management and oversight of the SAVE program, the director of USCIS should ensure SAVE guidance, including written materials and instructional videos, clearly and accurately reflects user agencies' responsibilities for completing each step of a SAVE check, as outlined in each agency's memorandum of agreement.

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

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2017, we found that USCIS does not track or monitor whether SAVE users have completed training and therefore does not have reasonable assurance that users have mastered SAVE policies and procedures prior to accessing the system. We recommended that USCIS develop and implement a mechanism to oversee agencies' completion of training on additional verification in accordance with SAVE provisions and program policies. The USCIS Verification Division reported that it intends to have a plan to address providing additional training for SAVE users developed by December 31, 2017. The SAVE Program will then offer training events for agencies on the new material reflecting the agency user requirements for additional verification as well as system enhancements. The estimated completion date for these activities is September 30, 2018.

    Recommendation: To improve management and oversight of the SAVE program, the director of USCIS should develop and implement a mechanism to oversee agencies' completion of training on additional verification in accordance with SAVE MOA provisions and program policies.

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

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: We found that from fiscal years 2012 through 2015, USCIS exceeded its targets for providing agencies with timely SAVE responses, but agencies and benefit applicants were not always aware the SAVE response has been returned to them and therefore may be delayed in processing benefit determinations. We recommended that USCIS provide notifications to user agencies when a SAVE case is ready for the user agency to review. SAVE Program officials reported that they will develop an Automated Case Response Alerts feature for second and third-level responses with expected completion of the planning by December 31, 2017 and full implementation by the end of September, 2018.

    Recommendation: To improve management and oversight of the SAVE program, the director of USCIS should provide notifications to user agencies when a case is ready for the user agency to review.

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

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2017, we reported that USCIS's guidance to help individuals correct or update their immigration records was not specific or clear, which could hinder benefit applicants' efforts to contact DHS components. We recommended that USCIS develop and implement a more effective method for ensuring that individuals are aware of how they can access and correct their immigration records, such as by updating and improving the Fact Sheet for Benefit Applicants. In response, USCIS took several actions. First, USCIS revised its Fact Sheet for Benefit Applications and developed a new Fact Sheet for User Agencies to reference when assisting benefit applicants. The Fact Sheet for Benefit Applicants was also posted on the SAVE public website. On September 19, 2017, the SAVE Program partnered with the USCIS Customer Service and Public Engagement Directorate to host a stakeholder teleconference to provide an overview of the SAVE Program, including how to resolve questions with records. Representatives from SAVE provided an overview of the program, highlighted best practices and resources available to both benefit applicants and SAVE user agencies on the website, including guidance on how to resolve questions about records. An estimated 400 individuals participated in this engagement. Audience members included representatives from academic institutions, various types of businesses (general employers, human resource managers, staffing organizations, law offices, etc.), community based organizations, state agencies and local government offices. We believe the fact sheet updates and outreach efforts will help increase awareness of how benefit applicants can access and correct their immigration records. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve management and oversight of the SAVE program, the director of USCIS should develop and implement a more effective method for ensuring that individuals are aware of how they can access and correct their immigration records, such as by updating and improving the Fact Sheet for Benefit Applicants.

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

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2017, we reported that the SAVE Monitoring and Compliance (M&C) Division does not have a documented, risk-based strategy that addresses a risk-based approach to selecting behaviors or memorandum of agreement (MOA) provisions to monitor, compliance standards for selected behaviors, and a risk-based process for how to prioritize and select agencies for compliance actions. In May 2017, USCIS reported that the Verification Division will create risk assessment standard operating procedures that include a risk based approach that incorporates GAO standards. The activities will include the development of a risk intake form; the development of an impact analysis form; and the completion of a master risk register and tracker spreadsheet. The Verification Division will also conduct risk assessments on all current and pending behaviors monitored by SAVE M&C, as well as existing policies, by September 30, 2017. Before the end of the calendar year, the Verification Division will hold meetings with colleagues to identify additional risks and gaps to better inform risk assessments. The Verification Division will create and/or amend policies and behaviors monitored by SAVE M&C based on risk assessment outcomes, to include the development and testing of new behavior reports, which fully implement monitoring of all behaviors after testing. USCIS estimates completing these activities by March 31, 2018.

