Government audit reveals problems in FBI name check process for immigrants

Monday, June 9, 2008 | 2:55 p.m. CDT; updated 11:22 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Three days after a group of Muslim immigrants in Missouri sued federal officials over long delays in gaining citizenship, an audit found the government is not doing all it can to expedite their background checks.

The audit by the Office of Inspector General, released Monday, found “serious deficiencies” in a process the FBI uses to check names of immigrants seeking to become citizens.

It comes just three days after 33 Muslim immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship in Missouri filed a federal lawsuit here, claiming they’ve been left in limbo for months or years because of slow background checks.

The suit on behalf of plaintiffs from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Egypt, Pakistan and Somalia seeks to have a federal judge enforce the time limits on name checks for those being naturalized.

The audit said problems in the FBI’s name check process have created large backlogs and raised questions about the reliability of resulting information.

It found the FBI is relying on outdated and inefficient technology, inadequately trained personnel, overburdened supervisors, and inadequate quality assurance measures.

In contrast, the audit said the FBI is able to process millions of fingerprint checks in an accurate and timely manner.

Spokesman Paul Bresson said Friday that the FBI has eliminated cases pending for four years or more, has increased fees to hire more record-checkers and is building a new central records complex.

“It boils down to volume versus resources,” he said. “We have not had enough resources to address it.”

The FBI’s name check and fingerprint programs use the agency’s vast repositories of investigative records to produce criminal history and ID services for government agencies and other customers.

Half of the FBI’s 4 million name check requests last year came from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers immigration and naturalization benefits.

The agency has said it can’t authorize citizenship until applicants are cleared by the FBI.

The audit said the FBI processes about 86 percent of the name check requests within two months. But the remaining 14 percent can take months to three years to complete.

It said name check delays and backlogs can slow down the citizenship process, keep out foreign workers, disrupt study-abroad programs, block access to U.S. citizenship benefits, and impede deportation of applicants who pose a national security threat.

The audit said the FBI blamed the backlog on 3 million resubmitted name check requests in 2003, reliance on paper files and few resources to improve the program.

It said the FBI’s name-matching technology is out of date, its workers are poorly trained and the agency hasn’t raised its name check fees to cover its costs. Some customers, like Major League Baseball, aren’t even charged.

“The FBI’s name check process needs significant improvement,” which should be a priority, Inspector General Glenn Fine said.

The audit report’s recommendations for improvement include technological upgrades, formal training for name check analysts and reassessment of fees every two years.

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