Immigration Benefits:

Additional Controls and a Sanctions Strategy Could Enhance DHS's Ability to Control Benefit Fraud

GAO-06-259: Published: Mar 10, 2006. Publicly Released: Mar 10, 2006.

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In 2002, GAO reported that immigration benefit fraud was pervasive and significant and the approach to controlling it was fragmented. Experts believe that individuals ineligible for these benefits, including terrorists and criminals, could use fraudulent means to enter or remain in the U.S. You asked that GAO evaluate U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service's (USCIS) anti-fraud efforts. This report addresses the questions: (1) What do available data and information indicate regarding the nature and extent of fraud? (2) What actions has USCIS taken to improve its ability to detect fraud? (3) What actions does the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) take to sanction those who commit fraud?

Although the full extent of benefit fraud is unknown, available evidence suggests that it is a serious problem. Several high-profile immigration benefit fraud cases shed light on aspects of its nature--particularly that it is accomplished by submitting fraudulent documents and can be facilitated by white collar and other criminals, with the potential for large profits. USCIS staff denied about 20,000 applications for fraud in fiscal year 2005. USCIS has established a focal point for immigration fraud, outlined a fraud control strategy that relies on the use of automation to detect fraud, and is performing risk assessments to identify the extent and nature of fraud for certain benefits. However, USCIS has not implemented important aspects of internal control standards established by GAO and fraud control best practices identified by leading audit organizations--particularly a comprehensive risk management approach, a mechanism to ensure ongoing monitoring during the course of normal activities, clear communication regarding how to balance multiple objectives, mechanisms to help ensure that staff have access to key information, and performance goals for fraud prevention. DHS does not have a strategy for sanctioning fraud. Best practices advise that a credible sanctions program, which includes a mechanism for evaluating effectiveness, is an integral part of fraud control. Because most immigration benefit fraud is not prosecuted criminally, the principal means of sanctioning it would be administrative penalties. Although immigration law gives DHS the authority to levy administrative penalties, the component of DHS that administers them does not consider them to be cost-effective and does not routinely impose them. However, DHS has not evaluated the costs and benefits of sanctions, including the value of potential deterrence. Without a credible sanctions program, DHS's efforts to deter fraud may be less effective, when applicants perceive little threat of punishment.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: In accordance with internal control standards and best practices in the area of fraud control, and in order to enhance USCIS's overall immigration benefit fraud control environment, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of USCIS to establish output and outcome based performance goals--along with associated measures and targets--to assess the effectiveness of fraud control efforts and provide more complete performance information to guide management decisions about the need for any corrective action to improve the ability to detect fraud.

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

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In response to this recommendation, in April 2009, USCIS told us that it had established a fraud related performance objective for regional and service center managers. The objective is to "strengthen national security through a fraud detection program and initiation of appropriate enforcement action". DHS' 2009 annual performance plans cites 2 performance measures related to enhancing the integrity of the legal immigration system: (1) the percent of site visits that verify information provided in petition is in compliance with immigration laws, and (2) the percent of routine referrals with national security implications completed within targeted processing time. Neither of these actions addresses our recommendation. The fraud performance objective for regional and service center managers contains no numerical goals or objectives and the DHS 2009 performance measures are output measures. Also USCIS has not established any outcome measures. As a result, this recommendation is closed.

    Recommendation: In accordance with internal control standards and best practices in the area of fraud control, and in order to enhance USCIS's overall immigration benefit fraud control environment, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of USCIS to provide USCIS's adjudicator staff with access to relevant internal and external information that bears on their ability to detect fraud, make correct eligibility determinations, and support the new fraud referral process?particularly ongoing updates regarding fraud trends and other information related to fraud detection.

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

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has taken a number of actions to provide adjudicators with access to additional information to help adjudicators detect fraud. For example, Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) created a web site to include, among other things, the results from its Benefit Fraud and Compliance Assessments, anti-fraud initiatives, fraud trends, lessons learned, and guidance to adjudicators on how to mitigate fraud trends. All USCIS Immigration Officers have access to the "Adjudicators Tool Box" a web based system that provides access to relevant resources, directives and policies. USCIS adjudicators also now have access to the Department of State's Consular Consolidated Database, a database on individuals issued visas. USCIS now also has access to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) system called Immigration and Customs Enforcement Pattern Analysis and Information Collection System that can detect relationships between individuals and organizations and can also detect suspect identities. According to USCIS, one of the reasons for placing fraud officers in all USCIS field offices and service centers is to provide adjudicators with an additional source for information. To support the new fraud referral process, in 2008 USCIS and ICE signed a memorandum of understanding outlining policies and procedures for referring immigration fraud cases to ICE and tracking the status of the referrals. These actions are consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: In accordance with internal control standards and best practices in the area of fraud control, and in order to enhance USCIS's overall immigration benefit fraud control environment, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of USCIS to communicate clearly to USCIS adjudicators the importance USCIS's fraud-prevention objectives and how they are to be balanced with service-oriented objectives to help adjudicators ensure that both objectives are supported as they carry out their duties.

