By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has lost track of 111,000 files in 14 of the agency's busiest district offices and processed as many as 30,000 citizenship applications last year without the necessary files, congressional investigators reported yesterday.
The Government Accountability Office, Congress's audit arm, conducted the review at the request of Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) after U.S. authorities granted citizenship in 2002 to a man without checking his primary file. The file, which was lost, indicated ties to the militant Islamic group Hezbollah.
"It only takes one missing file of somebody with links to a terrorist organization to become an American citizen," said Grassley, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "We can't afford to be handing out citizenship with blinders on."
Collins, head of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, noted that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers entered the U.S. legally, disappearing until the terrorist attacks. She called it "unthinkable" that the U.S. immigration system could still grant citizenship to a potential terrorist "simply because they can't find the person's file."
An agency official said workers probably checked most of the files but failed to make note of it.
The GAO report, dated Oct. 27 and released by the senators yesterday, underscored long-standing problems at the agency, which was created out of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and is expected to bear the brunt of administering new rules if Congress overhauls immigration policy.
The $1.8 billion agency handled 7.5 million applications for immigration benefits in 2005 but relies on paper files. The agency awarded a five-year, $150 million contract in August to begin digitizing 55 million "alien files," or A-files, but for now it still relies on paper files.
The GAO found that the agency's workers failed to record A-file use in processing 30,000 of 715,000 naturalization cases last year, or 4 percent of cases. The GAO also found that as of July 27, Citizenship and Immigration Services' electronic tracking system reported that 111,000 A-files were lost in the 14 offices that manage two-thirds of naturalization cases.
Steven J. Pecinovsky, an agency liaison to the GAO, said workers are not required to note that they have checked A-files but will be in the future. A 2005 internal audit found a much lower incidence of unchecked A-files than the GAO cited -- about 0.5 percent.
The GAO also cited internal audits that found that 21 percent of files were not where they were supposed to be in Immigration Services' San Diego office in 2005 and that 6 percent of files could not be found in the Los Angeles office earlier this year.