The Immigration and Naturalization Service's Contacts With Two September 11 Terrorists: A Review of the INS's Admissions of Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi, its Processing of their Change of Status Applications, and its Efforts to Track Foreign Students in the United States
May 20, 2002
Office of the Inspector General
THE INS'S DELAYED PROCESSING OF ATTA'S AND ALSHEHHI'S APPLICATIONS FOR CHANGE OF STATUS
In this chapter of the report, the OIG addresses the first of the two questions presented by the Attorney General in his March 13, 2002, memorandum requesting our investigation:
We begin with detailed information about the forms used in the change of status process and the circumstances that gave rise to Atta and Alshehhi filing change of status applications with the INS. Next we describe the processing of Atta's and Alshehhi's change of status applications at the Texas Service Center, as well as the processing of the I-20 - the form that was sent to the contractor and returned to Huffman Aviation in March 2002. We then analyze the reasons that the INS took several months to process the change of status applications of Atta and Alshehhi.
Because it is directly related to the issue of the processing of the I-539 applications, we also analyze whether the INS properly approved Atta's and Alshehhi's change of status applications. In addition to examining each step of the adjudication process, we examine information that should have been available to the adjudicator before the adjudication was completed but was not.
As we previously discussed, foreign students who want to study in the United States can obtain legal permission to do so in two ways. The method pursued by the majority of foreign students is through the student visa process. The State Department is responsible for issuing visas to nonimmigrants outside the United States who intend to become full-time students. 40 Nonimmigrants may also ask the INS to change their status to students after they have entered the United States through other legal means. 41 This method does not involve the State Department.
To change their status to student while in the United States, the applicants file INS Form I-539 (Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status), 42 along with the appropriate fee 43 and the appropriate "evidence." (We show a blank I-539 form in the Appendix at page A-3.) 8 CFR § 248.3(b). Applicants must sign the I-539 form and submit copies of their I-94 form, a copy of their passport, and documentary evidence of financial support. 8 CFR § 214.2(f)(i)(A) - (C).
The student also must submit to the INS a completed I-20 form. The first page of the 4-page I-20 form is completed by the school and specifies the student's name, date of birth, and citizenship; the school's name, address, and INS school certification code; the name, length, and cost of the program for which the student has been accepted; the school's English proficiency requirements; and information on the student's financial resources. Page one is known as the "school copy" because it is eventually returned by the INS to the school. The second page contains a set of instructions for completing and filing the form. The third page is identical to the first page and also must be completed by the school. The last page contains signature lines, which must be signed by an approved school official if the student plans to leave the country temporarily. The last two pages constitute the "student copy," which is returned by the INS to the student after the adjudication decision is rendered. (We show an I-20 form in the Appendix at page A-8.) Both the school copy and the student copy of the I-20 must be signed by the appropriate school official and by the student. 8 CFR § 214.2(f)(1)(i)(A) and § 214.2(m)(1)(i)(A).
Change of status application forms (form I-539) are processed and adjudicated at one of four INS service centers. The I-539 instructions direct the applicant to send the form to a particular service center depending upon where the applicant lives. Since Atta and Alshehhi were living in Florida, they were required to send their applications to the Texas Service Center. At the Texas Service Center, the I-539 is adjudicated by a Center Adjudications Officer (CAO) based on a review of the file. Unlike with some INS applications, no in-person interview is conducted for the adjudication of I-539s.
Once the CAO approves the change of status application, the CAO stamps both the student copy and the school copy of the I-20. The CAO also writes in the new status and the dates for which the status is being granted. If the applicant is an F-1 student, the CAO will write "duration of status" or "D/S" on the I-20s. If the applicant is an M-1 student, the CAO will fill in the dates of the course of study as stated on the I-20 plus 30 days.
Immediately following the approval, the adjudicator returns the student copy to the student through the mail. The school copy of the I-20 is mailed to Affiliated Computer Services, Inc. (ACS) in London, Kentucky, the INS contractor who data enters information from the I-20s that is eventually uploaded to an INS database.
In 2001, under its interpretation of its contract, ACS data entered information from the school's copy of the I-20 and retained the form for 180 days. After 180 days, ACS mailed the school's copy of the I-20 to the school. 44
According to Rudi Dekkers, the Chief Executive Officer and President of Huffman Aviation International, Atta and Alshehhi first appeared at Huffman Aviation on July 1, 2000, and spoke to Huffman's student coordinator, who provided them with information on the flight school. Atta and Alshehhi returned to Huffman Aviation on July 3, 2000, and enrolled in a professional pilot's course. Dekkers stated that at the time that Atta and Alshehhi became students, approximately 75 percent of Huffman's enrollments were foreign students. 45 Dekkers told the OIG that to his knowledge, Atta and Alshehhi were the only foreign students at his school who were already in the United States when they applied. He said his students normally submitted applications from overseas.
Dekkers stated that he believed Atta and Alshehhi had previously attended another aviation school, so both had some piloting experience. He said they presented their logbooks when applying at Huffman to show proof of previous flight hours. According to Dekkers, he required Atta and Alshehhi to first take private lessons with Huffman Aviation before enrolling in the professional pilot's course. He said that he did this to make sure that they were "serious" about the course. He added that he routinely required students to first take private lessons for two to three months before enrolling in a course. Dekkers stated that Atta and Alshehhi were ready to take the professional pilot's course at the end of August 2000.
Huffman Aviation is certified by the INS as a vocational school (as opposed to an academic school) authorized to accept foreign students. Dekkers told the OIG that his policy was to issue I-20s to all of his foreign students and to require them to obtain M-1 visas in order to take any of his professional courses. 46 At the end of August, Atta and Alshehhi requested that Huffman Aviation's student coordinator provide them with the appropriate INS forms to enable them to apply for a change of status to become M-1 students.
Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20 forms stated that the Huffman course ran from September 1, 2000, until September 1, 2001. In fact, their course work was completed by December 2000. According to Dekkers, the professional pilot's course can be completed in up to one year, although some students working diligently are able to complete the course sooner. He said that the course has no required beginning and end dates, and that these dates are determined by the student's preference and progress. When the student has accrued a sufficient number of flight hours (based on Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] regulations), the student is eligible to take the pilot's license test. According to Dekkers, a course period of one year is normally listed on the I-20 to enable students to finish the course at their own pace. 47 The Huffman student coordinator told the OIG that Atta and Alshehhi specified that they wanted the course dates to be listed on the I-20 to run from September 1, 2000, through September 1, 2001.
According to INS records, the INS received Atta's and Alshehhi's change of status applications on September 19, 2000. While their applications were pending, Atta and Alshehhi continued taking the training course at Huffman Aviation through December 2000. On December 19, 2000, they completed the course by passing the FAA pilot's test. According to Huffman records, from July 2000 through December 2000, Atta was billed for 194.4 hours of flight instruction and 27.2 hours of pre/post flight instruction; Alshehhi was billed for 203.6 hours of flight instruction and 24.1 hours of pre/post flight instruction.
