Watchdog: Automation Flaws Granted Hundreds of People Citizenship Without Background Checks

An unidentified U.S. citizen waves her flag to waiting family members after taking the citizenship oath during naturalization ceremonies at a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) ceremony in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.

An unidentified U.S. citizen waves her flag to waiting family members after taking the citizenship oath during naturalization ceremonies at a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) ceremony in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. Damian Dovarganes/AP

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The Electronic Immigration System, used to process naturalization documents, has major issues.

About 200 people were erroneously granted citizenship without proper background checks due to a flawed federal effort to automate the application process for citizenship and naturalization.

The Homeland Security Department’s Inspector General’s Office found this and other major flaws in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s online “Application for Naturalization” process, which churns through about 84,000 applications each month.

The automated Application for Naturalization has “not been successful,” the OIG concluded—instead of reducing processing time, it has more than doubled it, the report said. While DHS later addressed the error in vetting and ensured citizenship approvals were appropriate in each of the 200 cases, the system’s lags led to the cancellation of interviews and ceremonies for at least 10,000 naturalization applicants and the backlog grew by more than 60 percent. 

USCIS’ Electronic Immigration System is supposed to handle background security checks, store documents, print certificates and record the status of naturalization ceremonies.Yet it's not clear whether USCIS’s efforts will actually address these issues, according to the report. 

In addition to dealing with frequent outages—USCIS also didn’t have contingency plans for what to do during those outages—personnel weren’t fully trained on how to use the automated system, the report concluded. 

Those issues can all be attributed to “poor program management practices, which have continued since prior ELIS releases,” according to the OIG. USCIS has failed to address previous recommendations that it “improve user support, stakeholder engagement, performance measurement, and testing to ensure ELIS met user needs and improved operations.”

The OIG made five recommendations, including that USCIS figure out its training needs and conduct a risk-based analysis of the system. USCIS concurred with all of them.