Author: Eleanor Pelta on 01/09/2012
Over the past few days the lyrics of an old classic song by Buffalo Springfield have been running through my head: “There’s something happening here, What it is ain’t exactly clear . . .” The reason I can’t seem to shake this tune loose has to do with a series of articles published last week in The Daily, an e-newsletter, claiming that USCIS adjudicators are approving immigration benefit petitions under undue pressure from “higher ups” at USCIS headquarters, thereby compromising national security. The articles were based upon an unreleased report by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General. The report was released today, and, to say the least, has me, and many of my colleagues in the immigration bar, scratching our heads over how there could be such an enormous gulf between the assertions in the report and what is actually happening to our clients—both employers and families—who are filing petitions for immigration benefits with USCIS district offices and service centers.
The DHS OIG report discusses four aspects of USCIS decision-making. They are: (1) the ability of USCIS immigration services officers (“ISO’s”) to detect fraud and refer cases for further evaluation for possible fraud; (2) the slow implementation of a new ISO performance metric which would prioritize quality of decision making as well as national security and fraud detection; (3) inappropriate influence of USCIS headquarters employees and outside parties on USCIS decision making, and; (4) the standard of proof in adjudicating petitions.
This commentary is not intended to be a full-blown analysis of the report, but there are several noteworthy aspects. First, the report states twice—once at the very beginning and once at the conclusion—that the OIG undertook the review and issued the report at the express request of Senator Grassley. Interestingly, the report cites no other basis at all for the initiation of this particular review of USCIS decision-making. It does not appear that any other member of Congress joined Senator Grassley in his call for this study, and the report cites no particular groundswell of concern over our national security or infiltration of the U.S. by perpetrators of fraud that would impel an investigation. In fact, quite the opposite: the report states that “[g]eneral employee concerns about the impact of production pressure on the quality of an ISO’s decisions do not mean that systemic problems compromise the ability of USCIS to detect fraud and security threats . . .” and that even employees who criticized USCIS management “expressed confidence that USCIS would never compromise national security in a given case.”
Equally remarkable is the small amount of actual data upon which the report’s conclusions—some of them quite inflammatory—rest. The report acknowledges that 18,000 USCIS employees and contractors process applications for benefits at four service centers, 26 district offices and 81 field offices. But the report is by and large based upon responses from interviews with 147 managers and staff as well as 256 responses to an online survey. Assuming that those who were interviewed were different individuals than those who completed the online survey, that is a total of 403 employees out of an 18,000 person workforce, or about 2 percent. Of that two percent, 63 individuals expressed a concern about pressure to approve cases. That is fewer than 25% of the individuals who responded to the online survey, and .03% of the total population of individuals who process applications for benefits for USCIS. I’m not a statistics expert, of course, but to my untrained eye this just doesn’t seem to be a valid sample size from which one could draw any useful conclusions whatsoever. To paraphrase something my mother might say, “From this you can make a report?”
As for the assertions and conclusions themselves, they appear to run the gamut from the common-sensical – such as the recommendation that ISO’s need more training in fraud detection (we didn’t need a report to tell us that many adjudicators cannot tell the difference between a small business and a fraudulent one) to risible (such as the statement that the AAO – which is currently taking an average of 22-23 months to review an H-1B or L denial — is a truly viable appellate body. Haven’t they ever heard the saying “Justice delayed is justice denied?”)
The OIG report’s focus on fraud is extremely troubling, given the fact that the introductory comments essentially admit that the evidence considered in the report does not support a finding of a systemic problem with fraud, and in the context of statistics from the Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) Directorate—numbers which are conspicuously absent from the OIG report. In FY2010, for example, out of over 15,083 cases reviewed by Center Fraud Detection Offices at CSC and VSC pursuant to the H-1B site visit program, only 197 (1%) were referred to FDNS IO’s as fraud/lead cases. So where is the factual basis for the obsession with finding fraud?
Equally troubling is the report’s discussion about the new fraud-driven performance metrics being implemented by USCIS, which, according to the OIG, are being developed too slowly. The report states that in FY2011, 50% of an ISO’s overall performance rating was based on fraud detection and national security identification and the other 50% of the rating is based on quality and accuracy. While the OIG report desires that this performance system be implemented more quickly, I have very serious concerns about a performance rating system that seems to incentivize adjudicators for finding fraud. Moreover, how does this system reward adjudicators for applying immigration law and regulations appropriately, and ensuring that their adjudications implement the original purposes of the various benefit categories—from uniting families to bringing foreign expertise to the U.S.? How does the system incentivize adjudicators to correct errors and take responsibility for their actions and decisions?
Moving from the troubling to the outright ludicrous, the OIG report suggests that ISO’s approve too many cases, issue too few Requests for Evidence, and succumb to pressure from USCIS headquarters and outside groups — including AILA, according to one survey respondent. But again — the report bases these conclusions on anecdotes and commentary that have no statistical value, and the experiences of AILA members simply do not bear out this assertion. Quite the opposite is true.
In the family context, members report that marriage-based petitioners are often treated like common criminals and separated in a perverse edition of The Newlywed Game, where forgetting what color the spouse’s toothbrush is or how many slices of bread the toaster takes can have disastrous consequences for an American family. Talk to any attorney who has filed an extension of a new office L petition recently and you will likely hear about a massive, multi-page “in-terrorem” RFE asking for documents that are either irrelevant or have already been submitted, or a denial that is costing jobs—particularly from a Service Center located in a state that cannot afford to shutter a business or add more U.S. workers to the rolls of the unemployed. Where is the discussion about the impact of erroneous decisions on families or the U.S. economy?
Let’s face it. It is far more accurate to call this “The Grassley Report” than it is to call it the OIG Report. No one else asked for this report, and the conclusions are clearly colored by Grassley’s well-known jaundiced view of the immigration system, and his unsupported fear that fraud lurks around the corner of every petition. That the report is an elaborate set up to engineer Congressional hearings is nowhere more evident than in the Report’s final conclusion calling for Congress to change the evidentiary standard of review from “preponderance of the evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence.” The sad truth is that in reality, many adjudicators are already applying this standard de facto. Grassley would like to see the law changed to support what many adjudicators are already doing, rather than requiring the adjudicators to follow the law as it stands now. And this from a Senator who thinks there is a lack of integrity in USCIS decision-making.
The Daily, in its series that preceded the release of the report, seized upon what it considered to be the “sexiest” parts – claims of internal pressure to approve cases and allegations of wrongful interference in one particular case by the former USCIS Chief Counsel — and punctuated its articles with provocative visuals such as the series of “Approved” stamps on a swath of Nonimmigrant Visa Applications (adjudicated by the Department of State, actually, not USCIS, but who cares about that minor detail.) The Daily is part of the Murdoch publishing empire, and frankly, I did not expect or require them to produce an even-handed analysis. I think, however, that we all have the right to expect a much higher level of public responsibility from the DHS Office of Inspector General.