IG: Faulty data seen hobbling pursuit of visa overstays

The Homeland Security Department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency faces problems in many cases where it seeks to track down foreigners who have overstayed their visas because the data ICE receives from other agencies' systems is inaccurate, according to a new report by the department's inspector general.

The report, issued Oct. 21, comprised a review of ICE's Compliance Enforcement Unit by DHS' inspector general and describes how the enforcement unit received more than 300,000 leads of cases of potential visa overstays from various federal databases in 2004.

Some of the most important systems generating leads are the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (U.S. Visit) system, the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, the National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS), and State Department databases.

ICE officials and their contractors must winnow through the hundreds of thousands of potential leads to find cases to refer for field investigation and apprehension, according to the report. In 2004, officials referred 4,164 cases to the field, which led to 671 apprehensions. According to the report, studies suggest that very few of the 671 aliens apprehended would actually be removed unless they also had criminal histories and were detained.

The auditors pointed to problems with data quality in the process of referring leads to CEU as a major issue.

For example, according to the report, between Jan. 5 and April 22, 2004, the enforcement unit received about 60,000 referrals from the U.S. Visit program's Arrival Departure Information System (ADIS) database that could have prompted investigations. However, only 40 of those cases were found to be sufficient for assignment to field investigators, and none of those cases led to arrests.

'According to ICE agents in field offices we visited, the data quality of NSEERS and US Visit leads is problematic because [Customs and Border Protection] inspectors fail to collect the necessary information to track down overstays or input incorrect information into border systems due to pressures to speed up [port of entry] processing,' the auditors said.

One ICE agent cited a case in which the enforcement agents had received information about an alien who gave the address 'Hyatt' in the San Francisco area. 'There are six Hyatt hotels in the San Francisco area,' the report noted.

The auditors went on to say that additional errors crept into the process when ADIS data was exchanged with other systems, such as those used by airlines. U.S. Visit officials said they are developing a better version of ADIS' record matching function.

The fledgling state of U.S. Visit's system for tracking when travelers leave the country gives rise to situations in which much of the enforcement unit's work effort is devoted to cases where the aliens have already left the country.

The auditors noted that U.S. Visit has created a Data Integrity Group to improve the quality of information the system handles.

The inspector general called on ICE and U.S. Visit officials to continue to provide information about the data quality issues and said the data quality issue remained open.

The auditors recommended improvements in the enforcement unit workflow, as well as improvements in the justification for closing leads. The report said both those issues had been closed. The report also called on ICE to distribute its policy and guidance documents more fully and said that issue remained open.

ICE officials are working to resolve the issues identified by the auditors, according to the report.

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