DHS Watchdog Says Stalled Immigration System May Be Security Risk

The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general says a failure to sufficiently modernize the nation's system for processing immigration applications may be a security risk and may have resulted in Green Cards and other documents being sent to the wrong people.

In a report being released today, Inspector General John Roth says one of the goals of moving the application process online to the Electronic Immigration System -- or ELIS -- was to ensure potential terrorists or others seeking to do the U.S. harm couldn’t receive immigration or citizenship benefits.

But “numerous” documents have been printed with incorrect names or mailed to the wrong addresses, including previous addresses, and this “has created potential security concerns about documents that cannot be accounted for or that may have fallen into the wrong hands,” according to Roth.

In all, potentially hundreds of Green Cards have been sent to incorrect addresses, and “unauthorized individuals ... might sell or use them fraudulently for profit,” Roth warns.

The online system, operated by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, is the product of efforts initiated in 2005, and it was designed to allow users to apply online for citizenship, asylum and other immigration benefits and services. Historically, USCIS has employed a vast, paper-based system to process such applications.

“We undertook this audit to answer a relatively simple question: after 11 years and considerable expense, what has been the outcome – right now – of USCIS’ efforts to automate benefits processing?” Roth writes in the report. “The answer, unfortunately, is ... little progress had been made.”

In particular, Roth notes that -- despite years of development -- customers can file applications online for only two of about 90 types of immigration benefits and services. Those two services –- electronically paying a processing fee for an immigrant visa packet, and applying to replace a permanent resident card -– account for less than 10 percent of the agency’s entire workload, according to Roth’s report.

The director of USCIS, Leon Rodriguez, disputed Roth's assessment, saying in a letter to Roth that some of the inspector general’s key findings “[do] not appropriately recognize the full extent of USCIS efforts to implement new technology” and achieve the agency’s goals.

Rodriguez also seemed to question whether “national security was impacted based on address changes by applicants.”

He said Roth’s report “does not take into account” that USCIS is currently implementing an “identity verification process” to allow address changes in ELIS, and that other safeguards are in place while that process is being implemented.

In addition, Rodriguez said the report “lacks much needed context” and ignores “substantial changes” made by USCIS in 2012 to improve ELIS, including changes to the system’s design and strategy.

But Roth shot back, saying in a subsequent letter his investigators are disappointed and “perplexed” by how USCIS has responded to his office’s review of the “deeply troubled program.” Roth noted in his report that USCIS is working to address certain underlying issues.

Ahead of a related hearing later today, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, however, called Roth’s findings “concerning.”

“With ISIS and other terrorist groups active around the world and committed to attacks on our country, our national security depends on our systems for screening visa and immigration applications working effectively,” Johnson said in a statement.