Personnel at the INS Texas Service Center (TSC) were responsible for processing and adjudicating Atta's and Alshehhi's applications for change of status. We describe the administrative and adjudication process for these applications in the sections that follow.
INS Service Centers primarily process and adjudicate applications and petitions that do not require face-to-face interviews with applicants.
Atta and Alshehhi submitted their I-539 applications for change of status to the TSC, the service center with responsibility for processing and adjudicating applications from Florida, where both men were residing and attending flight school. The TSC was run at the time by Deputy Service Center Director Carmelo A. Ortiz. Ortiz, who became the Deputy Service Center Director in 1997, served as the Acting Director of the TSC for several months prior to the arrival of the permanent Director on September 11, 2001. In addition to the Director and Deputy Director, the TSC has several Assistant Center Directors. The positions relevant to this report are four Assistant Center Directors for "Adjudications" (who oversee adjudications of different kinds of applications) and the Assistant Center Director for the Enforcement Operations Division, which handles referrals from the adjudicators of potential benefit fraud cases. 48
Many of the operations of service centers, such as the clerical functions associated with processing applications - including mail handling, data entry, and storage retrieval - are handled by a contractor. The adjudication functions, on the other hand, are handled by INS CAOs.
The TSC is composed of two facilities: a "headquarters" facility in Dallas, Texas, which houses the INS personnel, including the CAOs; and a warehouse in Mesquite, Texas, operated by contractor personnel who receive and process for eventual adjudication all applications sent to the TSC, including I-539s. 49 In 2001, the TSC employed approximately 300 INS employees (including 100 CAOs) and 430 contractor employees. In fiscal year 2001, the TSC received 919,664 applications and completed 708,344 applications.
["Immigration and Naturalization Service Texas Service Center as of July 2001" chart not included electronically.]
When Atta and Alshehhi submitted their I-539s in September 2000, applications for change of status were processed and adjudicated at the TSC in the manner described below. 50 A chart depicting this process is on the next page.
INS I–539 Change of Status Application Process
|Applicant submits INS I-539 application to the appropriate INS Service Center:
September 15, 2000
|INS contractor mailroom receives application and reviews for signature and appropriate
fee; if incomplete, returns to sender; if complete, date-stamps and creates receipt file:
September 19, 2000
|Receipt file given to Key Entry Operator, who enters data into INS CLAIMS. Bar code
label with unique file number is generated and affixed on file:
September 22, 2000
|Notice of receipt letter printed and sent to applicant:
September 22, 2000
|Receipt file is batched in groups of 25 and held for 2-3 days to ensure monetary fees are collected and tallied.|
|Receipt file is sent to the file room in the Work Distribution Unit (WDU):
September 25, 2000
|File is “called up” by a supervisor for assignment to a Center Adjudications Officer (CAO):
July 6, 2001
|CAO reviews the file for supporting documentation. CAO decides to approve, deny, or request additional evidence for each application.|
|CAO approves application and sends student copy of I-20 to the student:
July 17, 2001
|CAO updates CLAIMS after approving I-539 and approval notice is generated and sent:
July 17, 2001
|CAO places school copy of I-20 in a tray, and I-20s are eventually mailed to ACS in London,
Exact date unknown
|CAO returns adjudicated file to Mesquite facility where it is stored in the WDU for 90 days in
case of inquiry about the file is received before being sent to Federal Records Center:
August 14, 2001
|This chart depicts the process for I-539 change of status applications processed at the Texas Service Center in 2000-2001.|
Applicants for change of status are directed by the instructions on the INS forms to mail their applications to a particular post office box (depending on the type of form and the appropriate service center) and to attach the prescribed fee. Contractor personnel pick up the mail and subject it to a cursory review a "slit and peek" to determine the type of application and to ensure that it is accompanied by a remittance. These employees then segregate the applications by type, endorse the remittances for deposit, and forward the applications to a second group of mail room employees, known as the "set-up team."
The set-up team reviews the application to ensure there are no obvious problems that would prevent further processing. The most frequent disqualifying grounds are that the TSC does not have jurisdiction to adjudicate the application; that the remittance is for the wrong amount; or that the application is not signed. If one of these problems is identified, the application is rejected and returned to the alien without further processing.
If none of these problems is present, the file set-up personnel assemble each application, remittance, and supporting documentation in a "receipt file." The receipt files are transferred, oldest first, to a section called Data Entry, usually within one day of receipt of the application at the TSC.
Data entry personnel, called key entry operators, enter certain information from the application and the remittance directly into the INS's Computer Linked Application Information Management System (CLAIMS). 51 The key entry operators are responsible for separating the remittance from the application, 52 reviewing the file again for a limited number of grounds for rejection, such as the absence of a required signature, and manually keying in ("capturing") specified data from the application into CLAIMS. 53 After the requisite information is keyed into CLAIMS, the system automatically generates and prints a bar code label with a unique file number, which is affixed to the receipt file; the bar code label also records the initials of the key entry operator and the date of entry. 54 In addition, address labels are generated once the data entry is completed.
According to the Assistant Site Manager for Data Entry, on average a key entry operator processes an I-539 in 2-3 minutes. After the data from the application is keyed in and accepted by the system, CLAIMS automatically generates a notice on INS form I-797 to the applicant informing him or her that the application has been received at the TSC. These receipt notices are printed and mailed out within one to two days.
Following data entry, the files are sent to a "2-day hold" area to allow the contractor time to ensure that the money collected by the key operators tallies with the amounts inputted into the system. Once the daily receipts are balanced and the money is deposited, the batched receipt files are scanned into RAFACS and are sent to the Work Distribution Unit (WDU) in the file room. Receipt files are stored in the WDU until they are requested or "called up" by INS personnel for adjudication. The files are stored in the file room in order of date received by the TSC mail room.
Files are "called up" by Supervisory Center Adjudication Officers (SCAOs), who send a work order to the WDU requesting that the contractor deliver a specified number and type of receipt files to the SCAO or directly to designated CAOs.
The WDU fills the work order by gathering the requisite number and type of files (oldest files first), scanning the bar codes into RAFACS, and moving the files from the Mesquite facility to a small mail room operation at the Dallas facility, which is also run by the contractor. Contractor personnel at the Dallas facility deliver the mail to the person or area, including CAO work areas, designated in RAFACS by the Responsible Party Code. We were told that on average it takes one to three days from the request to the receipt of files. When CAOs receive the files, they acknowledge receipt by scanning the bar code label into RAFACS.
