Needlessly Risking Naturalization Integrity with Failed Systems

By Dan Cadman on January 24, 2017

The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG) has issued a strongly worded report (as such oversight reports go), touching on a potentially perilous and unresolved naturalization issue at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the immigration benefits adjudicating agency. It is called "Management Alert - U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' Use of the Electronic Immigration System for Naturalization Benefits Processing", dated January 19. Despite the typically dry bureaucratically title, the report raises significant problems.

The timing of the report — one day before president Trump's inauguration — cannot have been a coincidence, given its sharply critical nature. But it's also a bit of a puzzle. Did someone sit on it until the very last moment, perhaps because they were afraid to issue it, or had been ordered to suppress it? Is the current IG, an Obama appointee, hoping to transition to the new administration?

Whatever the reasons, the report once again establishes that USCIS is an agency in a hermetically sealed bubble, sublimely unaware of (or indifferent to) its place in the homeland security structure, and its fundamental obligation to ensure that its processes, policies, and decision-making accord with the need to ensure the safety of the American public by avoiding inappropriate grants.

The report is a follow-up of an examination the OIG did in March of last year, in which auditors found that USCIS used processing and systems methodologies that were highly inaccurate, resulting in the agency inappropriately issuing more than 20,000 resident alien ("green") cards in error.

According to OIG,

Given USCIS' slow progress in taking corrective actions to address system deficiencies, in December 2016 we began an assessment of USCIS' current efforts to automate processing of the N-400 Application for Naturalization. ... Although we are only in the beginning phases of our review, we have already identified significant operational and security issues that pose grave concern and merit [your] attention and corrective action. (Emphasis added.)

Specifically, the OIG found that the current methodology, using a system called ELIS that was at the heart of the green-card glitch, and is also instrumental to naturalization adjudications, fails on four major counts:

  1. Deficiencies in background and security checks for applicants: "ELIS allows cases to be moved forward for processing despite incomplete or inaccurate background and security checks. According to Field Operations Directorate officials, approximately 175 applicants were granted citizenship as of January 11, 2017 before the problem was detected." (Emphasis added.)
  2. Inconsistent case management update and closeout: "ELIS does not consistently update the USCIS Central Index System with final immigrant status once an individual is naturalized". This results in inaccurate information being provided to other components of the DHS immigration control system, including Customs and Border Protection officers at ports of entry, to whom such information would be critical.
  3. Printing problems: "USCIS field officers cannot print naturalization certificates directly through ELIS. ... printed certificates sometimes included incorrect names or lacked mandatory data such as photos or country of origin, rendering them invalid."
  4. Lack of contingency planning for sustained processing: "USCIS field officers are unable to obtain electronic copies of applicant files and supporting evidence during frequent ELIS or network outages." If they lack the files because of system outages, one wonders exactly how they could possibly make qualitative, or even remotely appropriate, decisions in granting the most precious immigration benefit, citizenship.

Astoundingly, despite all of these problems, OIG auditors discovered that the soon-to-be departed agency leaders at USCIS decided to reinstitute use of ELIS, which was discontinued last August after the first audit uncovered so many difficulties, and notwithstanding the problems with naturalization processing outlined immediately above.

This is why the report is labeled a "management alert" that recommends that "USCIS halt plans to revert to using the Electronic Immigration System (ELIS) to process immigrant naturalization applications until it successfully addresses identified system deficiencies."

Let us hope that someone, anyone, at the agency — which has proven itself so astoundingly and repeatedly tone-deaf to public safety and homeland security issues in the past — is paying attention.