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Immigration and Naturalization Service's Ability
to Provide Timely and Accurate Alien Information
to the Social Security Administration

Report Number I-2003-001
November 2002


This part of the review describes the process used by aliens to apply for permanent residence in the United States. After the INS approves the immigrant petitions, the aliens submit their applications for immigrant visas at DOS consular posts.6 Aliens living in the United States, including nonimmigrants, (e.g., students) can file applications with the INS for adjustment of status to obtain legal permanent residence.

Immigrants coming to the United States are divided into two categories: those who may obtain permanent residence status without numerical limit and those subject to an annual limit. The Immigration Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-649) sets the worldwide level of immigration for the latter category with an annual maximum limit that ranges from 421,000 to 675,000 immigrants depending on admissions in the previous year.

Filing the Immigrant Visa Petition and Application

The immigration process begins with a relative or prospective employer of the intending immigrant filing a petition with the INS.7 When the INS approves the petition, it forwards the petition to the DOS's National Visa Center (NVC) in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.8

The NVC retains the petitions until the cases are ready for processing by consular officers. Petitions may remain at the NVC from a few weeks to several years depending on visa availability.9 The NVC forwards the petitions to the appropriate overseas consular posts when applicants' cases become current (i.e., visa numbers are likely to be available within the year). The NVC also mails forms and information to the intending immigrants.

The intending immigrant completes and submits DOS Form DS-230, Application for Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration, and required supporting documents to the local consular post.10 A consular officer reviews and verifies the information in the visa application, issues the immigrant visa (IV), and prepares the IV package. The consular officer seals the package and instructs the intending immigrant to deliver it unopened to the INS inspectors (inspectors) at the port of entry (POE) in the United States.

U.S. Port of Entry Inspection of Immigrants

Upon arrival at the U.S. POE, aliens report to a secure INS inspections area, which is divided into primary and secondary areas. Aliens report to the primary inspection area where they are processed by inspectors. The inspectors complete primary inspection of various categories of aliens and citizens by determining identity and examining the applicants' travel documents. Immigrants usually are sent to secondary inspections for further processing.11

The inspectors in secondary inspections complete a variety of tasks to create permanent records for the arriving alien. When the inspectors determine that an immigrant is admissible into the United States, they process the IV package. The immigrant's identity is confirmed by comparing the photograph attached to the IV to the immigrant and is also cross-checked with the passport.12 The inspectors verify eligibility for the visa classification indicated on the visa and verify that personal data (e.g., gender and marital status) and the mailing address on the front of the visa are correct. The inspectors examine the immigrant visa to ensure it is valid and unaltered.

When the immigrant is admitted, the INS provides the immigrant with temporary evidence of permanent resident status until it produces the Alien Registration Receipt Card (INS Form I-551). If the immigrant has a passport, the inspector amends the passport with:

If the alien does not have a passport, the inspector uses Form I-94, Arrival/Departure Record to create temporary evidence of permanent resident status.14 The inspector completes the arrival portion of the Form I-94 and adds:

The inspector completes Form I-89, I-551 or I-586 Card Data Collection Form, and places it in the IV package along with other required documents, such as a birth certificate, fingerprints, and photographs.15 The immigrant is then a lawful permanent resident of the United States. The inspector tells the immigrant that the INS will mail the Alien Registration Receipt Card to the address on the immigrant visa and to check with the local INS district office if the card does not arrive within four to five months.

The POE is required to forward the complete IV package to an INS service center within 24 hours of the alien's admission to the United States.16 The service center processes the IV package, produces the Alien Registration Receipt Card, and mails it to the immigrant.