CAOs at the TSC are assigned to one of several Adjudications Divisions. Each Division is responsible for one or more "product lines" consisting of one or more types of applications. In July and August 2001, when Atta's and Alshehhi's applications were adjudicated, I-539s were under the Division that also had responsibility for naturalization applications (N-400s). 55
CAOs may approve or deny an application for a change of status or request additional evidence. After the CAO makes the adjudicative decision, the CAO stamps the application and the student and school copies of the I-20 to indicate whether the application has been approved or denied, and if approved, the period of stay authorized. Following adjudication, the CAO updates the CLAIMS database to reflect the disposition of the application. 56 The CAO then sends the student copy of the I-20 to the applicant, reflecting the approval and authorized period of stay. 57 At the time that Atta's and Alshehhi's applications were adjudicated, the CAO also forwarded the school copy of the I-20 to a clerical employee, who periodically sent batches of school I-20s to the INS contractor responsible for processing and storing the I-20. The CAO then returns the receipt file - now minus the I-20s - to the Mesquite facility for storage.
As indicated by the mail room's date stamp, the TSC received Atta's and Alshehhi's applications for a change of status on September 19, 2000. 58 Their applications were adjudicated and approved on July 17, 2001, and August 9, 2001, respectively - approximately 10 months and 10˝ months after receipt and less than 2 months before the September 11, 2001, attacks. As discussed below, we found that the delay in adjudicating these applications was principally the result of a policy decision by the INS to assign a low priority to the adjudication of change of status applications, which led to a substantial backlog in I-539 applications awaiting adjudication at the TSC. We concluded that the delay was not the result of any action by the contractor that had responsibility for processing the applications.
Through RAFACS we tracked the process of Atta's and Alshehhi's applications through the TSC.
The RAFACS history for the two applications reveals that the contractor at the Mesquite facility processed and prepared both applications for adjudication timely and consistent with the standard procedures in effect at that time. Both applications were entered into CLAIMS within three days after receipt at the TSC. They were received in the WDU and available for adjudication six days after receipt.
What is evident from the RAFACS data is that the cause of the delay in adjudicating the applications was that neither file was called up from the WDU by the INS for adjudication in a timely fashion. The Atta application sat in the WDU for almost ten months; the Alshehhi application sat in the WDU for approximately seven months and another three months passed before it was actually adjudicated. From the evidence available to the OIG, it appears that the delay in the INS's adjudication of Atta's and Alshehhi's applications was typical for the TSC. The OIG reviewed 70 other I-539 change of status applications for vocational students that were received by the TSC in September 2000 and determined that they too were adjudicated in July and August 2001.
INS Headquarters and TSC personnel consistently told the OIG that adjudicating I-539 applications has always been a "low priority" at the INS and that this has resulted in substantial backlogs. The INS's emphasis since 1996, according to INS personnel, has been on naturalization (N-400s) and adjustment of status (I-485) applications. 61 For the past several years, adjudications priorities have been distributed via memorandum by the Deputy Executive Associate Commission for the Immigration Services Division. I-539 applications were not on the list of priorities until fiscal year 2002 (which began October 1, 2001). In the priorities memoranda, target processing times are listed for the priority adjudications, and the forms that are not listed as a priority are given a target processing time of 180 days. For fiscal year 2002, when processing I-539s became a priority, the target processing time was listed as five months.
The TSC's average processing times for I-539s have remained consistently high since at least 1998. Average processing time for I-539s for FY 1998 was 102 days; for FY 1999 it was 129 days; for FY 2000 it was 129 days; and for FY 2001 it was 200 days. The graph on the next page illustrates this point.
The TSC's actual processing time report for July 2001 shows that the I-539s being adjudicated in July 2001 had been pending for 282 days, or almost 9 months. The OIG also found that the TSC adjudicated significantly fewer I-539s in FY 2001 than in FY 2000.
As a result of the low priority given to processing I-539s at the TSC prior to May 2001, no group of adjudicators in the TSC Adjudications Divisions was dedicated solely to adjudicating I-539s. The INS does not have national standard operating procedures (SOPs) for processing I-539s, and each service center has developed its own procedures for handling them. In addition, TSC managers could not tell the OIG which Assistant Center Director for Adjudications had responsibility for I-539 applications prior to May 2001. TSC Managers stated that responsibility for the I-539 was shifted among different managers at different times. Many TSC managers told the OIG that prior to May 2001, I-539s were adjudicated only episodically when the backlog of applications grew "excessive." When this occurred, I-539s would be distributed to CAOs in all the divisions and, on some occasions, to Immigration Information Officers. The adjudication "blitz" would continue until the backlog was reduced to an acceptable level. 62
In May 2001, the responsibility for I-539 applications was placed with a different Assistant Center Director for Adjudications, who had responsibility at the time for the product line that consisted of naturalization applications. She told the OIG that she was concerned when she reviewed the processing time report and saw that I-539s were taking several months to process. 63 She said that she asked the TSC managers at the time whether she could have additional personnel assigned to her group to adjudicate I-539s. She said that she was advised that additional personnel were not available but that she could assign two CAOs to adjudicate I-539s on a full-time basis. According to this Assistant Center Director, she assigned two senior examiners full time and she intended for them to continue to devote all of their time to I-539 applications until they asked to be switched from the assignment. These two adjudicators processed only I-539 applications from May 2001 until December 2001. One of these two CAOs approved Atta's application on July 17, 2001, and approved Alshehhi's application on August 9, 2001.
As mentioned previously, at the time Atta and Alshehhi's applications were approved, school copies of I-20s were mailed to ACS, the INS contractor responsible for processing school copies of I-20s. Based on the available record, the OIG was unable to determine when the Atta and Alshehhi I-20s were mailed from the TSC to ACS in London, Kentucky. ACS received the school copies of Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20 forms on September 24, 2001, approximately 2 months and 2˝ months, respectively, after the I-539 applications had been approved by the TSC.
Part of this delay was likely caused by confusion and administrative disorganization at the TSC. In July or August 2001, an Examinations Assistant was assigned to provide clerical support to the two CAOs processing the I-539 backlog. 64 E-mails provided to the OIG indicate that this employee was assigned to the backlog project on August 9, 2001, and that she did not begin mailing I-20s until August 20. Based on e-mails and interviews, we determined that personnel at the TSC were asked to instruct the Examinations Assistant in the correct procedures for mailing I-20s, but that there was some confusion about the correct address for ACS, the contractor in Kentucky. TSC personnel had sought guidance from INS Headquarters personnel on which address to use. A Headquarters employee provided two addresses for ACS, stating in an e-mail, "Its [sic] a little confusing, don't you think?"
The Examinations Assistant inquired on August 20, 2001, as to whether a determination had been made as to the proper address. Some time after she made the inquiry, she began mailing the I-20s to one of the two addresses provided by the INS Headquarters employee. By e-mail dated September 19, 2001, an INS Headquarters employee advised the TSC that she had obtained the correct address and identified one of the two addresses previously provided. This address, however, was not the address to which the Examinations Assistant had been sending the I-20s. A TSC employee forwarded the new address to the Examinations Assistant, telling her, "Don't worry about the [I-20s] you have already sent to the [the incorrect address]. They'll either figure it out or send them back to us." 65
In addition to the delay caused by the mailing problem, ACS, the data entry contractor in London, Kentucky, stored the school copies of Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20s for six months after processing them before returning them to the school.
