U.S. Asylum System:

Agencies Have Taken Actions to Help Ensure Quality in the Asylum Adjudication Process, but Challenges Remain

GAO-08-935: Published: Sep 25, 2008. Publicly Released: Sep 25, 2008.

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Each year, tens of thousands of noncitizens apply in the United States for asylum, which provides refuge to those who have been persecuted or fear persecution. Asylum officers (AO) in the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and immigration judges (IJ) in the Department of Justice's (DOJ) Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) assess applicants' credibility and eligibility. GAO was asked to evaluate aspects of the asylum system. This report addresses the extent to which quality assurance mechanisms have been designed to ensure adjudications' integrity, how key factors affect AOs' adjudications, and what key factors affect IJs' adjudications. To conduct this work, GAO reviewed agency documents, policies, and procedures; surveyed all AOs, supervisory AOs, and IJs; and visited three of the eight Asylum Offices. These offices varied in size and percentage of cases granted asylum. Results of these visits provided additional information but were not projectable.

USCIS and EOIR have designed quality assurance mechanisms to help ensure the integrity of asylum adjudications, but some can be improved. While 75 percent of AO survey respondents reported that basic training prepared them at least moderately well to adjudicate cases, they also reported that despite weekly training, they needed additional training to help them detect fraud, conduct security checks, and assess the credibility of asylum seekers. The Asylum Division does not consistently solicit AOs' and supervisory AOs' input on a range of their training needs. Without this, the Asylum Division lacks key information for making training decisions. The Asylum Division has designed a quality review framework to ensure the quality and consistency of asylum decisions. Although supervisors review all cases and headquarters reviews certain cases, other local quality assurance reviews rarely took place in three of the eight Asylum Offices primarily due to competing priorities. By fully implementing its quality review framework, the Asylum Division would better identify deficiencies, examine their root causes, and take action. The majority of IJ survey respondents reported that training enhanced their ability to adjudicate asylum cases, although the majority also reported having additional training needs. EOIR expanded its training program in 2006, particularly for newly hired IJs, and annually solicits IJs' views on their training needs. Asylum officers reported challenges in identifying fraud and assessing applicants' credibility, as well as time constraints, as key factors affecting their adjudications. The majority of AO survey respondents reported it moderately or very difficult to identify various types of fraud, despite mechanisms designed to help identify fraud and assess credibility. Further, assistance from other federal entities to AOs in assessing the authenticity of asylum claims has been hindered in part by resource limitations and competing priorities. With respect to time constraints, 65 percent of AOs and 73 percent of supervisory AOs reported that AOs have insufficient time to thoroughly adjudicate cases--that is, in a manner consistent with procedures and training--while management's views were mixed. The Asylum Division set a productivity standard equating to 4 hours per case in 1999 without empirical data. Without empirical data on the time it takes to thoroughly adjudicate a case, the Asylum Division is not best positioned to know if its productivity standard reflects the time AOs need for thorough adjudications. Verifying fraud, assessing credibility, and time constraints are also key factors affecting IJs' adjudications. IJ survey respondents cited verifying fraud (88 percent) and assessing credibility (81 percent) as a moderately or very challenging aspect of asylum adjudications. Responding to 2006 Attorney General reforms, EOIR implemented a program to which IJs can refer instances of suspected fraud and receive information to aid in fraud detection. Eighty-two percent of IJs reported time limitations as moderately or very challenging aspects of their adjudications. EOIR has detailed IJs to courts with high caseloads and plans to hire additional staff, but it is too soon to know the extent to which additional staff will alleviate IJs' time challenges.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fiscal year 2008, we reviewed and reported on the quality assurance mechanisms that had been designed within the U.S. asylum system to ensure the integrity of the asylum adjudication process. We reported, among other things, that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service's (USCIS) Asylum Division's local quality assurance reviews--one of the three tiers of its framework for conducting quality reviews to help ensure the quality and consistency of asylum decisions--did not always occur. We recommended that the Asylum Division develop a plan to more fully implement its quality review framework and ensure that in each asylum office a sample of asylum officers' decisions are reviewed for quality and consistency and that interviews conducted by asylum officers are observed. In response, officials from USCIS reported the Asylum Division took actions to more fully implement its quality review framework. In April 2009, the Asylum Division developed a program plan for reviewing a sample of asylum officers' decisions and subsequently piloted the materials it developed for implementing this program. In February 2012, USCIS reported that the Asylum Division had reviewed a sample of decisions in each of its eight offices, and that the quality assurance program is an ongoing program. Further, in July 2012, USCIS officials provided us with a memorandum the Acting Chief of the Asylum Division will issue that establishes procedures for the observation of asylum interviews as a mandatory training exercise. As a result of these changes, we believe the Asylum Division implemented our recommendation and took actions to improve the integrity of its adjudication process.

    Recommendation: To improve the integrity of the asylum adjudication process, the Chief of the Asylum Division should develop a plan to more fully implement the quality review framework--and complement existing supervisory and headquarters reviews--to include, among other things, how to ensure that in each Asylum Office a sample of decisions of asylum officers are reviewed for quality and consistency and interviews conducted by asylum officers are observed.

