Immigration services bureau loses thousands of records

By Daniel Pulliam

November 29, 2006

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency may have processed as many as 30,000 citizenship applications in 2005 without reviewing critical background files, thousands of which have been lost, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The 30,000 applications that may have been processed without so-called alien files in fiscal 2005 represented about 4 percent of the 715,000 total applications handled that year. The files, known as A-files, contain information such as arrest warrants and the results of immigration proceedings. CIS, a bureau within the Homeland Security Department, is responsible for about 55 million such documents.

GAO also found that, as of July 27, 2006, 14 of CIS' busiest district offices had lost 110,000 A-files. The losses can be attributed to poor training and a lack of emphasis from managers, the report (GAO-07-85) stated.

Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, outgoing chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, outgoing chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, requested the report after CIS' predecessor agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, granted U.S. citizenship to a suspected terrorist without checking his A-file in 2002. The file indicated ties to a terrorist organization and had been lost, according to Grassley's office.

"It only takes one missing file of somebody with links to a terrorist organization to become an American citizen," Grassley said in a statement. "A terrorist can be unsuccessful thousands of times, but we have to be perfect all the time. We can't afford to be handing out citizenship with blinders on."

Homeland security is not the only reason the missing files are of great concern, the senators said. Missing files result in unnecessary delays for thousands of other legitimate immigrants trying to become U.S. citizens, they said.

CIS officials told auditors that case adjudicators are not required to document whether or not they use A-files, meaning that for some of the 30,000 applications cited, the files could in fact have been reviewed. The GAO auditors recommended that in the future, CIS should ask employees to note whether an A-file was used to adjudicate an application. Homeland Security officials agreed with the suggestion.

Department officials also agreed that CIS should work with other agencies using the files - which include the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Customs and Border Protection bureaus -- to determine the extent of compliance with procedures for updating the National File Tracking System, an automated system for locating and transferring A-files. The agency spends about $13 million a year moving A-files around the country.

In August, CIS awarded a 5-year $150 million contract to begin converting paper A-files into electronic files. Earlier, GAO had reported that the bureau's plan to automate the paper-based process suffered from poor planning and risked falling short of expectations.

By Daniel Pulliam

November 29, 2006