In 2001, ACS provided data capture, storage, and retrieval services to the INS for a variety of INS forms, including the school copy of the I-20 form. ACS received Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20 forms on September 24, 2001, and extracted and processed the relevant information from those forms within several days. ACS then placed the forms in storage for six months, the period ACS believed that it was required to maintain the forms as set forth in its contract with Uniband. 66 On March 5, 2002, based on instructions issued by the INS in late February 2002 (the reasons for which are discussed more fully below), ACS mailed several thousand I-20s to the respective schools; among these I-20s were forms originally completed by Huffman Aviation and provided to Atta and Alshehhi. Huffman Aviation reportedly received the I-20s for Atta and Alshehhi on or before March 11, 2002.
The evidence shows that ACS timely processed the I-20 forms associated with Atta's and Alshehhi's I-539 applications and placed them in storage. The evidence also shows that ACS operated under an understanding that its contract with Uniband provided that it should store the school copy of the I-20 for 180 days after processing was completed. What is unclear, however, is whether Uniband's contract with the INS - which was the basis for ACS's contract with Uniband - required something other than a 180-day storage requirement in the processing of I-20s. We found evidence that indicates that while the INS contemplated a storage requirement for other INS forms processed by Uniband and by ACS, the INS intended that I-20s be processed and returned to the schools within 30 days. But based upon the record available to us, we are not able to conclude what the actual intent of the contract was or who, if anyone, made a mistake with respect to the processing of I-20s. We are concerned, however, that the INS, through lack of attention to the contract, permitted the contractor to process forms contrary to the INS's intent.
ACS is based in Dallas, Texas, and provides business processing and information technology services to commercial and government accounts. With respect to government accounts, ACS has contracts with various agencies of the federal government, including the INS. 67 Since approximately 1982, a wholly owned subsidiary of ACS or a predecessor company, either as a subcontractor or the prime contractor, has provided mail room services, microfilming, data capture, and document storage for multiple INS forms - in particular the I-20 form and some or all I-94 forms. These services have always been performed by ACS or its predecessor at a facility in London, Kentucky. 68
Data captured from the forms by ACS is transmitted electronically to the INS for eventual upload into several INS databases: information from the I-94 forms is eventually included in the Nonimmigrant Information System (NIIS), the INS's principal record-keeping system for nonimmigrants; and information from the I-20 forms is eventually included in the Student and Schools System (STSC), which provides the INS with statistical information pertaining to nonimmigrant students and the schools that enroll them. However, ACS has not and does not enter data into these or any other INS databases directly or maintain any INS information systems.
From approximately 1982 to 1996, the INS contracted directly with ACS to process various forms, including I-20s and I-94s. In 1996, the INS awarded the prime contract to Uniband, Inc., a Native American tribal-owned company located in Belcourt, North Dakota. Uniband subcontracted with ACS to provide the processing and storage functions for most of the INS forms covered in the prime contract - including I-20s and I-94 departure records. In 1996, the INS awarded Uniband a 5-year contract for processing the various forms; Uniband, in turn, subcontracted most of the work, including the processing of I-20s, to ACS. 69 In October 2001, ACS became the prime contractor when the INS entered into a blanket purchase agreement with ACS to provide data entry and storage functions for several INS forms. 70 No INS employees work at the ACS facility in Kentucky, not even an employee responsible for monitoring the performance of ACS.
The ACS London, Kentucky, facility receives completed I-20 forms from INS service centers, ports of entry, and schools. 71 ACS employees pick up the mail from the post office and deliver it to mail room employees who open the mail and separate the I-20s and other forms by type. Each type of form is then grouped into batches - I-20s are typically grouped in batches of 1000 - so ACS can estimate the number of each type of form received on a given day. These segregated batches are placed in records storage boxes, which are then dated. Prior to December 18, 2001, ACS was not required to log any of these mail receipt operations into a tracking system. 72
The set-up boxes, each containing batches of a specific type of form received on a given day, are moved from the mail room to the document preparation station, where ACS employees ensure the documents are ready for scanning and microfilming. Prior to December 18, 2001, this was the first point in the process at which the boxes were logged into a tracking system. Document preparation employees check the forms for the required signatures (on the I-20, the nonimmigrant's signature and the designated school official's signature), label multiple copies of forms and attachments as such, and repair any rips or tears in the documents. The boxes are then logged out and sent to the Microfilming/Scanning section.
At the Microfilming/Scanning work station, I-20 forms and any attached documentation are microfilmed and image scanned. 73 For each receipt date, ACS makes two sets of the microfilm - an original and duplicate. The duplicate microfilm is shipped immediately to the INS Records Management Branch, in Washington, D.C.; the original microfilm is held for 30 days and then shipped to the same place. The scanned images of the I-20s are used solely for processing purposes. The images are electronically transmitted to different computer workstations within the London, Kentucky, facility and to other ACS facilities for data entry. The scanned images eventually are discarded as authorized by the contract. Following scanning, the computer system transmits small batches of the I-20 images to data entry operators.
At Data Entry, operators capture certain information from the forms: for I-20s, they enter information about the student and school, dates of expected attendance, type of status (F-1 or M-1), major field of study, and name of the designated school official. 74 If the I-20 does not reflect a valid school code, it is returned to the INS district office with responsibility for the school. Data entry operators keyed in between 800 and 850 I-20 forms each day.
After data entry, the captured information is transmitted to Quality Control, which randomly samples forms to ensure that data entry accurately captured the requisite information. 75 Additionally, at this stage the computer system runs an automated edit check that flags certain problems.
After completion of the quality control review, the "source documents" (such as the school I-20s) are sent to storage; the data captured from the forms are transmitted in ASCII form electronically to the INS data center, 76 where another INS contractor, Electronic Data Systems (EDS), is responsible for eventually uploading the information in the appropriate INS database, such as NIIS and STSC. The ACS tracking system is updated to show the time spent in Data Entry/Quality Control and the date the information was transmitted to EDS. Under the terms of the 1996 contract, Uniband, and ACS, as the subcontractor, had five calendar days to process I-20s from point of receipt to data transmission to the INS data center. Under the new contract, effective December 18, 2001, ACS must accomplish the process in three calendar days.
After the source documents are microfilmed, scanned, and data entered, they are stored for a specified time period, depending upon the type of form. The source documents were moved from the Data Entry section to an on-site storage portion of the facility, which maintains the documents in records storage boxes that specify the date received at ACS and by form type. ACS personnel told the OIG they understood that it is necessary to archive these documents for some period in case the source documents are needed for forensic purposes or as evidence in legal proceedings. The contract in effect at the time estimated that the INS would request the contractor to retrieve 6,000 documents annually. In 2001, ACS received eight requests from the INS to retrieve archived documents; three of these requests were for student forms. 77
Following the prescribed storage period, ACS mails the school copy of the I-20 to the school. To prepare the school copy of the I-20s for mailing, the forms are fed into a machine that trifolds each form so that the school address (completed by the school) will show in an envelope window. The folded forms are then fed into a second machine, which stuffs the forms in an envelope and seals the envelope. Clerical personnel then complete a quick quality control check that consists of flipping through the stack of envelopes to make sure the address shows in the window. The envelopes are put in a mail tray and delivered to the Post Office.
