GAO Vets Asylum Vetting and Finds It Lacking

By Dan Cadman on December 9, 2015

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report on its evaluation of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum program, "Asylum: Additional Actions Needed to Assess and Address Fraud Risks".

It makes for difficult reading — not just because it is lengthy, or because it uses the usual understated, dry prose GAO is noted for, but also because it is densely packed with information. I found myself going over certain portions and phrases more than once to be sure I had grasped the import of what was being said.

I'm glad I did, but not because I am reassured by what I read. To the contrary, it reinforces my concern that the administration has assiduously engaged in oversell to make the public believe its vetting processes are better than they could possibly be. The GAO report, when read carefully, strips away that veneer. And it should be understood clearly that the gaps and weaknesses laid out in this report are not just applicable to the asylum program, because they apply to virtually all of the benefits programs of USCIS.

Superficially, the report focuses on fraud in the asylum program, not on national security. But here is the reality: Many aliens aren't known to be national security threats until after they commit, or attempt to commit, some horrendous act because (to use the hackneyed phrase) they've "flown under the radar". But often, even though it's afterward, clues and suspicions start coming out that were there all along, and that might have been red flags that something was seriously wrong had they been pursued. Often, these clues or suspicions point toward fraud in the immigration process. But because it's perceived of as small-time fraud — just the usual kind of one-person fraud perpetrated so constantly as a part of the immigration benefits application process — it slips through the cracks as a low priority, suspicions aren't pursued, nothing is done, and the alien obtains the benefit. The enormity of the mistake is only understood in context later.

GAO tells us that there are a number of institutional stumbling blocks in the asylum program that prevent detection, let alone prevention, of fraud. In fact, because of limitations in the system used by the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate of USCIS (which aids the asylum corps in its vetting processes), the agency cannot even accurately provide statistical figures on the number of cases referred for asylum fraud reviews. The same is true for the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), whose immigration judges are also charged with adjudicating asylum cases in the context of removal hearings. Here is the core of the report:

USCIS and the Department of Justice's (DOJ) Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) have limited capabilities to detect asylum fraud. First, while both USCIS and EOIR have mechanisms to investigate fraud in individual applications, neither agency has assessed fraud risks across the asylum process, in accordance with leading practices for managing fraud risks. Various cases of fraud illustrate risks that may affect the integrity of the asylum system. For example, an investigation in New York resulted in charges against 30 defendants as of March 2014 for their alleged participation in immigration fraud schemes; 829 applicants associated with the attorneys and preparers charged in the case received asylum from USCIS, and 3,709 received asylum from EOIR. Without regular assessments of fraud risks, USCIS and EOIR lack reasonable assurance that they have implemented controls to mitigate those risks. Second, USCIS's capability to identify patterns of fraud across asylum applications is hindered because USCIS relies on a paper-based system for asylum applications and does not electronically capture some key information that could be used to detect fraud, such as the applicant's written statement. Asylum officers and USCIS Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) Directorate immigration officers told GAO that they can identify potential fraud by analyzing trends across asylum applications; however, they must rely on labor-intensive methods to do so. Identifying and implementing additional fraud detection tools could enable USCIS to detect fraud more effectively while using resources more efficiently. Third, FDNS has not established clear fraud detection responsibilities for its immigration officers in asylum offices; FDNS officers we spoke with at all eight asylum offices told GAO they have limited guidance with respect to fraud.


What should we make of such a report? The findings are of particular concern for the refugee program, which is a mirror image of the asylum program. The only difference is that while refugee applicants are abroad, asylum applicants are already here. But the vetting processes are fundamentally the same. So when we hear or read the testimony of USCIS officials before Senate or House committees speaking about how strong refugee screening is, this report should give us pause to reflect on whether that testimony accurately reflects reality. Sadly, it does not, because it is a deliberately tailored version that glosses over the cracks.

But, ironically, since at least refugee applicants are still abroad; there is still the theoretical possibility that they might be denied entry for cause. What is more, there is a ceiling on refugee admissions. We are much more vulnerable in asylum cases, because the individuals are already here, and under Obama administration policies they are rarely detained. In the unlikely event they are denied asylum, they can (and do) simply melt into the vast fabric of society. And there is no upper limit on the number of asylees, so a potentially endless stream can apply.

If, as we have seen so often lately, there is nothing "on the government's radar" to show that they are national security threats, asylees' stories are almost uniformly believed and their applications granted. It is only after the fact of a terrorist act or attempt that indicators start to come out. This leaves our government with a perpetual look of surprise, not to mention egg, on its collective face: "Whoa! Didn't see that coming!"

At some point the American people will tire of the excuses, the rhetorical dodges, and semantic workarounds, and start demanding accountability in our immigration processes, starting at the very top of the federal government's organizational pyramid. Unfortunately, this may not be until after enough outrageous and tragic events like the ones at U.C. Merced and San Bernardino force us out of our attention deficit long enough to focus. But I sure hope I'm wrong.