WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is having trouble detecting fraud in asylum requests from immigrants seeking to stay in the United States for their protection, according to a government study released Wednesday.
The Government Accountability Office looked at asylum requests from immigrants who have already made it to the United States and are asking to stay to escape persecution. The report doesn't address the refugee application process, which also is overseen by the Homeland Security Department but involves people not currently in the United States. The refugee process has become an issue in debate over Syrian refugees.
The 96-page report concluded that neither U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services nor the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the Justice Department agency that oversees immigration courts, conduct regular fraud risk assessments. The GAO recommended that both do so.
At USCIS, a paper filing system that doesn't capture key fraud-detection information electronically also is a problem, the study says.
The GAO review found that more than 4,500 people were awarded asylum in 2014 despite being associated with lawyers or document preparers arrested that same year in an immigration fraud investigation in New York.
USCIS reviews cases when there is a connection to someone implicated in an immigration fraud case. It is unclear if any of the approved cases involved fraud.
USCIS does have the authority to revoke asylum and did so in the cases of 374 people from 2010 to 2014, the GAO said.
USCIS spokesman Joseph Holstead said the agency agrees with the recommendations and has already completed two. But he said the report doesn't take into account recent improvements in the agency's fraud detection efforts, including the creation of a dedicated Fraud Detection and National Security branch within the agency's asylum division.
The number of asylum requests has more than doubled in the last several years. During the 2010 budget year, 47,118 asylum requests were made. That number rose to 108,152 in 2014. By 2015, the study found, there was a backlog of 106,121 pending cases.
That backlog includes thousands of asylum requests made by Central American children traveling alone and families caught at the border in the last few years.
The GAO made 10 recommendations for improving fraud detection at the USCIS, including hiring and training more asylum officers.
Both Homeland Security and the immigration court agency agreed with the recommendations.
Juan Osuna, who oversees the immigration court system, is expected to be pressed about fraud during a House oversight hearing Thursday morning.
"This new GAO report adds to mounting evidence that the Obama administration refuses to take the steps necessary to crack down on asylum fraud and protect the integrity of our immigration system," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.