The contract authorizes ACS to destroy most of the other source documents after the storage period has expired.
Officials from both Uniband and ACS told the OIG that they understood the contract between Uniband and the INS in effect in September 2001, when ACS received the adjudicated Atta and Alshehhi I-20s, to require ACS to store the school copy of the I-20 for 180 days. They also stated that following the requisite storage period, the contract required ACS to return to the school, and not destroy, the I-20 form. As a result of these contractual requirements, they maintained, ACS was obligated to maintain possession of the original (school copy) I-20s for Atta and Alshehhi until March 24, 2002 (180 days after the date of receipt, September 24, 2001).
ACS mailed the school copies of the I-20s of Atta and Alshehhi to Huffman Aviation as part of a mass mailing on March 5, 2002. Huffman Aviation received Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20s on or before March 11, 2002, approximately two weeks before the 180-day storage requirement expired. This mailing was initiated at the direction of the INS. Representatives from ACS told the OIG that it was obligated to process all work received before December 18, 2001, the date its contract with the INS took effect, under the terms of its former subcontract with Uniband and to process all work received after December 18, 2001, under the terms of the new contract, which required ACS to return the I-20s to schools within 30 days. 78 In late February 2002, INS representatives met with ACS at the London, Kentucky, facility to discuss the execution of the new contract. With respect to all forms that were being held in storage under the terms of the previous contract, the INS asked ACS to accelerate the rate at which it was sending out archived I-20s to bring its inventory of archived I-20s in line with the requirements of the new contract. In compliance with this request, ACS conducted several mass mailings of forms within a several day period. On March 5, 2002, Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20s were part of one of these mass mailings that included 4,000 forms and were therefore not maintained for the entire 180-day period. 79
The path that the Atta and Alshehhi I-20 forms took through the ACS facility and how long they remained at each station can mostly be determined from data entered into the tracking system used by ACS at the time (and with minor changes in place today). As explained above, the system does not track individual forms; it tracks "batches," small numbers (50 or so) of the same type of form grouped together for processing.
The tracking system contained the following information on the two batches of I-20s containing the Atta and Alshehhi forms.
|Receipt at ACS||9/24/01|
|Start of batch scanning||9/25/01 12:27 PM|
|Completion of scanning||9/25/01 12:32 PM|
|Start of batch data entry||10/02/01 2:30 PM|
|Completion of batch data entry||10/02/01 3:17 PM|
|Start of batch quality control review||10/03/01 6:23 AM|
|Completion of batch quality control review||10/03/01 6:24 AM|
|Start of batch data transmission||10/05/01 8:10 AM|
|Receipt at ACS||9/24/01|
|Start of batch scanning||9/25/01 12:29 PM|
|Completion of scanning||9/25/01 12:32 PM|
|Start of batch data entry||10/02/01 2:32 PM|
|Completion of batch data entry||10/02/01 3:17 PM|
|Start of batch quality control review||10/03/01 6:23 AM|
|Completion of batch quality control review||10/03/01 6:25 AM|
|Start of batch data transmission||10/05/01 8:10 AM|
Based on the information logged by ACS as the forms made their way through the process, it took ACS approximately 10 calendar days to process the Atta and Alshehhi I-20 forms from receipt through transmission to the INS. 80 Although it took ACS twice the 5-day contract requirement to process these two files, the tracking system data shows that the forms were not unduly delayed at any stage of the process. Moreover, it appears that the delay resulted from an enormous volume of forms submitted to ACS following September 11, 2001.
The evidence also shows that Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20 forms were not processed any differently from other I-20s submitted around that same time period. In each case, ACS processed the I-20s from receipt through data transmission within a matter of days, stored the I-20s for 180 days, and returned the I-20s to the appropriate school.
While we found that ACS did not process or store the Atta and Alshehhi I-20s differently from other I-20s, we found evidence that the INS had intended for I-20s to be mailed to schools within 30 days of processing, not after 180 days of storage. This 30-day processing requirement appears to have been in the INS's previous contracts for processing these forms. In addition, the language in ACS's current contract is almost exactly the same as the language in the prior contract - the one in force in September 2001 - and requires ACS to return I-20s within 30 days of processing. Below we discuss these contractual requirements because we found that the INS may not have provided sufficient attention to this contract to ensure that the contractor and its subcontractor's performance was consistent with the INS's intent.
The 1996 contract between the INS and Uniband contained several provisions defining the time period the contractor was required to store documents following processing. 81 At least one of these provisions also provided that following passage of the storage period, the contractor was to destroy the forms.82 The contract also contained a provision specifically requiring the contractor to return the school copy of the I-20 to the school within 30 days after processing.
Section C.5.1.3 of the contract, entitled "Document Storage, Retrieval and Disposal," stated:
The Contractor shall store all original source documents for a period of 120 days, except for the Visa Waiver I-94, I-94T and I-92 documents. These documents shall be stored for a period of one (1) year.... Original documents shall be destroyed within 7 days after the document's storage period has expired.
The same section of the contract, however, contained a provision - Section C.5.1, entitled "Document Collection and Control" - that referred to special processing requirements for certain specified documents:
The Contractor shall provide, implement, and maintain procedures to ensure the receipt, accountability, and control of approximately sixty million (60,000,000) documents from various locations ... throughout the United States and Canada. Samples of the forms and documents to be processed and specific requirements for the processing of each document are provided as Attachments B and C, respectively, in Section J of this contract.
Attachment C to Section J of the contract, entitled "Specific Forms/Documents Processing Requirements," contained a provision providing several specific processing requirements for I-20 forms. That provision provided, in pertinent part:
Return page 1 of the I-20 to the school thirty (30) days after processing. (Emphasis added.)
In July 1998, the INS issued a Task Order (what we refer to as Task Order No. 1) to the contract that included a Statement of Work effectively superseding the description of the work set forth in Section C.5 of the contract. The most significant change was that I-92s would no longer be stored for one year but for 180 days. Other forms would continue to be stored for 120 days. Task Order No. 1 also contained, however, a paragraph entitled "Scope of Work," that repeated word-for-word the provisions in Section C.5.1 of the underlying contract, quoted above, which refers to the specific requirements for particular forms as stated in the attachments, specifically Attachment C.
The INS and Uniband modified Task Order No. 1 and thus the contract in August 1998. The modification changed the standard storage period for original source documents from 120 days to 180 days. But this modification did not, at least explicitly, modify or amend the provisions in the Scope of Work clause in Task Order No. 1, which incorporates by reference the specific requirements for particular forms as stated in the attachments, specifically Attachment C.
