Fast Facts

Noncitizens who serve in the U.S. military may be eligible for citizenship. If a noncitizen veteran violates immigration law, Immigration and Customs Enforcement may seek to remove the veteran from the country. However, ICE policies require it to take additional steps prior to removal actions, such as considering their service record.

We found ICE did not consistently follow these policies from 2013-2018. ICE also does not maintain complete electronic data on these veterans. As a result, ICE does not know how many veterans have been placed in removal proceedings or removed.

We recommended that ICE collect and maintain data on veterans.

 

American flag with military identification tags.

American flag with military identification tags.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has developed policies for handling cases of noncitizen veterans who may be subject to removal from the United States, but does not consistently adhere to those policies, and does not consistently identify and track such veterans. When ICE agents and officers learn they have encountered a potentially removable veteran, ICE policies require them to take additional steps to proceed with the case. GAO found that ICE did not consistently follow its policies involving veterans who were placed in removal proceedings from fiscal years 2013 through 2018. Consistent implementation of its policies would help ICE better ensure that veterans receive appropriate levels of review before they are placed in removal proceedings. Additionally, ICE has not developed a policy to identify and document all military veterans it encounters during interviews, and in cases when agents and officers do learn they have encountered a veteran, ICE does not maintain complete electronic data. Therefore, ICE does not have reasonable assurance that it is consistently implementing its policies for handling veterans' cases.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Department of Defense (DOD) have policies facilitating the naturalization of noncitizen service members and veterans, and provide informational resources to noncitizen service members seeking naturalization. The number of military naturalization applications received by USCIS declined sharply from fiscal years 2017 to 2018, resulting in a decreased number of applications approved in fiscal year 2018. USCIS and DOD officials attributed this decline to several DOD policy changes that reduced the number of noncitizens joining the military .

Military Naturalization Applications U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Received and Approved, Fiscal Years 2013 through 2018

HL_5 - 102914

Citizenship status, including removal history, does not affect a veteran's eligibility for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits and services. However, living abroad affects eligibility for certain VA benefits and services. Veterans living abroad may also experience challenges accessing certain benefits and services, such as slower disability claim processing.

Throughout U.S. history, noncitizens have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Although the Immigration and Nationality Act allows noncitizen service members to acquire citizenship, some veterans may not apply or may not satisfy all eligibility criteria. If the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) determines that a noncitizen veteran is potentially removable, the veteran may be subject to administrative immigration enforcement and removal. ICE, among other things, is responsible for identifying and removing aliens who violate U.S. immigration law.

GAO was asked to review issues related to the removal of noncitizen veterans. This report examines (1) the extent to which ICE has developed and implemented policies for handling and tracking cases of potentially removable veterans; (2) how federal agencies facilitate the naturalization of noncitizen service members and veterans, and what is known about the number who have applied for naturalization; and (3) how removal affects veterans' eligibility for and access to VA benefits and services. GAO reviewed documentation, met with agency officials, analyzed available data on veterans placed in removal proceedings, and conducted a review of removed veterans' alien files. GAO also analyzed data on military naturalization applications.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that ICE (1) ensure consistent implementation of its existing policies for handling veterans' cases; (2) develop a policy or revise its current policies to identify and document veterans; and (3) collect and maintain complete data on veterans in removal proceedings or who have been removed. DHS concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement The Director of ICE should take action to ensure consistent implementation of ICE's policies for handling cases of potentially removable veterans. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In June 2019, we reported on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) efforts to handle, track, and monitor cases related to veterans. We found that ICE has developed policies for handling cases of potentially removable Veterans, but does not consistently adhere to those policies. Therefore, some veterans who were removed may not have received the level of review and approval that ICE has determined is appropriate for cases involving veterans. We recommended that ICE take action to ensure consistent implementation of its policies for handling cases of potentially removable veterans. ICE agreed with this recommendation. In November 2019, ICE reported that it had established a working group to gather requirements for ERO officer and HSI agent training and will identify all of the lesson plans, practice exercises, and checklists to ensure veteran status information is collected during the booking process. In July 2020, ICE reported that the efforts of the working group were ongoing. We will continue to monitor ICE's efforts to address this recommendation.
United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement The Director of ICE should develop and implement a policy or revise its current polices to ensure that ICE agents and officers identify and document veteran status when interviewing potentially removable individuals. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In June 2019, we reported on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) efforts to handle, track, and monitor cases related to veterans. We found that ICE has not developed a policy to identify and document all military veterans it encounters. Without such a policy, ICE has no way of knowing whether it has identified all of the veterans it has encountered and, therefore, does not have reasonable assurance that it is consistently implementing its policies and procedures for handling veterans' cases. We recommended that ICE develop and implement a policy or revise its current policies to ensure that ICE offices and agents identify and document veteran status when interviewing potentially removable individuals. ICE agreed with this recommendation. In November 2019, ICE reported that its internal working group is gathering requirements to systematically collect and maintain veteran status information. ICE noted that once the requirement gathering is complete it will revise existing ICE guidance on the issuance of issuing Notices to Appear for individuals with U.S. military service. In July 2020, ICE reported that the working group reviewed and updated its current policy and the Office of Policy and Planning is in the process of reviewing the updates. However, ICE was unable to provide an estimated completion date for finalizing the policy. We will continue to monitor ICE's efforts to address this recommendation.
United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement The Director of ICE should collect and maintain complete and electronic data on veterans in removal proceedings or who have been removed. (Recommendation 3)
Closed - Implemented
In June 2019, we reported on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) efforts to handle, track, and monitor cases related to veterans. We found that ICE did not maintain complete electronic data on veterans who have been placed in removal proceedings or removed. As a result, ICE did not know how many veterans have been placed in removal proceedings or removed, or if their cases had been handled according to ICE's policies. We recommended that ICE collect and maintain electronic data on veterans in removal proceedings or who have been removed. ICE agreed with this recommendation. In November 2019, ICE reported that an internal working group was analyzing systems and processes used by ICE officers and agents to identify the components in need of updating to properly capture veteran status. In July 2020, ICE told us the working group identified fields to be added to its integrated database to capture and maintain veterans' status information. In April 2021, ICE provided documentation showing that a data field to capture veteran status was added to their databases used by Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) officers and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents-the Enforcement Integrated Database Arrest Graphic User Interface for Law Enforcement (EAGLE) and the ENFORCE Alien Removal Module (EARM). The veteran status data field in EAGLE becomes mandatory as soon as a system user indicates that the subject has been arrested. In addition, ICE issued a quick reference guide on veteran status in November 2020 to users of EAGLE and EARM with instructions and requirements for the new data fields. Furthermore, in June 2021 ICE provided documentation indicating that the Office of the Principal Legal Advisor (OPLA) issued guidance in November 2019 reminding attorneys that they are required to complete the veteran status check box in its case and document management system, the Principal Legal Advisor Network (PLAnet). OPLA attorneys also have access to view EAGLE and EARM to view veteran status information. As a result of these actions, ICE data systems now contain fields for veteran status and all three ICE components who encounter veterans-ERO, HSI, and OPLA-have access to these systems. By maintaining electronic data on veterans ICE is better positioned to determine the extent to which the agency has adhered to its policies for handling cases involving potentially removable veterans.

Full Report

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