Immigration Benefits:

Additional Efforts Needed to Help Ensure Alien Files Are Located when Needed

GAO-07-85: Published: Oct 27, 2006. Publicly Released: Nov 29, 2006.

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To document the interactions of aliens with the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and other government entities, USCIS creates alien files, or A-files. While deemed critical, especially in making citizenship decisions, A-files are sometimes missing during adjudications. In 2002, naturalization was granted to an alien whose A-file was missing and who was later found to be associated with a terrorist organization. GAO focused its review on (1) how often USCIS adjudicates naturalization applications without an A-file and why, (2) the effect that missing A-files can have on the adjudication process, and (3) steps taken to help mitigate the risk of missing A-files. To address these questions, GAO interviewed officials and staff from USCIS and reviewed relevant data, policies, and procedures related to processing naturalization applications and the automated file-tracking system DHS established to track the movement of A-files.

A-files were not available to adjudicate naturalization applications in a small percentage of cases. GAO found that of the naturalization applications adjudicated in 2005, about 30,000--or about 4 percent of them--may have been adjudicated without A-files. However, this number may be less because USCIS staff are not required to record whether an A-file was available. USCIS officials said that a major reason A-files were not available for naturalization application adjudications is that staff are not using the automated file-tracking system. USCIS officials suggested that staff might not be using the automated file-tracking system for lack of sufficient training on how to use the system, while local management may not be adequately emphasizing the importance of complying with A-file tracking policies and procedures. Missing A-files can have an impact on the process of adjudicating naturalization applications in several ways. For example, when an A-file is not available at the location indicated in the automated file-tracking system, additional time is spent trying to locate the file, which slows the adjudication process and applicants may wait longer for USCIS to process their application. In addition, missing A-files can hinder USCIS's ability to uncover immigration benefit fraud and limit DHS' ability to take enforcement actions. USCIS has steps in place to help mitigate the risk of adjudicating a naturalization application without an A-file. These steps include verifying the applicant's lawful admission to the United States and conducting extra supervisory reviews to ensure that naturalization processing procedures have been followed.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On January 27, 2007, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a memorandum requiring adjudication officers to record the A-file status at the time of adjudication, that is, whether or not the A-file was used to adjudicate a naturalization application. This action is consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: In order to improve USCIS's management information, prevent unnecessary delay, and more efficiently adjudicate applications, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of USCIS to require users to record or note whether an A-file was used to adjudicate a naturalization application.

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

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2008, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued a memorandum reiterating the importance of responding to file requests in a timely manner. To determine the extent to which staff may not be complying with file tracking procedures, the memorandum reminded USCIS field office managers that automated NFTS reports listing all outstanding file requests should be reviewed weekly if not daily to ensure that file requests are responded to in a timely manner. As a result, one USCIS region responsible for 19 USCIS field offices reported that the number of outstanding file requests more than 30 days old declined from about 284 at the end of December 2007 to less than 75 as of August 2008. Other USCIS regions plan to issue directives to field offices under their jurisdiction to help enforce file tracking procedures. These actions are consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: In order to improve USCIS's management information, prevent unnecessary delay, and more efficiently adjudicate applications, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of USCIS to work together with other DHS users of A-files to determine the extent to which staff may not be complying with NFTS procedures for updating the system and why.

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

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) established a National File Tracking System (NFTS) Working Group that included staff from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as well as other A-file users. USCIS implemented several initiatives, recommended by the group, to improve the tracking and accountability of A-files. For example, USCIS established a Working Group to define requirements for system improvements and enhancements, and developed a training class for Records Managers on how to use NFTS that will also be offered to ICE and CBP staff. In 2009, USCIS began a reconciliation of file information in NFTS and its Central Index System to identify and resolve inconsistencies relating to A-file tracking. USCIS completed the first phase of this reconciliation effort dealing with lost and duplicate files. As a result of the reconciliation, USCIS identified deficiencies in A-file handling resulting in USCIS updating several chapters in its Records Operation Handbook. These actions are consistent with our recommendation.

    Recommendation: In order to improve USCIS's management information, prevent unnecessary delay, and more efficiently adjudicate applications, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of USCIS to work together with other DHS users of A-files to correct any identified deficiencies in file-tracking compliance.

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

 

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