Several ACS employees acknowledged that at some point in the past, ACS did return I-20 forms to the schools within 30 days. These employees recalled that the storage requirements for I-20s changed from 30 days to 120 days and then again to 180 days, although they did not recall when the changes occurred or what precipitated the changes.
ACS representatives told the OIG that it was their understanding that the August 1998 modification to the contract superseded the prior storage requirements for all source documents and set a new storage requirement of 180 days. 83 It appears that ACS followed this interpretation for several years - until December 2001, when ACS signed a contract with INS that, like the 1996 contract with Uniband, specified a 30-day storage requirement for I-20 forms in Attachment C to the contract.
Based upon our reading of the contract and subsequent modifications, we believe that it was the INS's intention that I-20 forms be returned to the schools in 30 days, as explicitly set forth in Attachment C to the original contract. Our interviews with the INS personnel who were responsible for managing the Uniband contract did not result in any further clarity regarding the INS's intent with respect to the processing of I-20 documents, as expressed in the special processing requirements in Attachment C, or whether at some point that intent changed and the INS sought to have all forms handled by ACS processed and stored for 180 days. 84
The management and oversight of this contract was the responsibility of the INS's Office of Information Resource Management (IRM), which is a component of the Office of Management. IRM personnel responsible for this contract believed that administration of this contract should have fallen to the Inspections Division, and they sought to have administrative responsibility for the contract reassigned to Inspections. 85 As a result, IRM assigned the contract a low priority. The Contracting Officer's Technical Representative (COTR) within IRM who had responsibility for the INS-Uniband contract told the OIG that, because of other duties he was assigned, he exercised minimal oversight of the contract. He stated that he visited the Uniband facility only once prior to the day the contract was closed out and similarly visited the ACS facility only once. Neither visit was for the purpose of reviewing any specific contract requirements. He stated that at the time he was not familiar with the terms of the contract, and there is no evidence that he made any effort to monitor the contractor's compliance with the provisions of the contract. 86 As one employee who dealt with the contract told the OIG, IRM's management of the Uniband contract was tantamount to "non-management." As a result of this "laissez-faire" monitoring of the contractor's performance, it does not appear that the INS ever advised Uniband or ACS that its 180-day storage of I-20s was inconsistent with the terms of the contract. 87
Huffman Aviation received its copies of Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20 forms in March 2002, more than a year and a half after the forms were submitted to the INS in September 2000 and approximately seven months after the I-539 change of status applications were approved in July and August 2001.
We found that the delay in sending the I-20 forms to Huffman Aviation was attributable to several causes. First, the INS did not adjudicate Atta's and Alshehhi's I-539 change of status applications for approximately 10 months. The INS has historically placed a low priority on the adjudication of I-539 applications, and the adjudication of these applications was significantly backlogged in 2001.
Second, after Atta's and Alshehhi's applications were approved in July and August 2001, ACS did not receive the I-20 forms from the INS for approximately two months after adjudications. Processing was delayed for many weeks due to disorganization in the INS's system for mailing the I-20s to ACS.
Third, ACS processed Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20 forms quickly upon receipt in September 2001 but did not mail the forms to Huffman Aviation for almost 180 days. ACS's actions were consistent with its understanding of its contract at the time and were consistent with its handling of other I-20 forms processed by ACS at the time. However, we found evidence that the INS had intended for the I-20s to be mailed to schools within 30 days not after 180 days.
We are troubled by the INS's lack of attention to its contract with Uniband and its lack of attention to the performance of ACS in processing I-20s. Even operating within a system that designated I-539s as a low priority, we believe that the INS's Office of Information Resource Management, which was responsible for monitoring the contract, should have been more familiar with the terms of the contract and exercised more oversight to ensure that its contractor was abiding by the INS's understanding of the terms of the contract, especially since no INS employees worked at the ACS facility. We believe that the INS should have paid more attention to the performance of the contract.
In addition to investigating what caused the delay in the INS's processing of the I-20s that were sent to Huffman Aviation on March 11, 2002, we evaluated whether the INS properly approved Atta's and Alshehhi's change of status applications.
The adjudication of I-539 change of status applications consists primarily of a review to ensure that the applicant has submitted the proper documents and the proper fee. This process is not designed to screen for potential criminals or terrorists; it is designed to ensure that applicants can demonstrate that they have the financial resources to support themselves while in the United States. INS employees at all levels told the OIG that the INS's philosophy with respect to applications for INS benefits, and specifically the change of status benefit, is that applicants are presumptively eligible for the benefit unless they affirmatively demonstrate that they are not eligible. The percentage of approvals for I-539 change of status applications (not including extension of stay applications) has been 83 percent, 88 percent, 90 percent, and 91 percent for fiscal years 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001, respectively, and field personnel told the OIG that in their experience the majority of the denials stem from an applicant failing to timely file the change of status application. 88
In the sections that follow, we discuss several issues related to the change of status adjudication process.
When a CAO initially receives a file containing a change of status application for student status, the CAO should first ensure that the I-539 has been signed and that the two I-20s have been signed by the school official and by the student. 89 If the forms have not been signed, the adjudicator is supposed to return the entire application to the applicant. However, this procedural requirement is not explicitly stated in the SOPs for the I-539 applications that were in use at the TSC at the time that Atta's and Alshehhi's applications were adjudicated. TSC personnel stated that since the signature requirement pertains to all forms adjudicated in the service centers, it was not considered a requirement particular to the I-539 and therefore unnecessary for inclusion in the SOPs. In addition, the signature requirement is not addressed in the Adjudicator's Field Manual, since the portions of the INS's Adjudicator's Field Manual that address nonimmigrants have not yet been completed.
With respect to Atta's and Alshehhi's I-539 applications, both signed the I-539 forms and submitted the appropriate fee. The school copy of both Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20s were signed by an official representing Huffman Aviation, but not by Atta or Alshehhi.
We learned in interviews with TSC personnel that adjudicators consistently return I-539s that have not been signed. But with respect to the I-20 forms, which require the signature of the school official and the student, CAOs often do not return the application form to the student if the I-20 has not been signed by the student, only if the I-20 is not signed by the school official. Instead of returning the application to the student, the CAO normally makes a note to the student that the student copy of the I-20 must be signed, and this information reaches the student when the student copy of the I-20 is returned to the student after adjudication. According to TSC personnel, CAOs have adopted this practice because it is more efficient than returning the entire application to the student simply to obtain a signature. TSC personnel stated that since the student copy of the I-20 must be signed by the student to re-enter the country, the student would eventually be required to sign the form by an inspector at the port of entry.
