|Return to the USDOJ/OIG Home Page|
Immigration and Naturalization Service's Premium Processing Program
Report No. 03-14
Office of the Inspector General
On August 21, 2001, INS Headquarters directed the district offices to conduct IBIS checks on four application types.15 On November 15, 2001, the INS expanded the mandate to include the same four applications processed in the service centers. Then, on January 28, 2002, IBIS checks were mandated for all applications and petitions, including Form I-129 petitions. However, the service centers did not implement IBIS checks for all applications until March 18, 2002. According to a senior INS official, "Although the 1/28/02 amendment to the Adjudicators' Field Manual provides the direction for full implementation, we were not aware nor were the Service Centers aware that this amendment had been put in place. During the time between January 2002 and the March 14, 2002, the Centers were given verbal direction to begin adding additional forms and to begin the preparation of their operations for full IBIS check implementation" (See Appendix V for a timeline of the IBIS policy changes).16
At the service centers, the applicant names were to be checked against the IBIS database on a batch basis for derogatory, lookout, criminal investigative, criminal history, and national security or intelligence interest information.
The consequences of the delay in implementing IBIS checks on all applications and petitions are unknown but potentially serious. We determined that the INS processed 387,596 total applications (including 11,830 premium processing applications) without IBIS checks in the period between January 28, 2002 and March 18, 2002.
Prior to 2001 the INS had no standardized procedures for conducting background checks on petitioners and beneficiaries. The use of IBIS was not required until that year even though IBIS has existed since 1989. Instead, the INS relied on other resources, such as its own Service Lookout Book, FBI fingerprint checks, and selective verification of applications with the Department of State to check the background of beneficiaries; however, no data are available to document the extent to which the INS made use of these resources. In addition, the Center Adjudications Officers had access on a need-to-know basis to the Non-Immigrant Information System (NIIS), and the service center's Enforcement Operations Division could conduct NCIC checks on petitioners or beneficiaries. However, the use of NIIS and NCIC was not uniform among the service centers.
Beginning in 1999, two INS service centers (VSC and TSC), experimented with IBIS software on a limited basis to determine if this system could be incorporated into the INS adjudication process. In August 2001 the INS completed installation of IBIS hardware and software at all the service centers. The plan was to phase in IBIS gradually, applying the checks to selected petitions over several months.
According to the current INS's Standard Operations Procedure Manual for the Interagency Border Inspection System (November 21, 2002), each service center must conduct IBIS checks on all petitions within 15 days of receipt. Checks are conducted in daily batches17 that include all petitions and applications received, transferred in, reopened, or that have had a data change. The IBIS check requirement mandates that checks be conducted for all petitioners, applicants, beneficiaries, and any derivatives (for example, businesses and attorneys) that will receive an immediate benefit from submitted applications and petitions. Premium petitions are not checked separately; rather they are generally included in the daily batches.
The IBIS check is valid for only 35 days. During our fieldwork, INS officials stated that the initial IBIS batch checks might not capture all new receipts, potentially missing up to 20 percent of petitions received.18 Although no reason was given for missing any receipts, we were told that if, at the time of adjudication, a petition does not contain evidence of an IBIS check, or if the check was conducted more than 35 days prior to adjudication, the Center Adjudications Officer must perform an individual check on that petition.19 Adjudicators are authorized to perform two different types of IBIS checks, as described below:
All matches or hits are sent to the service center's Triage Review Unit for a second, more detailed check to verify that all hits match the correct name and date of birth as recorded on the petition. According to INS staff, approximately one half of the initial IBIS hits are found to be actual matches. In those instances, the Triage Review Unit determines whether the reason for the hit is significant enough to affect adjudication. To accomplish this, the Triage Review Unit identifies cases relating to aggravated felonies, NCIC matches, terrorism, and threats to national security and forwards those applications to the service center's Enforcement Operations Division (EOD) for further evaluation. The IBIS Standard Operations Procedure requires the EOD to refer the terrorism and national security cases to the National Security Unit (NSU) and the Immigration Services Division (ISD) at INS Headquarters for investigation. All other types of hits may be resolved in the Triage Review Unit, or forwarded to the EOD when deemed appropriate.
