How US green cards ended up being sent to the wrong people

A system implemented by US Customs and Immigration Services in 2012 failed on several levels, a report has concluded.

Scott J. Applewhite/AP/File
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., speaks with a reporter following a closed-door GOP caucus meeting at the Republican National Headquarters on Capitol Hill in Washington. Invoking the Paris terror attacks, House lawmakers pushed toward a vote last December on legislation tightening controls on travel to the U.S. and requiring visas for anyone who's been in Iraq or Syria in the previous five years.

Immigration officials are under fire, following a report indicating that several green cards were sent to the wrong people.

A new report by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) revealed that the number of visas going to the wrong addresses has increased since US Customs and Immigration Services (CIS) installed its Electronic Immigration System (ELIS) in 2012.

“We undertook this audit to answer a relatively simple question: after 11 years and considerable expense, what has been the outcome – right now – of USCIS’ efforts to automate benefits processing?” writes John Roth, DHS Inspector General, in the report. “The answer, unfortunately, is ... little progress had been made.”

The shift to the electronic system was a safeguard, intended to prevent any illegal persons from acquiring immigration benefits, but it may have increased the security risk, Mr. Roth said.

The main problem leading to errors, the report found, is that the system limits employees from making changes – which means that if a green card applicant requests changes to his or her address, employees won’t be able to update the changes. Additionally, the system often failed to display correct information, and frequently eliminated relevant information, including apartment numbers.

“With ISIS and other terrorist groups active around the world and committed to attacks on our country, our national security depends on our systems for screening visa and immigration applications working effectively,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R) of Wisconsin, Homeland Security Committee Chairman, in a statement.

Visa programs have come under intense scrutiny following the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks. Several officials questioned the visa program following reports that Tashfeen Malik – the Pakistani woman who killed 14 people alongside her husband, Syek Farook, in San Bernadino in December 2015 – came to the US on a K-1 fiancé(e) visa, which she obtained without proof that she had met him in person, Reuters reported.

In February, the DHS began implementing changes to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), in response to the Paris attacks and the subsequent investigation that revealed that most of the attackers were from European countries.

Previously, the program allowed citizens tourists from 38 countries – mostly from Europe – into the US without obtaining a visa, to stay for 90 days or less. The tourists needed to submit only background checks to the DHS, but didn’t need to visit the US consulate to obtain visas, The Associated Press reported.

About 20 million visitors come to the United States each year for business or tourism under the program, according to the AP. Citizens from the 38 countries would still be able to travel into the US without visas – except those who have previously visited Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.

CIS director León Rodríguez was very critical of the DHS findings.

The report “does not fully recognize the extent of USCIS’ efforts to implement new technology and the extraordinary impact that these changes have had on the effectiveness of the system,” and the findings don’t “reflect the drastically improved approaches put into place as we rebuilt our Electronic Immigration System,” he said, according to The Washington Post.

To which Roth responded with a letter criticizing Mr. Rodríguez's response.

“I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to express my disappointment at the tone and substance of your office’s response to the audit report, as well as audit staff’s efforts throughout this project,” Roth wrote, according to The Daily Caller. The USCIS has “continually minimized the shortcomings of the program and resisted independent oversight.”

The system was supposed to cost $536 million. But that figure has now increased to $3.1 billion.

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