Another preliminary step that the CAO must conduct is ensuring that the applicant filed the application prior to the lapse of his or her current status. On the I-539 form, applicants state their current nonimmigrant status and the date that the status expires. This information can be verified by the CAO by reviewing the copy of the arrival I-94 submitted by the applicant. TSC personnel told the OIG that the TSC considers the application "received" when INS date stamps the application in the mail room. If the CAO determines that the application was not timely filed, the adjudicator will set the application aside in a stack of files that the adjudicator later prepares for denial. 90
In this case, Atta and Alshehhi timely filed their I-539 applications. The TSC received Atta's and Alshehhi's applications on September 19, 2000, and they were both data entered on September 22, 2000. 91 Atta's admission as a B-2 visitor on June 3, 2000, was not scheduled to lapse until December 2, 2000. Alshehhi's admission as a B-2 visitor on May 29, 2000, was not scheduled to lapse until November 28, 2000. 92
After the CAO determines that the application form was signed and timely filed, the CAO must ensure that the applicant has submitted the proper evidence as required by law and by the instructions on the I-539. To change to nonimmigrant student status, the applicant must submit a copy of the I-94, a copy of his or her passport showing that it and the visa have not expired, and documentary evidence of financial support in the amount indicated on the I-20.
INS regulations do not define what constitutes sufficient "documentary evidence of financial support." The portions of the Adjudicator's Field Manual addressing nonimmigrants have not been completed, and the Field Manual does not contain any guidance for adjudicators on this issue. We also found no reference to this topic in INS's Operations Instructions. According to Service Center personnel that we interviewed, there is no centralized guidance on what evidence is required to be submitted or what evidence should be considered in adjudicating an I-539 change of status application. As a result, each service center has developed its own guidance. TSC personnel stated that adjudicators are provided with examples of documents that can be submitted, such as copies of bank statements, a letter from a bank, or a copy of the parents' tax return if the family, but not the student, is currently living in the country. With respect to students from European countries, TSC personnel stated that CAOs at the TSC are trained that a letter or affidavit from the parents stating that they will support the student is also acceptable. We found that much of the determination is left to the discretion of the adjudicator.
If an adjudicator determines that the appropriate evidence has not been submitted, the adjudicator can make a request for more evidence, which results in the application being put on hold until the applicant complies with the request. The adjudicator may also deny the application. If an adjudicator determines that the appropriate evidence has been submitted and that the other requirements discussed above have been met, the adjudicator will approve the application. 93
In this case, Atta and Alshehhi each submitted copies of their I-94s, valid passports, and valid visas. In addition, each submitted a bank statement record signed by a bank official demonstrating a joint account between Atta and Alshehhi with a balance on September 6, 2000, of $21,372.52. Atta and Alshehhi also each attached a handwritten note stating that each was being supported by his family and that money was being transferred to their account regularly. Atta and Alshehhi also submitted copies of a lease for a property that they were renting in Venice, Florida.
In sum, based on our review of the steps taken by the adjudicator and the evidence presented by Atta and Alshehhi, we concluded that the adjudicator approved Atta's and Alshehhi's I-539 applications in accord with INS policies and practices. Because the I-20s were not signed by Atta or Alshehhi, however, the adjudicator should have returned the applications. But TSC adjudicators rarely returned such forms without a signature.
Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20s stated that their course of study was from September 1, 2000, until September 1, 2001. Their admission period was noted on their I-20s as being from September 1, 2000, until October 1, 2001, which is one year plus 30 days. We investigated to determine whether this time period was appropriate.
As discussed earlier in this report, foreign students are permitted to stay in the United States for different lengths of time, depending on their status and course of study. Vocational students, or M-1 students, are authorized to be admitted "for the period of time necessary to complete the course of study … plus thirty days within which to depart from the United States or for one year, whichever is less." 8 CFR § 214.2(m)(5). According to the guidance in the Inspector's Field Manual, however, the admission period for an M-1 student cannot exceed one year. 94 As stated earlier in this report, the portions of the Adjudicator's Field Manual addressing nonimmigrants have not been completed.
According to the adjudicator in this case, his understanding of the law and INS policy was that a vocational student is entitled to be in status for only one year. He stated that he wrote in the end date of the admission period with an additional 30 days because it is the grace period that all vocational students are provided so that they can leave the country. He said that inspectors who encountered the I-20 would understand that the 30 additional days were the grace period only and not the time the student was considered in status. According to other Service Center personnel, this practice of allowing a vocational student whose course of study is one year an additional 30 days to vacate is not uncommon, and there is no INS policy prohibiting this practice. 95 INS inspectors interviewed by the OIG stated, however, that they admit vocational students only for one year even if the course is scheduled to last for one year and that no additional days are added for the "grace period."
In sum, we found that the law permits a vocational student to remain in status for a total of one year and that there is no provision for an additional grace period after the expiration of the 1-year period. In this case, the CAO's decision to include a 30-day grace period in the status period for Atta and Alshehhi was incorrect.
This mistake did not, however, affect the legal status of Atta and Alshehhi as of September 11, 2001. Even if Atta and Alshehhi had been given M-1 status for only one year, Atta and Alshehhi would have been in the country legally on September 11 based on their still valid B-1/B-2 visas. Moreover, Atta re-entered the United States for the last time on July 19, 2001, and was admitted as a B-1 visitor until November 12, 2001. Alshehhi was admitted for the last time on May 2, 2001 as a B-2 visitor until November 2, 2001.
According to federal regulations, students are eligible for nonimmigrant student status only while they are pursuing a "full course of study." Once students complete their course of study, they are no longer in student status and must leave the country. 96 8 CFR § 214.1(a)(3). We sought to determine whether the school or the student has any obligation to report to the INS that the student has completed school or terminated his or her studies for some other reason.
With regard to students, the law does not require them to report any information to the INS about their student status. Students are obligated to leave the United States once they are no longer in student status.
With respect to schools, the reporting obligations are not clearly set out in the law. Section 101 of the INA, which defines academic and vocational students, includes the following language about academic and vocational schools: "… institution[s] shall have agreed to report to the Attorney General the termination of attendance of each nonimmigrant [academic or nonacademic] student and if any such institution fails to make reports promptly the approval shall be withdrawn." 8 USC § 1101(a)(15)(f) and (m).
The regulations state that the INS will provide to the schools a list of students at least once a year, and once the schools have this list, they are obligated to notify the INS of any student on the list who is no longer in school or taking a full course of study. 8 CFR § 214.3(g)(3). We found that the INS has not provided these lists to the schools since 1989 because of problems with the INS's computer system that records information about students, the Student and Schools System or STSC. 97 Unless the INS has requested information about the status of students, the schools do not have any affirmative obligation to report this information to the INS.
We also found that when schools voluntarily provide this information to the INS, the information is provided to the INS district office in which the school is located, but the INS rarely takes any action on this information. Moreover, the INS has no system by which this information, if reported, is shared with the service centers or put into any computer system.