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

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fiscal year 2008, we reviewed and reported on the key factors that affect asylum officers' adjudication of asylum cases. Based on the results of surveys we conducted of all asylum officers and supervisory asylum officers, we found that most asylum officers and supervisors who responded to our surveys reported that better or more training was needed to improve asylum officers' ability to adjudicate asylum cases. We further found that the Asylum Division did not have a framework in place for soliciting asylum officers' and supervisors' views on their training needs in a structured and consistent manner. As such we recommended that, in addition to soliciting information on asylum officers' and supervisors' respective training needs, the Asylum Division should use this information to provide training to asylum officers and supervisory asylum officers at the offices where the information shows it is needed, or nationally, when training needs are common. In response, the Asylum Division developed an online training needs assessment of asylum officers and supervisors, completed its data collection effort on Sept. 1, 2010, and analyzed the results nationally and by asylum office. Three common training needs were clearly identified at the national level: (1) interview skills, (2) asylum law--credibility, and (3) fraud detection. In February 2012, the Asylum Division reported that all asylum offices delivered training to address the training needs identified through its online training needs assessment. The Asylum Division also reported that they delivered formal training on a nationally-identified training need, and two additional formal trainings are in development. Finally, the Asylum Division reported that the training survey has been, and will continue to be, utilized to provide training on identified training needs both within specified offices and nationally. As a result, the Asylum Division is able to provide training to asylum officers and supervisors at the asylum offices where the results of its needs assessment show it is needed or nationally, when training needs are common.

    Recommendation: To improve the integrity of the asylum adjudication process, the Chief of the Asylum Division should ensure that the information collected on training needs is used to provide training to asylum officers and supervisory asylum officers at the offices where the information shows it is needed or nationally, when training needs are common.

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

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Based on the results of surveys we conducted of all asylum officers and supervisory asylum officers, we found that most asylum officers and supervisors who responded to the surveys reported that better or more training was needed to improve asylum officers' ability to adjudicate asylum cases. We further found that the Asylum Division did not have a framework in place for soliciting asylum officers' and supervisors' views on their training needs in a structured and consistent manner. We recommended that the Asylum Division develop a framework for soliciting information in a structured and consistent manner on asylum officers' and supervisors' respective training needs, including, at a minimum, training needs discussed in our report. In response, the Asylum Division developed the type of framework we recommended. It developed an online training needs assessment completed by asylum officers and supervisors between July 26, 2010, and August 30, 2010. The survey included the training needs we discussed in our report. Based on the responses, Headquarters' Training Section plans to develop a national training agenda for fiscal year 2011 and will solicit and evaluate training needs and priorities at least annually. As a result, the Asylum Division--headquarters and Asylum Offices--will have more complete information on which to base future training decisions.

    Recommendation: To improve the integrity of the asylum adjudication process, the Chief of the Asylum Division should develop a framework for soliciting information in a structured and consistent manner on asylum officers' and supervisors' respective training needs, including, at a minimum, training needs discussed in this report.

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

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that asylum officers' ability to elicit information through applicant interviews is critical to their ability to distinguish between genuine and fraudulent asylum claims. We further found that 88 percent of asylum officers who responded to our survey reported that having the opportunity to observe interviews conducted by skilled interviewers would help improve officers' interview skills, but 53 percent reported they had not had this opportunity. We recommended that that the Chief of the Asylum Division explore ways to provide these additional opportunities. In response, the Asylum Division, within the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), explored ways to accomplish this. In March 2009, it sent a proposed plan to, and solicited comments from, Asylum Office Directors. The plan called for these interview observation opportunities to occur quarterly, thereby giving officers the opportunity to observe several different officers conducting interviews throughout the year. Also, in April 2009, one Asylum Office began a pilot program for conducting these observations. According to USCIS, recommendations resulting from the pilot will be incorporated into a final procedural plan, which will be implemented in all Asylum Offices, beginning in the 4th quarter FY 2009. As a result, asylum officers will have additional opportunities to observe other interviewers, which should help asylum officers refine their interview techniques to elicit information to use in assessing credibility, determining eligibility, and distinguishing between genuine and fraudulent claims.

    Recommendation: To improve the integrity of the asylum adjudication process, the Chief of the Asylum Division should explore ways to provide additional opportunities for asylum officers to observe skilled interviewers.

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

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fiscal year 2008, we reviewed and reported on the key factors that affect asylum officers' adjudication of asylum cases. We found, among other things, that the Asylum Division established a productivity standard without empirical data, and that the standard provided asylum officers with about 4 hours to complete an asylum case. As a result, we recommended that the Asylum Division collect empirical data on the time it takes asylum officers to thoroughly complete the adjudication process and revise productivity standards, if warranted. In response to this recommendation, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration's (USCIS) Office of Policy and Strategy contracted a study to evaluate processes and develop standards to ensure cost-effectiveness and high quality results in the completion of the asylum caseload. According to USCIS officials, the contractor completed its study in June 2011, and the USCIS Office of Policy and Strategy analyzed the study's findings and made recommendations to the Asylum Division. In November 2013, Asylum Division officials stated that after testing and revising asylum officers' performance measures they adopted new quality-focused performance measures in fiscal year 2014 that eliminated the productivity standards. Asylum Division officials stated that they anticipate the new performance measures will improve the quality and integrity of the asylum adjudication process. These actions are consistent with our recommendation and should help provide empirical data on which to base performance measures.

    Recommendation: To improve the integrity of the asylum adjudication process, the Chief of the Asylum Division should develop a cost-effective way to collect empirical data on the time it takes asylum officers to thoroughly complete the steps in the adjudication process and revise productivity standards, if warranted.

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

 

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