Military Naturalizations:

USCIS Generally Met Mandated Processing Deadlines, but Processing Applicants Deployed Overseas Is a Challenge

GAO-10-865: Published: Jul 29, 2010. Publicly Released: Jul 29, 2010.

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From September 2001 to March 2009, approximately 47,000 noncitizen members of the U.S. military became naturalized U.S. citizens. The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) and the Department of Defense (DOD) have taken steps to assist noncitizens with applying for naturalization. The Kendell Frederick Citizenship Assistance Act (Kendell Frederick Act) and the Military Personnel Citizenship Processing Act (MPCPA), enacted in 2008 to expedite application processing, each directed GAO to report on implementation of the acts. This report addresses (1) the extent to which USCIS met the processing deadlines established in the acts and (2) actions USCIS has taken to expedite the processing of applications, and any challenges it has faced. GAO reviewed relevant legislation and DHS reports and guidance related to processing applications; reviewed several generalizable samples of applicants' case files (A-files); and interviewed USCIS officials.

USCIS complied in nearly all cases with the Kendell Frederick Act's requirement that it complete application processing for overseas service members within 6 months of the final background check. USCIS complied in an estimated 73 percent of service member cases and 84 percent of spousal cases with the MPCPA's requirement that it either complete application processing within 6 months of receipt or notify the applicant of the reason for the delay and provide an estimated adjudication date. For the remaining cases, the applicants' files did not document that the applicant was notified that the application would not be processed within 6 months, did not provide an estimated adjudication date in the notification of delay letter, or GAO could not determine if USCIS met the notification requirements because cases pending after July 28, 2009, were not included in GAO's probability samples. Without documentation of USCIS's actions, it is difficult for USCIS to determine its adherence to MPCPA's requirements. USCIS took several actions to expedite application processing, including establishing a military naturalization unit and using videoconferencing for overseas applicants in war zones, among others; but receiving incomplete applications, processing applicants stationed overseas, and identifying all applicants prior to their overseas deployment pose challenges to timely processing of applications. USCIS cannot identify all deploying service members because it does not have procedures for ensuring that available deployment information is collected from all applicants when they file the application, and this could result in processing delays. Additionally, not all A-files contained documentation indicating that USCIS had taken steps to locate or notify applicants, as required in its April 2009 guidance. For example, for 9 of 15 cases that were administratively closed because the applicant had failed to appear for the initial interview, no documentation was included in the A-file, as required by USCIS's guidance, that a USCIS liaison at the applicant's military installation was contacted in an attempt to locate the service member. Without documenting all actions taken, it is difficult for USCIS to determine the extent to which it is administratively closing or denying cases in accordance with its guidance. GAO recommends that the USCIS Director ensure that available deployment information is collected from all applicants when they file the application; case files document that applicants were notified of processing delays and provided an estimated adjudication date; and case files document actions taken when a case is administratively closed or denied. DHS concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that USCIS could not identify all deploying service members because it does not have procedures for ensuring that available deployment information is collected from all applicants when they file the application. As a result, we recommended USCIS develop procedures to help ensure that available deployment information is proactively and systematically collected from all military naturalization applicants at the time they file their naturalization applications. USCIS concurred with our recommendation. In response, USCIS revised Form N-400, the Application for Naturalization. In February 2014, USCIS reported that the revised form is available to the public.

    Recommendation: To enhance efforts to expedite application processing and ensure that actions taken by USCIS personnel fully comply with the notification requirements of the MPCPA and USCIS's guidance for closing cases, the Director of USCIS should develop procedures to help ensure that available deployment information is proactively and systematically collected from all military naturalization applicants at the time they file their naturalization applications.

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

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our report on military naturalizations, we found that for cases where USCIS did not adjudicate an application within 6 months of receipt, USCIS did not always provide applicants the reasons for the delay and an estimated adjudication date, as required by law. We recommended that USCIS institute quality assurance measures to help ensure that applicants' A-files contain a copy of the letter notifying the applicant of the reasons for the delay and an estimated adjudication date. USCIS concurred with our recommendation and on October 31, 2011, issued a revised Form N-650A as part of its implementation of revised Naturalization Quality Procedures. The Form N-650A requires documentation that that a letter was sent to the military naturalization applicant or their families when the processing time exceeds 6 months. Instructions for completing the N-650A state that the notification letter is to contain an estimated date of completion. A copy of the notification letter is to be retained in the applicant's A-File. USCIS also reported that in September 2011, USCIS provided training to Immigration Services Officers on the revised quality procedures and worksheets, including a review of the Form N-650A. Immigration Services Officers from each USCIS District and Region, and Immigration Officers from International Operations, came together in a classroom setting at the National Benefits Center in Lee's Summit, Missouri, where they received training on the new procedures. USCIS has provided evidence that it instituted procedures that responded to our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To enhance efforts to expedite application processing and ensure that actions taken by USCIS personnel fully comply with the notification requirements of the MPCPA and USCIS's guidance for closing cases, the Director of USCIS should, for cases where USCIS is unable to adjudicate a military naturalization application within 6 months of receipt, institute quality assurance measures to help ensure that applicants' A-files contain a copy of the letter notifying the applicant of the reasons for the delay and an estimated adjudication date.

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

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our report on military naturalizations, we stated that some alien files (A-files) did not contain documentation enabling us to confirm that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) was consistently following its April 2009 guidance for administratively closing or denying a case when an applicant fails to appear for an interview or respond to a request for evidence. We recommended that for these cases, USCIS institute quality assurance measures to help ensure that all actions taken under USCIS' April 2009 guidance are documented in applicants' A-files. USCIS concurred with our recommendation and on October 31, 2011, instituted revised Naturalization Quality Procedures, which included issuing a new Processing Worksheet: Form N-650MIL, Record of Action for Military Form N-400. USCIS said the form, created in response to our recommendation, was intended to provide USCIS Immigration Services Officers with a standardized format to document actions taken to contact an applicant who has failed to respond to a request for documentation or to a request to appear. The form is to be used primarily to document contact attempts--such as telephone calls--that do not generally have documents associated with them, and is to be maintained in aliens' A-files. USCIS reported that in September 2011, USCIS provided training to Immigration Services Officers on the revised quality procedures and worksheets, including the Form N-650MIL. Immigration Services Officers from each USCIS District and Region, and Immigration Officers from International Operations, came together in a classroom setting at the National Benefits Center in Lee's Summit, Missouri, where they received training on the new procedures.

    Recommendation: To enhance efforts to expedite application processing and ensure that actions taken by USCIS personnel fully comply with the notification requirements of the MPCPA and USCIS's guidance for closing cases, the Director of USCIS should, for cases that are administratively closed or denied, institute quality assurance measures to help ensure that all actions taken under USCIS' April 2009 guidance are documented in applicants' A-files.

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

 

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