Thousands of Immigrant Green Cards Have ‘Gone Missing,’ Watchdog Finds

A Homeland Security agency’s long-troubled program to automate benefits processing has worsened, auditors say.

The agency within the Homeland Security Department that issues noncitizens their long-sought-after “green cards” continues to produce documents with errors while sending others to the wrong recipients, the department’s inspector general found.

In a report released Monday, at a time when immigration issues rank high in the anticipated agenda of the incoming Trump administration, the watchdog’s auditors found that problems with the long-troubled U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services program to automate the processing of green cards and other immigration documents had recently worsened.

“Over the last three years, USCIS produced at least 19,000 cards that included incorrect information or were issued in duplicate,” the IG wrote. About “13,000 cards were printed and issued with incorrect personal information, such as the wrong name or date of birth. Additionally, over 6,200 duplicate cards were sent out to individuals who should have each received only one card.”

In June 2015 alone, more than 5,400 individuals received duplicate cards, “caused by a card production software update that inadvertently generated duplicates for a backlog of cards that were queued up for printing,” the report noted. Additional mistakes included issuing cards with 10-year residence status to more than 2,400 immigrants who’d been approved for only two-year conditional residence status.

The report, an update from a March edition, traces most of the errors to design flaws and functionality problems in the agency’s Electronic Immigration System, the auditors said. “It appears that thousands of Green Cards have simply gone missing. In the wrong hands, Green Cards may enable terrorists, criminals, and undocumented aliens to remain in the United States,” said Inspector General John Roth. “It is vital that USCIS ensure better tools and procedures are in place to mitigate such risks.”

The problems with ELIS are long-standing. In March 2015, Government Executive reported, “Originally slated to cost $536,000 and be completed by 2013, the program designed to improve immigration processing has ballooned to a price tag of $2.6 billion and isn’t expected to be fully operational until 2018 or 2019. The long-delayed website has burned through more than a billion dollars, mainly from refugees, asylum seekers and other foreigners who fund the system through application fees.”

The IG report released Monday noted that “Since ELIS implementation in 2013, the percentage of Green Cards issued in error has steadily increased each year. USCIS efforts to address the errors have been inadequate.”

Among the IG’s seven recommendations are that USCIS correct the software system’s design and functionality problems; ensure development and implementation of a standard process for card recovery efforts; and implement a centralized method to track and document Green Cards that are returned through recovery efforts.

Agency managers agreed with all seven recommendations, stressing that the software improvements are already underway.

In a letter to the IG, CIS Director Leon Rodriguez noted that the errors represent only a small percentage of total Green Card output. Those who received the erroneous cards “are lawful permanent residents and are entitled to a Green Card,” he added, so “it is not precise to indicate that USCIS inappropriately issued Green Cards.”

As for the risk of misuse, he noted that it is in the interest of those who receive cards with errors to return them for corrections under procedures, so the idea they would put their own identity at risk is “questionable.”

The report’s dire conclusions, however, were seconded by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who said in a statement, "This is unacceptable. We cannot let 'free passes' into America fall into the wrong hands and be used by terrorists, criminals, or others to hide amongst us. Whether it's aviation security or the security of our immigration system, the American people are losing faith that DHS is able to do its job. This is yet another wake-up call that it's time for sweeping reform across the department.”