Issuing Social Security Numbers to Immigrants

Following admission to the United States, immigrants go to SSA field offices to complete Forms SS-5, Application for a Social Security Card, to obtain SSNs. The SSA requires immigrants to provide the following evidence of eligibility to receive SSNs:

Prior to September 1, 2002, the SSA policy did not require its field office staffs to verify an immigrant's status (class of admission) with the INS when the immigrant was in the United States less than 30 days and the documents presented by the immigrant appeared valid. The SSA's rationale was that the INS would not yet have the immigrant's information in its automated systems and therefore would not be able to verify the immigrant's status. Effective September 1, 2002, the SSA instituted a policy change in its procedures for issuing SSNs to aliens. The SSA's new policy requires its field office staffs to receive INS verification for all INS-issued documents used as evidence of work eligibility before issuing SSNs to aliens.

The SSA verifies the immigrant's status through the SAVE program using the Alien Status Verification Index (ASVI) system. The SAVE program provides a means for federal, state, and local benefit issuing agencies and institutions to verify the immigration status of alien applicants for, or recipients of, public benefits. As mandated by the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 (P.L. 99-603), the INS established ASVI, a nationally accessible database, of selected immigration status information on approximately 60 million alien records. Entitlement agencies electronically access this database and pay between $.02 and $.22 per query depending upon the access method. This automated process is known as primary verification.

All SSA field offices have access to ASVI. The immigrant's A-number is entered into the ASVI system. The system provides a response within three to five seconds. The response is compared to the immigration status as represented on the documents provided by the immigrant.

When an immigrant has been in the United States for less than ten days and the ASVI response does not confirm the immigrant's status (i.e., the immigrant's information is not in ASVI), the SSA enters the application in the Modernized Enumeration System (MES) as a "suspect" document.17 The SSA queries ASVI again when the immigrant has been in the United States more than ten days. If the second query is unsuccessful, the SSA uses secondary verification to validate the INS documents.

In secondary verification, the SSA prepares an INS Form G-845, Document Verification Request. The SSA mails the form and copies of the immigrant's INS documents to the local INS district office for verification of the immigrant's status.18 The INS processes the SSA's query and mails the response to the SSA field office. The response time varies from 10 to 20 workdays. 19 While waiting for a response, the SSA queries ASVI weekly. If the SSA receives verification from ASVI before the secondary verification response is received, it completes the SSN application process.

Once the ASVI check or the secondary verification process confirms the immigrant's status, the application is certified and entered into MES. During processing, MES performs automatic edits for missing, misplaced, or inappropriate data.20 When the application passes the edits, MES produces an SSN card for the immigrant, usually within five workdays.

The current immigrant processing from initial visa application to issuing an SSN is shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Current Immigrant Processing From Visa Application Through Issuance of a Social Security Number

[Image is not available electronically.]

Immigrant Visa DataShare

Immigrant Visa DataShare, initiated in June 1995, allows the INS and DOS to electronically exchange data and track an immigrant's petition and application throughout the immigration process from initial filing to the immigrant's admission at a POE. DataShare is not a separate data system. It integrates existing INS, DOS, and U.S. Customs Service (USCS) data systems to process, transmit, and share information between the agencies. The petition and application information moves electronically with the immigrant's file as it is processed, eliminating the need for reentering information at each step of the immigration process. DataShare can also be used to detect fraud because aliens presenting altered or counterfeit documents will not have a corresponding record in DataShare. The DOS and INS can verify information to make better-informed decisions regarding whether to issue visas or admit aliens into the United States.

DataShare has improved the speed of data transfer as well as the quality of the data. By receiving immigrant visa petition information at the NVC electronically, the DOS reduced its data entry workload. In addition, the INS sends the immigrant visa hard-copy petitions to the NVC, so the NVC can compare the electronic and hard-copy information to ensure that the information matches. The availability of immigrant visa information to inspectors at POEs via the Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS) provides a mechanism to verify the immigrant's visa status.21 Visa status information is available through DataShare usually within eight hours from the time the immigrant visa is issued at a DOS consular post.

In FY 2001, the DOS processed 615,979 IVs, approving 396,689 of them and disapproving 219,290. DataShare processed 240,340 IVs (61 percent) issued by 15 consular posts. In February 2002, the DOS expanded DataShare to all 126 immigrant visa-issuing consular posts. Currently, 16 POEs use DataShare to process immigrants.

SSA's Participation in Immigrant Visa DataShare

In response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the SSA reviewed its policies and procedures and determined that enumeration at entry, the electronic processing of immigrant SSN applications, would be more secure than its current method of processing SSN applications.22 The enumeration at entry process is described in Figure 2 on the next page.

To support SSA's enumeration at entry process, the INS and SSA Commissioners signed an MOU in 2000 that governs the extension of DataShare to electronically deliver information on admitted immigrants to the SSA. The goals of this project are to:

Figure 2. Immigrant Processing From Visa Application Through Application for Social Security Number Using DataShare

[Image is not available electronically.]

The MOU states that the INS will transmit to the SSA specified enumeration data elements for aliens age 18 years and older who have requested original SSN cards and who have been admitted as lawful permanent residents at specific POEs that use DataShare. The INS will transmit 16 data elements through Immigrant Visa DataShare to the SSA. These data elements are: A-number, name, date of birth, place of birth, mother and father's first, middle and last names, immigrant class of admission, and the alien's request for an SSN card and the alien's consent for data transmission between the INS and SSA.

An immigrant who requests an SSN card, consents to the disclosure of personal information to the SSA, and enters the United States through POEs using DataShare will not have to apply for an SSN at an SSA field office. The SSN card will be produced and mailed to the immigrant as soon as the SSA receives electronic notification from the INS that the immigrant has been admitted. If the immigrant enters the United States through a POE that does not use DataShare, the immigrant will have to apply for an SSN at an SSA field office. In those cases, the SSA will issue an SSN only upon verification of the alien's status by the INS.

The SSA agreed to reimburse the INS for any technology improvements or modifications needed to transmit data to the SSA, to change INS forms, to collect or input data, and to train INS personnel. The SSA plans to pay $834,200 to the INS to reimburse expenses in fiscal years 2002 and 2003.

DataShare will allow the INS to transfer its immigrant information directly into the SSA's MES and initiate the process for issuing SSN cards. This process will eliminate the need for (1) immigrants to complete additional forms for an SSN, (2) the SSA and INS staff to verify INS documents, and (3) the SSA to process information from additional forms. This process should also reduce the use of falsified or counterfeit INS documents to obtain SSNs because SSNs will be issued based on information directly supplied by the INS and not documents provided by the aliens.23

The 16 POEs that currently use DataShare process approximately 80 percent of all immigrant visas. Depending on funding availability, the INS plans to expand DataShare to all POEs.

INS Implementation of Immigrant Visa DataShare

We conclude that the INS will implement the enumeration phase of the DOS/INS Immigrant Visa DataShare process as soon as the SSA completes making its modifications for DataShare and the DOS completes programming changes needed to transmit the applicable SSA data. We found that the INS is able technologically to provide the SSA immigrant status using DataShare. The INS and the DOS have shared immigrant petition and application data using DataShare since 1995. The DOS has successfully transmitted immigrant visas from 15 consular posts to the INS, which accounted for 60 percent of the immigrant visas issued by the DOS. Since the DOS expanded DataShare to all of its 126 visa-issuing consular posts, the INS has not experienced any significant technological difficulties with the program.

We found that the INS and the DOS have already made software modifications to accommodate the SSA's participation in DataShare. In June 2002, the INS and the DOS tested their portions of DataShare and stated that they are confident that their portions of the system work. However, the SSA did not participate in the test because it was addressing the communications protocol and data formatting convention issues.

The INS and DOS officials told us that they will conduct a pilot project involving three consular posts in October 2002.24 The pilot project will test the system modifications with real-time data and the INS anticipates that the pilot project will run for 30 to 60 days. After completion of the pilot project, the DOS plans to install the upgraded software in all of its consular posts. The DOS anticipates that all consular posts will have the upgraded software by December 2002.

INS Management of Immigrant Visa DataShare

Although the INS has been successful in implementing the enumeration phase of DataShare, we found that the INS has not assigned specific tasks and responsibilities for managing DataShare to the appropriate offices. It also has not addressed other key elements in implementing the DataShare program.

Responsibilities for the effective operation of DataShare and transfer of that data to the SSA are split among three INS entities: Inspections, Information Resources Management (IRM), and Strategic Information and Technology Development (SITD). The Immigration Services Division, as a user of the DataShare information, also provides key input to the program. Inspections identifies an automation need, IRM develops the technological solution, and SITD acts as liaison between the two entities.

The INS has not formally documented the responsibilities and tasks of each INS entity for implementing and managing DataShare. As a result, none of the entities has taken the responsibility to develop and implement policies, procedures, performance measures, and management controls. Inspections, as the primary user of DataShare, has the responsibility to ensure that its inspectors have the expertise and guidance to appropriately implement DataShare.

We also found that the INS also has not developed performance measures or management controls for DataShare. Even if the INS had policies and procedures in place, the INS managers would have difficulty monitoring the program, identifying problems, and taking corrective actions if performance measures and management controls are not in place. The INS managers must know if the program is functioning as intended.


  1. An alien is defined as a person who is not a citizen of the United States. An immigrant is an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence in the United States.

  2. "Intending immigrant" is the term used by the INS to describe an alien who is in the process of seeking immigrant status but has not yet been admitted to the United States.

  3. The DOS opened the NVC in April 1994, where it processes all INS-approved immigrant visa petitions.

  4. Immigrant visas are issued in the chronological order in which the petitions were filed until the numerical limit for the category is reached.

  5. Required documents include: passport valid for at least six months beyond the visa issuance date, certified copies of intending immigrant's birth certificate, police certificates from each locality in which the intending immigrant has resided, court and prison records if applicable, military records, photographs for official documents, and marriage certificates.

  6. New York and San Francisco POEs process nonimmigrants in the primary inspection lanes.

  7. If a passport is unavailable, the immigrant's appearance is compared to government-issued identification containing the immigrant's name, date of birth, and/or signature.

  8. Class of admission, which corresponds to the visa class [classification], identifies the legal provision under which an immigrant is admitted. Class of admission codes are the symbols representing each category of immigrant within that class of admission. For example, immigrant visas issued to spouses of U.S. citizens belong to the class of admission for Immediate Relatives, Spouse of U.S. citizen (admitted under INA 201(b)) and the admission code is IR1. The A-number, or alien number, is a unique identifier assigned to each immigrant.

  9. Immigrants are not required to complete Forms I-94.

  10. The Form I-89 provides the data required to generate the Form I-551 or I-586.

  11. Most IV packages go to the Texas Service Center. The California Service Center processes all IV packages serviced by district offices in California.

  12. The application remains pending in MES until the INS verifies the validity of the document and the SSA clears the application.

  13. The SSA completes INS Form G-845 and sends it and copies of the INS documents presented with the SSN application to the INS where an INS employee checks multiple databases, makes notations as to work eligibility on the form, and returns it to the SSA field office.

  14. The response time for mandated agencies is 10 days and nonmandated agencies, 20 days. The term "mandated" refers to those programs and overseeing agencies required by the IRCA and Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, P.L. 104-193, 110 Statute 2168 to verify an applicant's immigration status. The SSA is a nonmandated agency.

  15. Examples of missing, misplaced, or inappropriate data include alpha characters in fields designated as numeric only, unidentifiable state postal codes, or blank fields.

  16. The USCS maintains IBIS, which provides the law enforcement community with access to computer-based law enforcement files of common interest.

  17. Testimony of SSA Deputy Commissioner, James B. Lockhart III, before the Senate Finance Committee, Subcommittee on Social Security and Family Policy, July 11, 2001.

  18. Aliens who become legal permanent residents through a change of status are not currently included in DataShare.

  19. The consular posts are: Manila, Philippines; Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; and London, England.