The EOD determines those hits that may require investigation or further enforcement action. If an IBIS hit is an individual of interest to a local law enforcement agency, the EOD will notify that agency. The Premium Processing 15-day clock is not stopped in such cases. If a determination is not made as to how to proceed until after the 15-day period has expired, the $1,000 premium fee is returned to the petitioner.
The service center EOD may also work in collaboration with the ISD and the Office of the General Counsel to resolve certain types of hits. For example, if uncertainty remains after a petition has been reviewed by the EOD, the petition may be sent to INS Headquarters where the IBIS Policy Coordinator reviews and responds to any complications. The IBIS Coordinator, in turn, may work with the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force and the INS National Security Unit, the Operating Coordination Cell, or the Command Center to address significant IBIS hits (A chart illustrating the IBIS process can be found at Appendix VII).
The ISD summarizes information about IBIS hits from the service centers (and the districts) in the IBIS - Significant Hits Summary. We reviewed the IBIS - Significant Hits Summary covering the period from May 20, 2002 through October 28, 2002. As of October 28, 2002, there were a total of 408 hits listed on the IBIS - Significant Hits Summary. Of the 408 significant IBIS hits, 23 were based on Forms I-129, and 385 were based on other types of applications and petitions. Only 2 of the 23 Form I-129 applications could be identified as Premium Processing applications.20 The two IBIS hits on Premium Processing applications were identified as aggravated felons, and their applications were referred to INS General Counsel for review. With respect to the 385 IBIS hits based on other types of applications and petitions, 256 hits were related to possible terrorist threats and 24 related to threats to national security.
We reviewed the outcome of the 408 total significant IBIS hits and found the following: 354 were referred to the National Security Unit for investigation; 12 did not have an outcome identified in the Significant Hits Summary; and the remaining 42 had various outcomes, including being held in abeyance, denial of the application, or referral to local law enforcement agencies. The following table summarizes the essential data about the 408 significant IBIS hits.
Significant IBIS Hits
Source: INS Significant Hits Report
As of October 23, 2002, approximately 30,000 petitions were in a pending status due to IBIS hits. Because Premium Processing petitions are not checked separately, the INS cannot determine how many of the 30,000 pending petitions are premium without conducting a manual count.
We recommend that the Commissioner, INS:
The INS allocated $55 million of the $80 million in anticipated Premium Processing program revenues for general infrastructure improvements and backlog reduction efforts. Our audit showed that for FY 2002 the INS received 115,416 premium service applications. Consequently, the associated program revenue was actually $115,416,000, which exceeded the original projection ($80 million) by $35,416,000. If we apply the INS's original percentages for the allocation of program revenue, the increased revenue of $35.4 million would have been allocated as follows: adjudications processing (22 percent) $7.8 million; fraud investigation (9 percent) $3.2 million; infrastructure improvement (44 percent) $15.6 million; and backlog reduction (25 percent) $8.8 million.
Thus, for FY 2002, approximately $24.4 million ($15.6 million and $8.8 million) should have been available for infrastructure improvements and the overall backlog reduction effort. However, because expenditures are not separately identified by revenue source in the IEFA, we could not determine whether any of the additional premium service revenues were actually used to fund the infrastructure improvements and backlog reduction efforts. However, we did determine that the backlogs of pending applications and petitions have continued to grow, as shown in the following table.
Pending Applications and Petitions by Service Centers
Source: INS Information Services Division
The table illustrates that backlogs reached a low in the second quarter of FY 2002 before beginning a steady increase. According to INS officials, the rising backlog is due in part to the implementation of IBIS checks servicewide in March 2002.
Under ideal conditions the Premium Processing program should have little impact on the processing times of other visa types. However, when situations occur that disrupt general processing times, those times are likely to be further exacerbated by the premium service. As has occurred with the implementation of IBIS checks, more petitioners will choose the premium service if general processing times are prolonged. Because Premium Processing receives priority, backlogs for routine cases may continue to grow. In this way, a program that was intended to reduce backlogs may actually have the effect of increasing backlogs for routine applications.
