A breakdown in the US Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program (SAVE) that’s supposed to be updated to determine the accuracy of information used to validate a person’s immigration status when that person has been ordered deported, has resulted in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) not knowing whether more than 800,000 individuals ordered deported have been removed or are still residing in the United States. And some who were ordered deported, a recent audit determined, remained in the US and are convicted felons or were employed in sensitive jobs, like airport workers.
That’s the finding of a DHS Inspector General’s (IG) audit on the SAVE program issued earlier this monthby Assistant Inspector General for Information Technology Audit, Frank Deffer.
Disturbingly, the IG’s audit found that “Benefits for which individuals were verified ranged from airport badges and Transportation Worker Identification Cards [TWIC], which provide individuals with access to secure areas," and "driver’s licenses and education assistance.”
Furthermore, “Some individuals included in [the IG’s] sample had committed felonies ranging from citizenship fraud to aggravated assault.”
The IG’s random statistical sample of nearly 177,000 SAVE inquiries resulted in “a projected error rate of 12 percent," the audit report stated. "That is, we are 95 percent confident that one out of eight deportable aliens whom SAVE confirmed as having valid immigration status between October 1, 2008, and April 1, 2012, was actually out of status,” the audit disclosed.
DHS is supposed to maintain an up-to-date list of deportable aliens so that other government agencies are able to ascertain their status and know that they should be denied benefits — or employment in sensitive jobs.
In the DHS IG’s audit report, Improvements Needed for SAVE To Accurately Determine Immigration Status of Individuals Ordered Deported, the IG said “We audited the USCIS Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program to determine the accuracy of information used to validate an applicant’s immigration status when the applicant had been ordered deported … to assess whether the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program uses accurate and up-to-date information to validate immigration status of deportable, removable and excludable individuals, and (2) if Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements is not using accurate information, to determine the rate of error with respect to verification of these individuals’ status.”
The SAVE “program provided information that was sometimes outdated and erroneous about an individual’s immigration status to benefit-granting agencies,” the IG’s audit found, adding, “This occurred because status codes in the Central Index System were generally not updated when the Immigration Court issued a decision to remove, deport or exclude an individual from the United States. Instead, the codes were updated when the individual physically left the United States, which can take years.”
The IG’s audit stated “This problem could potentially affect the more than 800,000 individuals who have been ordered deported, removed and excluded but who are still in the United States. Although the SAVE response in and of itself did not automatically result in approval of financial or other benefits by federal, state and local agencies, an erroneous response could result in agencies granting benefits to unentitled individuals.”
A random statistical sample test of individuals who had been ordered deported but still remained in the United States identified a 12 percent error rate in immigration status verification,” DHS’ IG determined.
“In other words,” the audit report said, “these individuals had no status, but were erroneously identified as having lawful immigration status. The remaining 88 percent passed our tests because the individuals had lawful immigration status at the time of status verification. This includes situations where the individual (1) was ordered deported after the verification or (2) obtained permanent or temporary status after being ordered deported but before the status verification.”
While DHS’s IG audit report stated that “The ultimate decision to provide or deny benefits [or jobs] rests with the federal, state and local agencies that submitted the verification inquiry … by erroneously verifying that a deportable individual has status to receive benefits, SAVE may have enabled the inquiring agency to grant financial and other benefits (e.g., access to secure areas, education grants and housing assistance) to people who are no longer eligible to receive those benefits.”
According to USCIS, generally, individuals who are ordered deported or removed lose their lawful immigration status and any benefits they may have been eligible to otherwise receive.
The IG’s audit explained that “Lawful permanent residents can lose status if they are convicted of a felony such as drug trafficking, aggravated assault, burglary, robbery or fraud; or if they spend too much time outside the United States and thus fail to meet residency requirements. Individuals with temporary status can lose status if they commit a crime or overstay their authorized period of stay.”
Without specific authorization to remain in the United States either temporarily or permanently, the IG said “a deportable individual is out of status and is not entitled to many government benefits.”
“However,” the IG audit said, “USCIS Verification Division and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials told us that the Class of Admission code is generally not updated when an individual is ordered deported. USCIS officials explained that these individuals have the right to appeal or apply for relief, such as temporary protected status if they are afraid to return home. Consequently, it is not until the individual departs from the United States that the Central Index System admission code is updated via an electronic interface with data maintained by ICE.”
“As it can take years for an administratively final order of removal to result in an actual departure, the admission code can be out of date for a number of years,” the IG’s audit found.
Continuing, the IG stated that “According to Verification Division officials, the accuracy of SAVE’s response depends on the type of information that it can access in the source systems. SAVE data for the period under audit showed that 77 percent of all initial electronic verifications most likely relied on the admission code in Central Index System for verification.”
“As a result,” the audit report pointed out, “erroneous admission codes resulted in erroneous status verification. Although a SAVE status verifier can determine when a person has a final deportation order by accessing the EOIR and ICE systems, status inquiries get to the SAVE verifier only when manual intervention is necessary. If the admission code appears to be valid at initial verification, the case rarely gets to the status verifier for additional verification.”
Consequently, the IG “identified examples of individuals who had administratively final orders of removal but whose status was verified by SAVE.” And “In all cases, the SAVE responses were erroneous because the Class of Admission codes were not updated in the source systems. These individuals did not have relief from deportation or permanent or temporary status at the time SAVE verified their status.”
The IG’s audit found one individual who’d been a lawful permanent resident since 1989 who was ordered deported in September 2000 after convictions of multiple crimes, including illegal entry, assault, driving while intoxicated and carrying a concealed weapon, applied for a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) TWIC ID in 2009, and that SAVE “erroneously confirmed the individual’s immigration status.”
“Although TSA has other tools in place to identify criminal convictions and therefore does not rely exclusively on SAVE when vetting individuals for TWIC, an accurate SAVE result can improve TSA’s vetting process,” the IG’s report said. ICE removed this individual in May 2012.
Another lawful permanent resident since 1964 was ordered deported in May 1996 following conviction ofaggravated felonies for drugs and weapon possession, but in March 2010, SAVE verified the individual’s immigration status for a driver’s license or state identification card. In November 2010, TSA queried SAVE while vetting crewmembers (a process whereby TSA assesses security threats to aviation related to crewmembers on flights to, from and over the United States), and “in both instances, SAVE responded erroneously that the individual was a lawful permanent resident.”
The DHS Inspector General made four recommendations to the USCIS Deputy Director Lori Scialabba to improve the accuracy of the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program.
Scialabba was appointed deputy director in May 2011. Since 2006, she served as the Associate Director, Refugee, Asylum and International Operations. She also served as Senior Advisor on Iraqi Refugees to former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff from Sept. 2007 to Jan. 2009.
USCIS concurred with all four of the IG’s recommendations. Based on information provided by Scialabba to the draft IG audit report, the DHS IG considered all four recommendations resolved, but not necessarily fully implemented. Scialabba’s office must notify the IG in early Jan. 2013 that the actions recommended by the IG that USCIS agreed to “fully implement” are being carried out, including providing “evidence of completion of agreed-upon corrective actions.”
However, according to the IG’s report, all of the corrective actions identified in the audit that USCIS agreed to implement may not be completed until later in 2013.
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