Homeland Security officials have “limited capabilities” to detect fraudulent asylum applications, the government’s chief watchdog said in a devastating report released Wednesday that could deal a major blow to President Obama’s approach to illegal immigration across the southwestern border.
Republicans have accused the administration of “rubberstamping” asylum applications of illegal immigrants who make a claim after getting caught at the border, and they said the new report by the Government Accountability Office shows just how easy it is to game the system.
The GAO said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Executive Office of Immigration Review don’t even have a sense for how big the risks of fraud are in the asylum programs they oversee, and officers are often forced to make decisions on whether to admit someone based purely on their own testimony.
Even when asylum officers do try to do follow-up investigations by asking for verification from overseas, those requests are ignored or delayed, and the officers here are pressed to make decisions quickly and without getting all the information they feel they need.
The agencies have also been overwhelmed by demand as would-be immigrants, and their lawyers have concluded the asylum process is a shortcut to gaining a foothold in the U.S.
Asylum claims jumped from about 47,000 in 2010 to more than 108,000 in 2014 as illegal immigrants from Central America, who have surged the border in recent years, discovered the asylum process.
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GAO investigators found problems at nearly every step of the way: USCIS officers aren’t properly trained to spot fraud; the agency’s fraud-detection unit doesn’t pre-screen applications to weed out potentially bogus ones beforehand; and neither USCIS, which is part of Homeland Security, nor EOIR, which is part of the Justice Department, have a sense for how big a risk fraud is anyway.
More troubling still, the government rarely prosecutes those who commit fraud, so there’s little downside to making an attempt, other than risking being sent back home.
“Both DHS and DOJ have established dedicated antifraud entities — an important leading practice for managing fraud risks — but these agencies have limited capability to detect and prevent asylum fraud and both agencies’ efforts to date have focused on case-by-case fraud detection rather than more strategic, risk-based approaches,” the GAO investigators said in their extensive 101-page report.
Homeland Security officials said they have reshuffled offices, created a working group and instituted required training for fraud officers.
Still, the department’s GAO liaison, Jim H. Crumpacker, agreed with all 10 suggestions for trying to clean up operations, including actually conducting a major fraud risk assessment, collecting data so the department knows how asylum and fraud officers try to combat fraud already, and do better training for those officers.
The GAO report was ordered by Congress as lawmakers became concerned with the growing use of the asylum program.
Would-be immigrants streaming from Central America arriving at the border began to make claims for asylum based on gang violence or domestic violence back home, and immigrant-rights advocates have urged the administration to look favorably on their requests.
But administration critics say the system has spiraled out of control.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said as many as 70 percent of asylum applications show indications of fraud — yet the Obama administration hasn’t taken steps to fix it.
“The effective rubberstamping of asylum applications is one of the root causes of the ongoing border surge and it also carries with it serious national security concerns,” Mr. Goodlatte said. “Terrorism experts agree that the asylum process is a vulnerability that terrorists have and will continue to exploit to gain entry into the United States.”
USCIS spokesman Joe Holstead said the agency has already completed two of the suggested changes to improve its data collection, and expects to finish most of the other recommendations by next fall.
He also reiterated the agency’s training, which he called “comprehensive,” and pointed to new anti-fraud teams he said have been stood up to try to get a handle on the situation.
“Additionally, USCIS’ role in attaining multiple criminal convictions demonstrates the Department’s commitment and investment of significant resources toward detecting and pursuing potential asylum fraud,” he said in a statement.