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

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has taken a number of steps to clearly communicate the importance of USCIS' fraud prevention objectives. For example, USCIS created a training module on Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) that has been incorporated into basic and journeyman adjudicator training. In 2008 FDNS began issuing a newsletter to all USCIS staff highlighting the importance of USCIS' mission to deter immigration fraud. According to USCIS, one of the reasons USCIS has placed fraud officers in all USCIS service centers and field offices is to, among other things, emphasize to adjudications staff the importance USCIS places on fraud prevention. FDNS has provided USCIS adjudicators more tools and information to detect fraud via the FDNS web site that according to USCIS sends the implicit message about the importance of balancing fraud detection with service-centered objectives. In 2009 USCIS issued its Concept of Operations for transforming its operations from a paper-based application process to an electronic one. The concept paper calls for USCIS to integrate a risk and fraud management component into its new processes communicating to staff the importance USCIS places on fraud prevention. Lastly, in his May 2010 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee the Director of USCIS testified that it is imperative that USCIS help safeguard our national security and protect the integrity of our immigration system. The Director stated that elevating FDNS to a separate directorate reporting directly to him emphasizes his commitment to anti-fraud efforts. These actions are consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: In accordance with internal control standards and best practices in the area of fraud control, and in order to enhance USCIS's overall immigration benefit fraud control environment, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of USCIS to implement a mechanism to help USCIS ensure that information about fraud vulnerabilities uncovered during the course of normal operations--by USCIS and related agencies--feeds back into and contributes to changes in policies and procedures when needed to ensure that identified vulnerabilities result in appropriate corrective actions.

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

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) instituted a number of mechanisms to help ensure that information about fraud vulnerabilities feeds back into and contributes to changes in policies and procedures to address identified vulnerabilities. For example, one of the purposes of the Benefit Fraud and Compliance Assessments is to identify fraud vulnerabilities and recommend policy and/or procedural changes to mitigate any identified vulnerabilities. Fraud assessments of the religious worker and nonimmigrant worker immigration benefits resulted in changes to USCIS procedures for processing these benefits. In addition, USCIS has deployed fraud officers to USCIS field offices to enhance the flow of information, including fraud vulnerabilities, between USCIS' Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) office and USCIS immigration officers. USCIS implemented a policy requiring an "after action" report on all major immigration benefit fraud cases to, among other things, determine how USCIS can better identify fraudulent applications. In addition, USCIS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Department of State and Labor officials meet regularly to discuss fraud issues. FDNS has also detailed staff to other DHS components, such as ICE, as well as other agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the State Department, in order to enhance information sharing, including identifying potential fraud vulnerabilities. These actions are consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: In accordance with internal control standards and best practices in the area of fraud control, and in order to enhance USCIS's overall immigration benefit fraud control environment, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of USCIS to enhance its risk management approach by (1) expanding its fraud assessment program to cover more immigration application types; (2) fully incorporating threat and consequence assessments into its fraud assessment activities; and (3) using risk analysis to evaluate management alternatives to mitigate identified vulnerabilities.

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

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fiscal year 2009 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) instituted a Risk Assessment Program (RAP) designed to systematically identify, examine, and address vulnerabilities in the legal immigration system. The program addresses each of the 3 parts of our recommendation. First, the program identified an additional 20 immigration benefit types that are to be the subject of Benefit Fraud and Compliance Assessments. Second, to incorporate threat and consequence assessment into the assessment process, USCIS convened a working group to identify the application types that were at a higher risk for fraud. The working group developed 12 variables, such as the percentage of applications denied for fraud and whether individuals that USCIS identified as risks to national security had applied for the immigration benefit. USCIS then scored each application type based upon these 12 variables to identify those application types that had a higher risk of fraud and potentially a more significant consequence. Those with the highest score would receive priority when deciding the order in which USCIS will conduct its Benefit Fraud and Compliance Assessments. Third, to mitigate vulnerabilities identified by the benefit fraud and compliance assessments, the Risk Assessment Program plan states that upon completion of a Benefit Fraud and Compliance Assessment, a separate team of experts will assess the report's findings and recommend any changes in policy, procedure, application form, regulation, and legislation it deems necessary. The team will also be responsible for drafting any required field guidance. These actions are consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: In order to enhance DHS's ability to sanction immigration benefit fraud, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of USCIS and the Assistant Secretary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to develop a strategy for implementing a sanctions program that includes mechanisms for assessing its effectiveness and for determining its associated costs and benefits, including its deterrence value.

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

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: USCIS responded that the recommendation related to an administrative sanctions program is best addressed at the DHS level since this recommendation could involve other DHS components. However, DHS has yet to respond to this recommendation. Therefore, this recommendation is closed.

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