Since implementation of the IBIS check procedures, the processing times for routine Forms I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker, have increased about three-fold from about 37 to 112 days. According to INS officials, the primary reasons for the increases in the backlog of Forms I-129 are:
As a result of the increased time required to process routine applications, the service centers have reported sizeable increases in the number of premium service cases being filed. The increase in premium cases further prolongs processing times for routine cases because staffing and resources must be pulled from the general adjudication areas to meet the demands of Premium Processing.
The following graph illustrates the total number of premium cases adjudicated since the program's inception. In March 2002, when the IBIS checks were implemented for all applications, the requests for Premium Processing began to increase dramatically.
Increases in premium cases will bring in added revenue. However, they will also significantly impact the processing times for routine Forms I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker. The following graph shows the average processing days for routine Forms I-129 for calendar year 2002 through September 2002. It is clear that the processing times have increased significantly since the start of the IBIS checks in March 2002.
There is also some indication that IBIS checks are adversely affecting processing times for Premium Processing petitions. Thirteen refunds were made to Premium Processing petitioners for failure to adjudicate within the guaranteed 15-day period in the 9 months between the program's inception in June 2001 and the start of the IBIS checks in March 2002. In the 7 months from March 2002 through September 2002, an additional 116 refunds were issued for failure to meet the 15-day requirement. Although the number of refunds is small in comparison to the total number of applications processed through the Premium Processing program (less than 0.2 percent), this is an eight-fold increase in the number of refunds.
The mandate for the IBIS checks was a procedural change for INS adjudications. However, the INS did not adequately plan for the implementation of IBIS checks. IBIS existed in the United States Customs Service since 1989 and the INS began experimenting with its usage in 1999. Impacts on both premium and routine employment-based visas can be expected whenever program or procedural changes are put into place. Without adequate planning, the service centers were not prepared to handle unexpected shifts in their workloads, and the processing times for routine petitions has increased dramatically.
We recommend that the Commissioner, INS:
The four service centers that adjudicate Premium Processing petitions submit reports to INS Headquarters. The reports include: (1) a general daily contact report that outlines the number of premium petitions that were approved, denied, or held with a Request for Evidence (RFE) and the corresponding reason; (2) a Critical Aging Report that lists every premium petition over eight days old; (3) a daily summary report listing the day's activity; and (4) an RFE report that lists all pending requests for evidence.
While we do not question the utility of these four reports, we do not consider them sufficient. In our judgment, data on Premium Processing should be incorporated into the INS's general work measurement system, the Performance Analysis System (PAS).21 Between June 1, 2001 and September 30, 2002, the INS received 136,416 premium processing applications and more than $136 million in associated fees. Nevertheless, the INS has not incorporated Premium Processing data in PAS.
Officials from the INS Office of Policy and Planning stated that they did not include Premium Processing data in the PAS because Premium Processing is not considered a permanent program. However, we disagree with this line of reasoning. The Premium Processing program generated over $115 million in fiscal year 2002, and the INS estimates that the program will generate over $180 million once the program is expanded to include the Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker, in 2003. Unless the INS incorporates Premium Processing data in its established databases, it must rely on the various reporting systems from the individual service centers for its program statistical data. These individual systems are inconsistent in methodology and accuracy, and do not provide standardized reporting and adequate program analyses. As a result, we believe the INS management lacks the information needed to determine the proper allocation of resources among the service centers.
PAS data are also useful for determining the strengths and weaknesses of the service centers. Since each service center differs in program administration and organizational structure, the inclusion of Premium Processing information in PAS would assist the INS in determining those operations that are most efficient or effective in meeting their program goals.
Since implementing the Premium Processing program, the INS has not conducted a time and motion study to determine the program's unit cost for processing premium cases. Without a unit cost analysis, the added costs associated with Premium Processing are unclear. For example, the premium service requires extensive customer service, including exclusive telephone lines and e-mail addresses for questions from attorneys and petitioners. However, the costs of these services are unknown.
