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Immigration and Naturalization Service's Premium Processing Program

Report No. 03-14
February 2003
Office of the Inspector General


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The Office of the Inspector General, Audit Division, has completed an audit of the Immigration and Naturalization Serviceís (INS) Premium Processing program.† The Premium Processing program was established in June 2001 to allow for the payment of a service fee for expedited processing of certain employment-based applications.† The INS guarantees processing of premium petitions within 15 calendar days for the basic application fee ($130) and an additional service fee of $1,000.† According to the regulation that established the Premium Processing program and INSís internal budget documents, the INS will use Premium Processing revenue to hire additional adjudicators, contact representatives, and support personnel to provide service to all its customers and to improve the infrastructure so as to reduce backlogs for all types of petitions and applications.† Currently, only the Form I-129, Petition for Non-Immigrant Worker, is eligible for the Premium Processing program.

The audit focused on determining if:† (1) the INS was achieving the program goals for the expedited processing of employment-based petitions and applications; (2) the processing times for similar routine petitions and applications changed significantly after the implementation of the Premium Processing program; and (3) the implementation of the mandated Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS) check procedures impacted the Premium Processing service.1

Our audit examined the Premium Processing program for the period from June 2001 through October 2002.† We reviewed Premium Processing activities at the INS Headquarters in Washington D.C., and at the INSís four service centers:† St. Albans, Vermont; Dallas, Texas; Laguna Niguel, California; and Lincoln, Nebraska.

I. Summary of Audit Findings

Although we found that the INS is essentially meeting its 15-day processing requirement for premium petitions, we identified the following deficiencies in the Premium Processing program:

  • The Premium Processing program has adversely affected the time required to adjudicate routine applications and petitions.† Consequently, more applicants are paying the $1,000 Premium Processing fee to assure adjudication within 15 calendar days.† The mandate to adjudicate premium applications within 15 days has contributed in part to the increased backlog of routine petitions at the service centers.† The backlog has steadily increased since the second quarter of fiscal year (FY) 2002, reaching 3.2 million in September 2002.† Thus, a program whose purpose was ultimately to reduce or eliminate adjudications backlogs may be having the unintended consequence of increasing at least some of those backlogs.
  • The INS service centers failed to institute IBIS checks in a timely manner.† The INS had mandated IBIS checks on all petitions on January 28, 2002, but, due to a breakdown in communications between INS Headquarters and the field, the service centers did not institute IBIS checks for all petitions until March 2002.† As a result, 11,830 Premium Processing petitions were adjudicated without IBIS checks between January 28, 2002, and March 18, 2002.† In the absence of IBIS checks, the INS cannot be certain that applications from high-risk individuals were not approved.
  • Program analysis of Premium Processing has been weak.† The INS maintains statistical databases to track all types of adjudications, staff, and supervisory hours, but Premium Processing is not separately identified in these databases or others used for supporting budget requests, position allocations, and general analysis.† Consequently, the INS lacks reliable data about the Premium Processing workload and the resources it requires.
  • To date, the INS has not conducted a formal analysis of the Premium Processing service fee or the unit processing cost.† Premium Processing generated revenue of more than $115 million in FY 2002.† Yet, without program analyses, the INS cannot determine whether staff and resources are appropriately allocated to the service centers for adjudication of Premium Processing applications.

II.† Background

Premium Processing applications are adjudicated in the INS service centers located in St. Albans, Vermont (VSC); Dallas, Texas (TSC); Laguna Niguel, California (CSC); and Lincoln, Nebraska (NSC).† Currently, only the Form I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker, is available for the premium service.† However, the program is expected to expand in 2003 to include the Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker.† To date, the program has generated over $136 million in revenue as shown in the table below.

PREMIUM PROCESSING REVENUE BY SERVICE CENTER
(IN THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS)

  VSC TSC CSC NSC All Centers
FY 2001 $7,366 $4,986 $5,266 $3,764 $21,382

FY 2002

40,765 29,946 25,475 18,848 115,034
Program Total $48,131 $34,932 $30,741 $22,612 $136,416

Source:† INS Information Services Division

An additional $100 million in annual revenue is expected once the Form I-140 is eligible for Premium Processing.

