FBI name checks blamed for immigration benefits delays

The ombudsman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, in a report released last week, cited the untimely completion of FBI name checks as a primary cause of delays in granting immigration benefits to applicants.

"FBI name checks, one of the security screening tools used by USCIS, continue to significantly delay adjudication of immigration benefits for many customers, hinder backlog reduction efforts and may not achieve their intended national security objectives," USCIS ombudsman Prakash Khatri said in his annual report, presented to the House and Senate Judiciary committees on June 11.

According to the report, 64 percent of the 329,160 FBI name check cases pending from USCIS have been waiting more than 90 days, and 32 percent are more than one year old. There are more than 31,000 cases that have been pending longer than 33 months.

In his report, Khatri said the name check delays are caused by the fact that some require manual review by the FBI and the agency does not have the resources to complete these reviews quickly.

In an e-mail to Government Executive, FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said the National Name Check Program is doing a number of things to improve the process, including scanning documents to build an electronic records system and testing textual analysis software to reduce the need for manual review.

The FBI also is working to develop a Central Records Complex to house paperwork and files.

"Currently, paper files [and] information must be retrieved from over 265 locations throughout the FBI," Bresson said. "The CRC will expedite access to information contained in billions of documents that are currently manually accessed in locations around the U.S. and world."

To decrease the FBI workload, Khatri recommended that USCIS adopt a risk-based approach to name checks, allowing the FBI to focus its limited resources on applicants posing the greatest threat. Currently, all immigration and naturalization applicants go through the name-check process.

"Name checks do not differentiate whether the individual has been in the United States for many years or a few days, is from and/or has traveled frequently to a country designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, or is a member of the U.S. military," Khatri said in his report.

He said in an interview that while the safety of U.S. citizens is the primary concern of the Homeland Security Department, of which USCIS is a part, it is crucial to use a risk management model to ensure that resources are allocated logically.

"That has to be used as the filtration system to really look at any of our protective measures," Khatri said. "There are times when protection can come at such a cost that it's just not worth spending that much money in that area, that it's better to spend it where we can have more effect."

The process of applying for immigrant benefits includes a number of other background checks, and Khatri's report questioned whether the FBI name checks are useful in their current form, especially given the delay they cause.

He said he agrees with USCIS case workers and field office supervisors that "the FBI name check process has limited value to public safety or national security, especially because in almost every case the applicant is in the United States during the name check process, living or working without restriction."

This is the fourth annual report from the ombudsman, whose position was established under the 2002 Homeland Security Act. The act requires the ombudsman to submit annual reports to Congress identifying serious and pervasive problems within USCIS and making recommendations to fix them. The agency is obligated to respond formally to the annual report within three months.

While Khatri says he received last year's response more than eight months late, USCIS acknowledged receipt of the report and an agency spokesperson said officials are in the process of reviewing the recommendations.

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