During our audit, we monitored the adjudication process for premium petitions from beginning to end, and we observed as petitions were hand-carried between the contractor staff and the INS adjudicators. After meeting with all levels of adjudications staff, we determined that Premium Processing petitions are adjudicated by the most experienced and skilled workers, and are reviewed much more frequently and thoroughly than routine cases. Also, adjudicators are far more likely to contact Premium Processing petitioners directly with questions or concerns than they are for routine cases, because of the increased contact already established by the Premium Processing telephone lines and e-mail addresses. These additional services could be more costly to provide, but the INS cannot make a determination of these costs without a cost analysis.
A time and motion study is important because the number of Premium Processing petitions is growing while the total number of Forms I-129, Petition for A Nonimmigrant Worker, is declining. Since reaching 62,474 petitions in February 2002, Form I-129 receipts have dropped every month until reaching 37,972 in June 2002. However, the number of Premium Processing cases has grown since March 2002, so that the total percentage of premium receipts among Forms I-129 is on the rise. The INS initially estimated that premium filings would range from 10 to 25 percent of total filings for eligible petitions. As indicated in the table below, the percentage of premium receipts (to total receipts) increased dramatically from March 2002 to July 2002, after which they started to decline.
Growing Percentage of Premium Receipts
Source: INS Office of Policy and Planning
If the increasing rate of premium petitions continues, the program will bring in considerably more revenue, up to 50 percent more than anticipated by the INS.22 Additional revenue notwithstanding, the increase in premium filings is likely to place a disproportionate amount of pressure on service centers and contractor management and staff. Without a study to determine the added costs associated with processing premium cases, INS managers will not have all the information needed to make sound decisions about the allocation of resources for the adjudication of both premium and routine applications and petitions.
We conducted a limited analysis to determine how much of the $1,000 premium is used for processing adjudications. Our analysis determined that approximately $219 per petition was allocated for processing premium applications. This amount is based on the $17.5 million,23 or 22 percent, of the projected $80 million in program revenue allocated by the INS for Premium Processing staffing and program maintenance. This amount is in addition to the normal application fee of $130 (the cost of processing routine applications).24 The following table is a breakdown of the $1,000 program fee, which we calculated based on the INS's allocations of the projected $80 million in annual program revenue.
Premium Processing $1,000 Service Fee Breakdown
Source: INS Information Services Division and OIG Analysis
In addition to the failure to perform a time and motion study for Premium Processing, the INS did not perform a formal analysis to support the $1,000 Premium Processing service fee. Congress authorized the $1,000 premium service fee because the program is voluntary and will allow the INS to generate revenue for additional staffing resources, backlog reduction efforts, and infrastructure improvements. However, the fee amount was based primarily on recommendations from potential users, and not on a formal study. In fact, INS officials stated that the fee amount was somewhat arbitrary in its development. Without an adequate analysis, it is unclear how the $1,000 premium fee will impact users, particularly small businesses. The fee analysis should be completed before the INS expands the Premium Processing program to include other petitions. Furthermore, when Congress authorized Premium Processing, it established the fee at $1,000 but authorized the Attorney General to adjust the fee according to the Consumer Price Index.
During our fieldwork at each of the service centers, we interviewed premium processing management and staff, reviewed staffing allocations, and documented processing procedures. Because the service center directors have considerable discretion to manage their own workloads and allocate staff, we found significant differences in methodology among the four service centers. Our observations are as follows.
St. Albans, Vermont - The VSC is the largest of the four service centers and processed the most premium petitions, 48,131 through September 2002.25 The VSC Premium Processing Unit has a designated staff that processes premium cases along with other petitions. Premium cases have priority, but must be managed along with other work. At the time of our fieldwork, the VSC had a total of 55 service center personnel working on premium cases: 35 Center Adjudications Officers, 8 Immigration Information Officers, and 12 Clerks. The 35 Adjudications Officers included staff that had been hired in anticipation of the introduction of Premium Processing for the Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker. The VSC also has two Supervising Center Adjudications Officers who oversee only Premium Processing cases. The number of staff designated to Premium Processing is flexible, changing depending on the volume of filings. Currently, this group of adjudications staff is working almost exclusively on premium cases, due to the volume of premium receipts.