    Recommendation: To improve management and oversight of the SAVE program, the director of USCIS should develop and implement a documented, risk-based approach to monitoring and compliance, including (1) a risk-based approach to selecting behaviors to monitor; (2) standards for what triggers compliance actions for the selected behaviors; and (3) a risk-based process for how USCIS will prioritize and select agencies for compliance actions.

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

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2017, we found that the SAVE program's list of user agency points of contact (POCs) was not kept up to date and the SAVE program did not have a systematic process for ensuring the POCs are current and accurate, which presents challenges when contacting agencies for site visits or desk reviews. We recommended that USCIS develop and communicate a process for user agencies to update contact information. In December 2017, USCIS reported that SAVE was on track with its planning and prioritization work to improve user administration, including more effective ways to update contact information. However, because this system enhancement will be completed as part of a larger SAVE Modernization effort that is not scheduled for completion until December 2018, the estimated date of completion is December 31, 2018.

    Recommendation: To improve management and oversight of the SAVE program, the director of USCIS should develop and communicate a process for user agencies to update contact information.

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

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 2017, we reported that USCIS and SAVE Monitoring and Compliance (M&C) do not require agencies selected for monitoring and compliance activities to participate in them, undermining the effectiveness of SAVE oversight activities. We recommended that USCIS ensure that user agencies participate in compliance reviews when selected, in accordance with SAVE Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) provisions and USCIS policy. In December, 2017, USCIS reported amending internal guidance documents regarding the mandatory requirement for agencies to adhere to compliance assistance activities, and communicated this to agencies on December 4, 2017 in a larger end of year notice that covered a number of reminders on using the SAVE properly. This notification should help clarify to user agencies (and USCIS) the requirements for agencies to participate in compliance reviews when selected. As a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve management and oversight of the SAVE program, the director of USCIS should ensure that user agencies participate in compliance reviews when selected, in accordance with SAVE MOA provisions and USCIS policy.

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

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2017, we found that SAVE Monitoring and Compliance (M&C) does not consistently identify the root cause of noncompliance and develop or tailor recommendations specific to each agency and cause as part of its compliance activities. As a result, we recommended that USCIS identify the root causes of agencies' noncompliance with SAVE Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) provisions and program policies and tailor agency recommendations to those identified causes. In December, 2017, USCIS reported that the Verification Division expects to complete its review of current policies and behavior reports to identify areas for improvement by December 31, 2017. In addition, it will undertake a variety of activities to determine the root causes for agency non-compliance. These activities will include reviewing all past compliance assistance activities, conducting interviews with SAVE Program account managers, and increasing engagements with agencies through phone calls, desk reviews, and site visits (including virtual site visits). These efforts should be completed by March 31, 2018, followed by the development of a template of tailored responses for all SAVE M&C behaviors. USCIS expects to complete these activities by June 30, 2018.

    Recommendation: To improve management and oversight of the SAVE program, the director of USCIS should identify the root causes of agencies' noncompliance with SAVE MOA provisions and program policies and tailor agency recommendations to those identified causes.

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

  9. Status: Open

    Comments: In March 2017, we reported that SAVE Monitoring and Compliance (M&C) monitoring and oversight efforts have generally not improved agency compliance with SAVE Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) provisions. This is in part because SAVE M&C does not engage in escalating compliance assistance actions for those agencies that remain noncompliant and because SAVE M&C does not ensure agencies take corrective actions after receiving recommendations. We recommended that USCIS develop and implement a process for ensuring user agencies implement corrective actions, such as through a system of escalating compliance assistance actions and follow-up. In March 2017, USCIS reported that the Verification Division will identify ways to incorporate improved escalating compliance assistance models into its procedures. This will include ongoing monitoring of agency use to ensure SAVE customer agencies comply with SAVE program requirements. In May 2017, UCIS reported that SAVE M&C is developing a Quality Control Review approach that includes the requested GAO escalations and follow-up compliance actions. These activities are expected to be completed by March 30, 2018.

    Recommendation: To improve management and oversight of the SAVE program, the director of USCIS should develop and implement a process for ensuring user agencies implement corrective actions such as through a system of escalating compliance assistance actions and follow-up.

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

 

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