III.† Implementation of IBIS Checks

IBIS was established in 1989 to provide a shared multi-agency database of lookout information to improve border enforcement and facilitate inspection of individuals applying for admission to the United States at ports of entry and pre-inspection facilities.† Twenty-seven agencies contribute data to IBIS, including the INS, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Customs Service, and the United States Departments of State and Agriculture.

The data entered into IBIS by the participating agencies include lookouts, wants, warrants, arrests, and convictions.† IBIS contains lookouts for suspected or known terrorists and information on individuals who may pose a threat to national security.

Installation of IBIS hardware and software in the service centers was completed in August 2001, but the INS did not mandate IBIS checks until November 15, 2001.† On that date the INS required IBIS checks for four categories of applications.2† The mandate was expanded on January 28, 2002, to include all INS petitions and applications.† However, as discussed in Finding I of this report, the service centers did not institute IBIS checks on all petitions until March 18, 2002, due to a lapse in communication between INS Headquarters and the field.† INS officials informed us that the service centers were unaware of the January mandate until being verbally informed of it in March 2002.

We determined that between January 28, 2002, and March 18, 2002, the INS service centers adjudicated 387,596 petitions, including 11,830 Premium Processing petitions, without performing IBIS checks.† It is unknown how many of the 387,596 beneficiaries of those petitions may have posed a threat to national security.

IV.† Management Oversight

The Premium Processing program has had inadequate oversight from management at both the national and service center levels.† For example, workload data on Premium Processing have not been incorporated into the INSís work measurement systems.† INS officials maintain that because Premium Processing is intended to be a temporary program that will phase itself out as backlogs diminish, it is unnecessary to include it in general statistical and program analyses.† We disagree.† With over $136 million in receipts to date, Premium Processing is clearly in need of active managerial scrutiny.

Because Premium Processing is exceeding initial revenue projections of $80 million per year, we consider a unit cost analysis important for determining whether staff and resources have been adequately allocated to the service centers.† Similarly, a fee analysis should be conducted to examine the appropriateness of the $1,000 premium.†

V.† Conclusion and Recommendations

Although the immediate goal of Premium Processing is to expedite premium petitions, the long-term objective is to reduce or eliminate backlogs in the INSís total adjudications workload.† In our judgment, the INS must bring about greater efficiency in both the Premium Processing and the general adjudications programs to reach this objective.† Accordingly, the INS must develop adequate information about the resources that Premium Processing requires.

In this report we make five recommendations of actions the INS can take to improve oversight of the Premium Processing program and ensure that individuals whose petitions have been approved do not fall within the five high-risk categories established by the INS.3 In brief, we recommend that the INS:

  • Strengthen internal communications to assure that service centers and district offices are aware of policy and/or procedural changes that will affect the adjudication of applications and petitions before those changes are implemented.
  • Ensure that an appropriate portion of Premium Processing revenues is used to reduce the INSís adjudications backlog.
  • Employ the INSís nationwide work measurement system to collect management information about the Premium Processing program.
  • Conduct a formal study to determine the unit costs for processing premium cases and to assign adequate staff and other resources to meet the needs of the program.
  • Conduct a formal analysis of the $1,000 premium to ensure that revenues are allocated as required by law.

Our audit objectives, scope, and methodology appear in Appendix I.† The details of our work are contained in the Findings and Recommendations section of this report.4


Footnotes

  1. IBIS is a shared multi-agency database of lookout information on individuals.
  2. The four applications included the: Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or to Adjust Status; Form I-90, Application to Replace Permanent Residence Card; Form I-821, Application for Temporary Protected Status; and Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization.
  3. The five high-risk categories are suspected terrorist, potential threat to national security, active want or warrant, aggravated felon, or prior deportation.
  4. As part of our audit process, we asked INS headquarters to furnish us with a signed management representation letter containing assurances that our staff were provided with all necessary documents and that no irregularities exist that we were not informed about. As of the date of issuance of this report, the INS has declined to sign the letter. Therefore, our findings are qualified to the extent that we may not have been provided with all relevant information by INS management.