The VSC is the only center to establish a Premium Processing steering committee to address various concerns from staff and management. The committee is comprised of two Supervising Center Adjudications Officers, two Center Adjudications Officers, one Immigration Information Officer, and one Clerk. The group meets weekly and has the authority to recommend or make changes to the center's Premium Processing program design. In our judgment, this is a best practice that should be implemented by the other service centers.
With the exception of the monthly reports mandated by the ISD, the VSC does not track Premium Processing program data. The VSC employee performance based evaluation system does not call for such performance measures as staff and supervisory hours spent on Premium Processing or other cases.
Dallas, Texas - The TSC processed 34,932 premium petitions through September 2002. The TSC management created a completely separate unit, which processed only Form I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker, premium petitions. At the time of our fieldwork, the unit consisted of 17 service center personnel: 9 Center Adjudications Officers, 4 Immigration Information Officers, and 4 Clerks. A Supervising Center Adjudications Officer is also dedicated to premium cases.26 While staff in the Premium Processing Unit focus primarily on premium cases, they may also work with routine applications and petitions if time permits.
The TSC Premium Processing program management worked with the center's Director and the EOD to provide EOD with staff that work exclusively on Premium Processing petitions. Premium Processing Adjudicators have specific IBIS contacts and Information Officers within EOD who work only with premium cases.
Laguna Niguel, California - The CSC processed 30,741 premium petitions through September 2002. At the time of our fieldwork, the CSC had 33 service center personnel working on premium cases: 27 Center Adjudications Officers, 2 Immigration Information Officers, and 4 Clerks. Like the VSC, the CSC designated certain staff to work on Premium Processing cases in addition to other routine petitions. However, unlike the VSC, the Supervising Center Adjudications Officers at the CSC oversee both premium and routine cases.
Lincoln, Nebraska - The NSC, the smallest of the four service centers, processed 22,612 premium petitions through September 2002. Like the TSC, the NSC has a separate unit specifically dedicated to Premium Processing. At the time of our fieldwork there were 14 service center personnel (8 Center Adjudications Officers, 2 Immigration Information Officers and 4 Adjudications Clerks) who worked primarily on premium cases, although they handled other types of cases if time allowed. A Supervising Center Adjudications Officer was also dedicated to premium cases.
The four service centers that adjudicate the petitions eligible for Premium Processing differ significantly in their program management, staffing, and processing procedures. The physical characteristics of the centers account for many of the differences, but variations in operations design and management may also contribute to more efficient adjudications processing. However, without comparable data for the four service centers it is difficult to recommend any best practices.
However, we did perform a brief analysis of the average number of premium service applications processed in FY 2002. For purposes of this analysis, we utilized the number of Center Adjudications Officers (CAOs) allocated to each service center by INS Headquarters and the actual number of CAOs working on premium cases at the time of our on-site audit work. The following table compares certain data about staffing and accomplishments that we acquired from each of the service centers and provides our limited analysis of the data.
Fiscal Year 2002
Sources: INS Information Services Division, Service Centers, and OIG Analysis.
Our analysis resulted in the following general observations:
It also raises certain questions.
Without consistent data for all the service centers, it is difficult to answer these questions. More important, the INS does not have adequate data to evaluate the Premium Processing program. The lack of consistent data for all the service centers denies INS management the kind of information needed to provide strong program oversight and to make sound managerial decisions about such matters as position allocation.
As previously mentioned, the inclusion of Premium Processing statistical data in the existing Performance Analysis System would enable program management to determine proper staffing allocations, measure actual versus planned production, and develop adequate information to support budget requests.
We recommend that the Commissioner, INS: