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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 admission to the United States as nonimmigrants. A nonimmigrant is an alien admitted to the United States for a specified purpose and a temporary period. The INS counted 31.4 million nonimmigrant admissions in fiscal year 1999. Of these, 1.78 million admissions were in classes that allowed or required the nonimmigrants to work.25

Table 1 shows the number of nonimmigrant admissions in 1999 by work-authorized class of admission.

Table 1. Work Eligible Nonimmigrant Admissions in 1999 By Class of Admission

Class of Admission Number
E Treaty trader or investor 151,353
F Foreign academic student, when certain conditions are met 557,688
H Temporary worker 374,509
I Foreign information media representative 31,917
J Exchange visitor, when certain conditions are met 275,519
L Intra-company transferee 234,443
O Temporary worker in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics 19,194
P Temporary worker in the arts or athletics in an exchange or cultural program 48,471
Q Cultural exchange visitor 2,485
R Temporary religious worker with a nonprofit organization 12,687
TN Professional business worker admitted under NAFTA 68,345
Total   1,776,611
Source: 1999 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service

Filing the Nonimmigrant Visa Petition

Prospective employers or sponsors file visa petitions, INS Form I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker, on behalf of aliens who apply for nonimmigrant visas as temporary workers (H), intra-company transferees (L), individuals with extraordinary ability (O), internationally recognized athletes or entertainers (P), or cultural exchange program participants (Q).

When the INS approves the petition, it notifies the appropriate consular post, which in turn notifies the nonimmigrant. The consular officer provides the nonimmigrant with instructions for obtaining and completing necessary forms, providing supporting documentation, and completing the visa application process.

The INS notifies the petitioner on Form I-797 whenever a visa petition, an extension of a visa petition, or an extension of stay is approved under any of the above visa categories.

Filing the Nonimmigrant Visa Application

When the consular post notifies an alien that the petition for admission has been approved, the alien completes a DOS Form DS-156, Nonimmigrant Visa Application. Under DOS requirements, all male nonimmigrant visa applicants between the ages of 16 and 45 also complete and submit a Form DS-157, Supplemental Nonimmigrant Visa Application.

One of the key criteria for determining nonimmigrant visa eligibility is the likelihood that aliens will return to their countries of origin when their visas expire and not remain in the United States as illegal "overstays." Nonimmigrants may also need to show proof of binding ties to a residence outside the United States, which they have no intention of abandoning.

All aliens applying for nonimmigrant admission under work authorized visa categories must also have a passport valid for at least six months plus the length of time they will be allowed to work in the United States, and a photograph for use in their visa.

Each visa category requires specific information, which must be provided at the time of application. Examples of additional information include transcripts and diplomas from institutions previously attended, and financial evidence that shows sponsors have sufficient funds to cover expenses during the applicant's stay in the United States.

The consular officers review and verify the information in the visa application package. Of particular interest is information that indicates the immigrant intends to return home after the visa expires. If the application is approved, the consular officers issue the nonimmigrant visa. The alien must pick up the visa in person at the consular post where the application was originally made. When issuing a visa, consular officers advise the alien that a visa does not guarantee entry into the United States and that the INS has the authority to deny admission at the POE.

All visa categories have time limits set by the INS in which the temporary worker may perform services in the United States. The consular officers advise aliens that the INS determines the period for which the bearers of temporary work visas are authorized to remain in the United States, and the INS makes the decision to grant or deny requests for extensions of stay.

U.S. Port of Entry Inspection of Nonimmigrants

Before arriving in the United States, nonimmigrants complete INS Forms I-94. Nonimmigrants report to the INS inspections area where inspectors determine the validity and authenticity of passports and visas. The inspector compares the passport photograph to the nonimmigrant presenting the passport and queries the passport number in IBIS. The Inspectors make a determination that the nonimmigrant intends to leave the United States when the visa expires. Finally, the inspectors also perform a look out query in IBIS to determine if a law enforcement agency has interest in the nonimmigrant. If the passport is valid and the IBIS query produces no adverse or conflicting information, the inspectors admit the nonimmigrant and endorses the passport with the admission stamp. All nonimmigrants authorized to work have visas, which the inspector also examines for validity and authenticity.

After the passport and visa are reviewed, the inspector examines the nonimmigrant-completed portion of Form I-94 for accuracy and legibility and then completes the remainder of Form I-94. This information is eventually entered into the INS's NIIS.

Most nonimmigrants are processed through primary inspections unless an inspector determines the documents presented require closer review. In those cases, nonimmigrants are referred to secondary inspections, where discrepancies are resolved or admission is denied.

Processing and Transmitting Forms I-94

The arrival portions of the Forms I-94 are shipped at least once daily to the INS data entry contractor (DEC) usually within 48 hours of receipt at the POE.26 The DEC converts the Forms I-94 into an electronic image through a scanning process, which facilitates data entry and allows for quick distribution of the workload to subcontractors when necessary. The DEC enters data from Forms I-94, usually within 72 hours of receipt.27 After the DEC performs its internal quality assurance activities, the batch update file is transmitted to the database contractor (DC), for validation processing and uploading to the DOJ mainframe computer.28

The DC receives the batch update file, performs pre-upload quality assurance validation, and uploads the data to NIIS. Quality assurance may take 8 to 10 hours, and the actual data upload can take 14 to 16 hours for file sizes of 200,000 - 225,000 records.

Issuing Social Security Numbers to Nonimmigrants

Previous Enumeration Process for Nonimmigrants

Before September 1, 2002, the SSA could not electronically confirm the work eligibility status of nonimmigrant applicants for SSNs. Although the SSA participates in the SAVE program, as described earlier in this report, SAVE could not provide the SSA with nonimmigrant information because only immigrant information was contained in the ASVI database.

If a nonimmigrant applicant presented suspect INS documents, the SSA would use the paper-based, labor-intensive secondary verification process based on the completion of INS Form G-845. The SSA completes INS Form G-845, Document Verification Request, and sends it and copies of the INS documents presented with the SSN application to the INS. The INS checks the database to determine document validity and makes notations as to work eligibility on the form and returns it to the SSA field office.

Conducting secondary verifications on all nonimmigrant applicants can add several weeks to the SSN application process.29 The SSA believes that secondary verification penalizes legitimate work-eligible nonimmigrants by delaying the issuance of an SSN. Also, because of its labor-intensive nature, secondary verification produces a significant increase in the workload of the SSA field offices. Based on these concerns, prior to September 1, 2002, the SSA only used secondary verification to check suspect documents. Therefore, the SSA issued an SSN to any nonimmigrant applicant presenting what appeared to be a valid INS document in support of the application.

In effect, the SSA was the arbiter of document validity. The SSA's reliance on its field office staff to verify INS documents increased the possibility of fraud going undetected.

New SSA Procedures for Issuing SSNs to Nonimmigrants

On September 1, 2002, the SSA changed its procedures for issuing SSNs to nonimmigrants. Under the new procedures, the SSA verifies with INS all INS documents presented by nonimmigrants applying for SSNs. The SSA refers to this as "Total Document Verification."30 To reduce the INS and SSA document verification workload and to speed up issuing the SSNs, the INS began providing electronic access to portions of NIIS to the SSA field offices using the existing ASVI database.

Every nonimmigrant admitted to the United States under a class of admission that permits work completes a Form I-94. Class of admission information, as shown on Form I-94, is now directly available to the SSA, which reduces the need for the paper-based, secondary verification process, saving the INS and SSA staffs' time and facilitating faster issuance of the SSN.

The INS successfully tested the concept in June 2002 and made NIIS data available to all SSA field offices on July 15, 2002. The SSA field offices access NIIS data using ASVI, the database that supports the SAVE program. The SSA completed a phased implementation of the new procedures September 1, 2002.

The nonimmigrant SSN applicant completes Form SS-5, Application for a Social Security Card, and presents documents to the SSA that address the following required identifiers:

Nonimmigrants must produce Form I-94; Form I-20 ID, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status (for certain students); or the IAP-66 (sponsor letter for exchange visitors), as evidence of employment authorization. The documents must contain all of the following information:

Nonimmigrants authorized to work based on their class of admission must present the departure portion of their Forms I-94. The form must have a valid admission stamp that contains:

If the documents presented by the nonimmigrant appear valid, the SSA verifies the nonimmigrant's INS documents by querying ASVI, which provides access to the NIIS data. If ASVI verifies the nonimmigrant's status and there are no discrepancies between the information from the response and the documents presented, the SSN application is processed, and the nonimmigrant receives an SSN card within five workdays. If there is a discrepancy in the information (e.g., name, date of birth), the SSA initiates secondary verification. It also inputs the SSN application information and codes the application as "suspect."

If ASVI cannot confirm the nonimmigrant's status (i.e., the nonimmigrant's information is not in the NIIS) and the nonimmigrant has been in the United States for less than ten days, the SSA inputs the SSN application in MES and codes the application as "suspect." The SSA will re-query ASVI after the nonimmigrant has been in the United States more than ten days. If the second query is unsuccessful, the SSA uses the secondary verification process to verify the INS documents. While waiting for a response, the SSA continues to re-query ASVI weekly. If ASVI verifies the nonimmigrant's status before the secondary verification response is received, the SSA completes SSN application processing.

If the INS has not responded to a secondary verification request within 20 workdays, the SSA contacts the local INS district office. If the INS still does not provide a response, the case is referred to the SSA Regional Office, which pursues the issue with the local INS district office.

If the SSA is suspicious about the validity of the documents presented, it enters the information from the SS-5 in the MES, codes it as "suspect," and immediately requests a secondary verification.32 Coding an application as suspect stops further processing of the application and requires the field office to maintain custody of the documents until issues are resolved. If the INS response to the secondary verification request cannot verify the nonimmigrant's status, the SSA codes the SSN application as "fraudulent."

Applications pending as suspect in the MES remain suspect until either the INS verifies the document and the SSA clears the application, or 120 days pass, at which time the application is deleted.

INS Processing Time for Nonimmigrant Data

According to the information we received, we conclude that the INS never established a 1-week standard for updating NIIS. The SSA cited new standards announced by the INS in December 2001 that require INS POEs to ship Forms I-94, Arrival/Departure Record, to the INS's data entry contractor within two days of the nonimmigrant's admission into the United States. The new standards also require the data entry contractor to process the Forms I-94 and upload the data into a database within three days of receipt of the forms. From this information, SSA officials inferred that the NIIS data would be available to it within five days of a nonimmigrant's admission. However, this conclusion was not correct, because the new INS time standards apply to only a part of the entire procedure necessary to process the admission records and update NIIS. When the data entry contractor completes processing the Forms I-94, the data is transmitted to another database contractor at a different location for additional processing, which requires additional time before the information is uploaded into NIIS.

In response to our review, the INS estimated that the entire process to upload nonimmigrant information into NIIS should take approximately 11 to 13 workdays, not 5 workdays. The INS does not track the actual time required for collecting and processing the information. Based on our review, we believe the INS's estimate that it can make NIIS data available through ASVI within 11 to 13 workdays after nonimmigrant admissions is based on reasonable approximations and assumptions. The SSA informed us that through an informal survey it conducted in September 2002 the SSA estimated that 60 percent of the I-94 data is available to it within 10 calendar days of nonimmigrant admissions into the United States.

ASVI is the electronic system that acts as an information conduit for the SSA field offices to access selected NIIS data elements. The INS updates NIIS with Forms I-94 data after a nonimmigrant is admitted. It uploads selected NIIS data elements into ASVI. That data is then available to the SSA field offices through the ASVI system. The availability of the required information is dependent on uploading the selected NIIS data elements, not on updating the ASVI database.

INS Ability to Ensure the Accuracy of Nonimmigrant Data

In 1997, we issued a report that found that NIIS data was seriously flawed in content and accuracy.33 Information we received from the contractor performing NIIS quality control analysis showed that for the 3-month period October through December 1996, 6.4 percent of the records received from the data entry contractor were rejected in the pre-load edit. The pre-load edit examines critical fields to ensure that data are present and valid. [There are seven critical fields in which an omission or error will cause a record to be rejected (admission number, first name, last name, date of birth, country of citizenship, date of arrival, and class of admission).]

In our April 2002 follow-up report on NIIS, we found that, according to an official from the INS's Statistics Office, the unreliability of nonimmigrant information continues to be a problem.34 As of September 2002, the NIIS program manager told us that no definitive assessment of NIIS data quality improvement could be made until he develops and implements appropriate management controls.

The NIIS program manager told us that he is developing a monthly "Fatal Error Report," which will be implemented by the DEC at the end of 2002. This report will track the source of incorrect data and allow for remedial action to improve data quality. The report will provide a list of errors by POE, POE inspection station, stamp number, and type of error.

The INS is also updating the Inspector's Field Manual with new instructions that will clearly state that inspectors should take the time necessary to accurately and fully complete Form I-94 while the nonimmigrant is present.


  1. There are significant limitations in the data available from the INS with respect to tracking individual nonimmigrants. Because the data are derived from the collection and tabulation of Forms I-94, the data represent admissions rather than individuals. Because a Form I-94 is collected each time a nonimmigrant enters the United States and because nonimmigrants may enter and leave the United States several times during any year (e.g., students returning home during vacation breaks or temporary workers returning home to attend to personal business), the number of arrivals do not equal the number of nonimmigrants admitted.

  2. The POEs do not ship Forms I-94 to the DEC on weekends and holidays. Memorandum from Michael Pearson, Executive Associate Commissioner, Office of Field Operations to all INS Regional Directors dated September 28, 2001, instructed air and sea POEs to forward Forms I-94 to the DEC twice per day, rather than once per day as previously instructed. Land POEs are to send Forms I-94 daily rather than weekly, except those with large numbers of Forms I-94. They are to send the forms twice per day.

  3. The DEC and the DC do not work weekends and holidays.

  4. Batch processing requires the data to be entered into an interim file that is built by the data entry process. Once all of the data is entered into that file or "batched," the file is uploaded into the NIIS database. Due to the nature of the system (both hardware and software), this uploading takes place at off hours to minimize competing activities (conducting queries and loading data) on NIIS thus slowing the system response time for end users.

  5. Queries can take 20 work days or more to be returned by the INS.

  6. SSA Emergency Message EM-02091 issued August 8, 2002.

  7. Nonimmigrants whose work authorization is incident to their class of admission do not have an employment authorization stamp on their Form I-94. EADs are issued only to nonimmigrants who have filed an Application for Employment Authorization.

  8. The SSA uses the Administrative-Confidential Memorandum to review the documents presented by the nonimmigrant applicant. The Administrative-Confidential Memorandum is an INS-prepared, controlled and limited distribution document that provides complete descriptions of common things to look for in counterfeit or fraudulent documents. Samples of real INS documents are included. The SSA also views the INS documents under a black light to check for security ink. The INS uses special security ink for most of its inspection stamps, which fluoresce under a black light. The ink is manufactured and distributed on a tightly controlled basis.

  9. Immigration and Naturalization Service Monitoring of Nonimmigrant Overstays, Report No. I-97-08, September 1997.

  10. Follow-Up Report On INS Efforts To Improve The Control Of Nonimmigrant Overstays, Report No. I-2002-006, April 2002.