Immigration Benefits:

Internal Controls for Adjudicating Humanitarian Parole Cases Are Generally Effective, but Some Can Be Strengthened

GAO-08-282: Published: Feb 6, 2008. Publicly Released: Feb 6, 2008.

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The Immigration and Nationality Act requires that most visitors and immigrants to the United States obtain a visa. Aliens unable to obtain a visa, and with a compelling humanitarian need, may apply to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to be granted humanitarian parole. This permits an alien to enter the United States on a temporary basis. Parole responsibility rests with DHS's Humanitarian Assistance Branch (HAB), which was transferred to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in August 2007. In response to congressional requesters, GAO examined (1) the characteristics of those who applied for humanitarian parole since October 1, 2001, and (2) internal controls HAB designed to adjudicate applications along with the extent to which HAB adhered to them. To conduct this work, GAO analyzed HAB documents and data, such as its protocols and database of all parole applications since October 1, 2001; interviewed HAB officials about adjudication processes; and interviewed attorneys who had helped individuals file for parole.

The 8,748 humanitarian parole applications that HAB adjudicated from October 1, 2001, through June 30, 2007, displayed various characteristics--54 percent of the applicants were female and 46 percent, male; 45 percent of the applicants came from 11 countries, with the largest number from Mexico. Sixty-four percent of the requests for humanitarian parole were for family reunification or medical emergency. Persons under age 18 had a 35 percent grant rate--higher than the rate for applicants over 18 and consistent with the stated purposes of humanitarian parole. Seventy-six percent of applications were denied; 24 percent were granted. Among multiple reasons cited for denial by adjudicators in a projectible sample of cases we analyzed, an estimated 57 percent of applicants had not exhausted other avenues of immigration available to them before applying for humanitarian parole, as generally is required. Data analysis revealed few differences in parole denial rates with regard to gender or, with two exceptions, country of residence. While denial recommendation rates for individual adjudicators varied, HAB officials stated that this is expected because the facts and circumstances of cases vary and adjudicators have different backgrounds and experiences that might affect their reviews of an application. HAB has designed internal controls to help ensure that requests for humanitarian parole are decided in accordance with applicable guidelines; these controls have been functioning as intended. Specifically, HAB has, among other controls, clear and detailed written policies and procedures, including a requirement that every application be reviewed by two adjudicators and that if they disagree, a third is to make a "tie-breaking" recommendation. A final decision is then made by the HAB Branch Chief or a designee, but if the Branch Chief decides to override the adjudicators' recommendations, the case is first discussed with higher-level officials. A computerized data system also records key information in every case. While HAB's controls are generally effective, three areas can be strengthened. First, following a transfer of HAB to USCIS, HAB may no longer have a sufficient number of permanent staff to ensure it continues to follow policies and procedures, since two adjudicators are insufficient to provide independent reviews of requests for reconsideration--HAB guidance recommends that such requests be reviewed by two additional adjudicators not previously involved. Second, HAB does not have a formal training program for new staff who may be detailed to help process applications. Such training is essential to ensure that criteria for granting and denying parole are applied consistently and fairly by the adjudicators. Third, USCIS's Web site has limited information about the circumstances under which a person may apply for humanitarian parole. More information and clearer instructions could reduce the number of applications from those who had not taken the steps generally required before applying for humanitarian parole, such as exhausting other available avenues for entry into the United States.

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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.
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    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help ensure that HAB is able to process applications for humanitarian parole consistent with its own policies and procedures and to help ensure applicants understand the humanitarian parole rules and processes, the Secretary of DHS should direct the Director of USCIS to coordinate with the HAB Branch Chief to determine the number of staff HAB needs to process humanitarian parole applications in accordance with its policies and procedures and assign them to HAB.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our February 2008 report on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) humanitarian parole program, we found that USCIS' Humanitarian Assistance Branch (HAB) might not have had enough staff to ensure that it followed established policies and procedures for adjudicating requests for humanitarian parole. We recommended that the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) direct the Director of USCIS to coordinate with the HAB to determine the number of staff HAB needs to process humanitarian parole applications in accordance with policies and procedures and assign them to HAB. DHS agreed. In response to our recommendation, the Chief of the International Affairs Division conducted a staffing analysis resulting in a request for an additional 6 staff for the humanitarian parole program. On July 31, 2008, the Associate Director of Refugee, Asylum and International Operations approved the assignment of an additional 6 full-time positions to the HAB. The International Affairs Division is aiming to make selections and have the humanitarian parole program fully staffed by the end of the first quarter of fiscal year 2009. As a result, the humanitarian parole program will now have a sufficient number of staff to process humanitarian parole applications in accordance with policies and procedures.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that HAB is able to process applications for humanitarian parole consistent with its own policies and procedures and to help ensure applicants understand the humanitarian parole rules and processes, the Secretary of DHS should direct the Director of USCIS to develop a formal training program curriculum on adjudication of humanitarian parole cases for new and detailed staff.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our February 2008 report on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) humanitarian parole program, we found that USCIS' Humanitarian Assistance Branch (HAB) did not have a formal training program for new staff who may be detailed to help process applications. Such training is essential to ensure that criteria for granting and denying parole are applied consistently and fairly by the adjudicators. We recommended that USCIS develop a formal training program curriculum on adjudication of humanitarian parole cases for new staff. USCIS agreed with this recommendation. In response to our recommendation, USCIS developed a formal training program and standardized training materials. The training program includes a 4-day training course on the adjudication of humanitarian parole cases with practice adjudications followed by a week of supervised adjudication of actual cases. In addition, USCIS developed a draft Standard Operating Procedure for handling humanitarian parole appeal cases, a summary adjudication procedures guide and file checklist, and a background security check resolution form to help ensure that the criteria for granting and denying humanitarian parole are applied consistently and fairly by adjudicators. The training course was first presented in February 2009.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that HAB is able to process applications for humanitarian parole consistent with its own policies and procedures and to help ensure applicants understand the humanitarian parole rules and processes, the Secretary of DHS should direct the Director of USCIS to revise USCIS's Web site instructions for humanitarian parole to help ensure that applicants understand the need to first exhaust all other immigration avenues and the criteria HAB uses to adjudicate humanitarian parole applications.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our February 2008 report on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' (USCIS) humanitarian parole program, we found that USCIS' web site had limited information about the circumstances under which a person may apply for humanitarian parole. More information and clearer instructions could reduce the number of applications from those who had not taken the steps generally required before applying for humanitarian parole, such as exhausting other available avenues for entry into the United States. We recommended that the Secretary of DHS direct the Director of USCIS to revise USCIS' web site instructions to help ensure that applicants understand the need to first exhaust all other immigration avenues before applying for humanitarian parole. DHS agreed. In response to our recommendation, USCIS modified its web site to provide the public with guidance regarding the Humanitarian Parole Program. It includes a succinct description of the program stressing that parole is an extraordinary measure only to be sought after applicants have exhausted all other immigration avenues. The revised website also includes detailed guidelines for preparing and submitting applications for humanitarian parole. As a result, applicants now have additional information to help them decide whether to apply for humanitarian parole and clearer guidance for preparing and submitting applications for humanitarian parole.

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