GAO: Endemic Fraud in USCIS Violence Against Women Act Petitions that Grant Citizenship

In fiscal year 2018, foreign nationals filed nearly 13,000 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) self-petitions alleging domestic abuse by a U.S. citizen or family member. The VAWA self-petition program is intended to protect foreign nationals who suffer domestic abuse at the hands of a family member who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (LPR). Successful petitioners can obtain work authorization and permanent resident status independent of their abuser.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) review found the number of petitions filed grew by over 70% over the past five fiscal years. However, the number of petitions referred for potential fraud also increased by about 305%.

The number of self-petitions filed has grown by more than 70 percent over the past 5 fiscal years. At the end of fiscal year 2018, USCIS had received 12,801 self-petitions and had over 19,000 self-petitions pending adjudication.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officials, the self-petition program is vulnerable to fraud, such as self-petitioners’ use of false or forged documents. USCIS has adopted some, but not all, of the leading practices in GAO’s Fraud Risk Framework. While USCIS has established a culture and a dedicated entity to manage fraud risks for the program, the review found it has not fully assessed fraud risks and determined a fraud risk profile to document its analysis of the types of fraud risks the program could be vulnerable to.

USCIS has a referral process for suspected fraud in self-petitions, which may result in a referral for criminal investigation. According to agency data, from fiscal year 2014 to March 2019, USCIS created 2,208 fraud referral leads and cases that involved a VAWA self-petition. Total leads and cases increased from 198 in fiscal year 2014 to 801 in fiscal year 2019 as of March 2019, an increase of about 305 percent.

GAO recommends that USCIS should plan and conduct regular fraud risk assessments of the self-petition program to determine a fraud risk profile, as provided in GAO’s Fraud Risk Framework. The watchdog also calls for an antifraud strategy with specific control activities, and data analytics capabilities to prevent and detect fraud.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concurred and stated that the USCIS plans to capture data digitally for self-petitions filed on the basis of domestic abuse, and discuss any patterns observed with stakeholders in order to develop a fraud risk profile. Further, DHS stated USCIS will use the results of data analytics to conduct and update regular fraud risk assessments.

USCIS also plans to create an antifraud strategy and apply data analytics capabilities, driven by the results of the self-petition fraud risk assessments, to develop analytic tools that verify information provided by self-petitioners and identify indicators of potential fraud. USCIS will use the results of data analytics to inform antifraud training and will distribute the results to USCIS senior leadership when warranted.

Read the full report at GAO

The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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