The course of study for Atta and Alshehhi was defined on their I-20s as lasting from September 1, 2000, until September 1, 2001, and the TSC CAO approved their student status until October 1, 2001. However, Atta and Alshehhi passed the required examination to obtain a pilot's license on December 19, 2000, and had finished their course of studies at Huffman Aviation by the time the TSC CAO approved their change of status. But the CAO had no information in the file or in any computer system by which he could have been aware that Atta and Alshehhi had completed the pilot's program in December 2000. Had the CAO been aware of this information, he would have approved the application but would have allowed admission only between September 1, 2000, and the end of the program, plus 30 days.
An applicant is not entitled to change to student status unless the applicant is pursuing a "full course of study." For vocational students, a full course of study requires "at least eighteen clock hours of attendance a week if the dominant part of the course of study consists of classroom instruction, or at least twenty-two clock hours a week if the dominant part of the course of study consists of shop or laboratory work." 8 CFR § 214.2(m)(9)(iii). Huffman Aviation billing records show that neither Atta nor Alshehhi attended school the required 18 or the required 22 hours per week. Accordingly, they did not meet the "full course of study" requirement. 98
Nonetheless, the CAO had no way of learning that information. Schools are required to certify on the I-20 that each student has enrolled in a full course of study to obtain the M-1 visa or the change of status to an M-1. Once Huffman Aviation certified Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20s, the CAO had no reason not to accept the certification at face value. In addition, as stated above, the INS has not asked schools since 1989 to report students who are failing to take a full course of study.
As discussed earlier in this report, Atta and Alshehhi left and re-entered the United States on two occasions while their I-539 applications were pending. The INS's stated policy is that nonimmigrant students abandon their I-539 applications if they leave the country while the application is pending and that the application should be denied by the adjudicator. 99 Therefore, according to this INS policy, Atta's and Alshehhi's applications should have been denied for abandonment.
The CAO who adjudicated their cases, however, was not aware that Atta and Alshehhi had departed the country, even though this information was in the INS's computer system. A nonimmigrant's arrivals to and departures from the United States are supposed to be recorded on I-94 forms, which are collected by inspectors when a nonimmigrant arrives into the country and are supposed to be collected by the airlines when a nonimmigrant departs the country. The airlines should send the forms to the INS to be data entered by an INS contractor and later uploaded into the INS's Nonimmigrant Information System (NIIS).
Although adjudicators have access from their computer terminals to NIIS, we found that CAOs were not required at the time to check NIIS before making a decision on an I-539 application. Unless a copy of the I-94 was not attached to the application and the CAO needed to access NIIS in order to confirm the date the applicant arrived, CAOs normally did not check NIIS.
On March 15, 2002, after the controversy about Atta's and Alshehhi's change of status applications surfaced, the INS issued new requirements with respect to processing I-539s, including the requirement that NIIS be checked before the I-539 is adjudicated.100
We found that while CAOs have the ability to check NIIS and refer cases suspected of fraud to the Enforcement Operations Division, they do not routinely do so because of pressure to adjudicate cases quickly. For example, one experienced CAO told the OIG that he has not accessed NIIS regularly in the past because, even though it would only take approximately 30 seconds to complete the transaction, it was not worth the time to do so because it would interfere with the CAO completing the required number of cases.
Moreover, adjudicators are evaluated based on the number of applications they complete. Their performance appraisal rating is based on a point system, and adjudicators receive points for each application or petition they adjudicate. The number of points assigned to an application is based on the complexity of the type of adjudication. For example, an adjudicator receives 15 points for each change of status application adjudicated. Although denial letters and requests for evidence require significantly more time for adjudicators to review, they do not receive any additional points for completing these transactions. According to the performance work plan for CAOs in effect between March 2001 and April 2002, to achieve an outstanding rating, a journeyman CAO would be required to obtain over 1,149 points during an 8-hour period. To obtain an excellent rating, the journeyman CAO would have to obtain 880 to 1,149 points. For the GS9/11 CAO, the outstanding level requires over 1,072 points in an 8-hour period, and the excellent rating requires 806 to 1,072 points. If we assume an average of 1,000 points and a CAO adjudicating change of status applications, this would require the adjudicator to complete approximately 66 applications in an 8-hour day. Factoring in 30 minutes for lunch but no breaks, an adjudicator would spend approximately 7 minutes on each application. To achieve the required 1,000 points, the CAO would actually have to complete cases even faster than this average, because the averages are calculated with no breaks and no delays such as preparing denial letters or requests for information. One experienced TSC adjudicator told the OIG that he adjudicates approximately 75 I-539 applications per day.
The U.S. General Accounting Office also recently observed the production pressure faced by adjudications officers and the effect this pressure has on an adjudicator referring cases for fraud investigation. See "Immigration Benefit Fraud: Focused Approach is Needed to Address Problems," Report No. GAO-02-66, January 2002, p. 5 and p. 29. The GAO stated, "Some adjudicators told us that because of the pressure to adjudicate cases quickly, they did not routinely use investigations staff to look into potentially fraudulent applications: doing so would take more time and reduce the number of applications they could review." The OIG has also addressed the impact of the production pressure faced by adjudicators on the quality of adjudications in our July 2000 report on the INS's "Citizenship USA Initiative," a program in fiscal year 1996 that targeted reducing the backlogs in the naturalization program.
The adjudicator who approved Atta's and Alshehhi's change of status application did so in accord with INS policies and practices at the time. The process for reviewing these applications was not designed to uncover criminals or potential terrorists. Rather, it was a paper-driven process that required the applicant to meet minimal standards to obtain the desired change of nonimmigrant status. Applicants were viewed as presumptively eligible unless they clearly demonstrated that they were not eligible. On paper, Atta and Alshehhi met the requirements for change of status, and the adjudicator routinely approved their applications.
We noted several problems with the adjudication process, however. First, Atta and Alshehhi had not signed their I-20 forms, which technically should have resulted in the applications being returned to them. However, the TSC had adopted a practice of bringing the missing signature to the attention of the student by noting it on the student copy of the I-20, which was eventually returned to the student after adjudication of the application. The INS should determine whether this practice is consistent with INS policy and then address this issue in national standard operating procedures and the Adjudicator's Field Manual.
Second, the adjudicator approved Atta's and Alshehhi's admissions for one year plus thirty days. Federal regulations are clear that vocational students are permitted to remain in vocational student status for the length of their course of study, with a maximum of one year. The TSC practice of permitting vocational students whose course of study is one year an additional 30-day grace period may exist at other service centers. If, as it appears to us, this practice is contrary to INS regulations and policy, the INS should take steps to correct this practice.
Finally, and most importantly, we found that the adjudicator did not have complete information about Atta and Alshehhi before adjudicating their applications. Although Atta and Alshehhi had finished their course at Huffman Aviation by the time their applications were adjudicated, the process is not designed to collect this information and even if it were collected, to make this information known to adjudicators in the service centers. Similarly, Atta and Alshehhi were not entitled to student status because they were not taking a "full course of study" as required by law, but the INS did not have any system for collecting or otherwise providing this information to adjudicators. In addition, the adjudicator was not aware that Atta and Alshehhi had departed the United States twice while their applications were pending, thus rendering their applications abandoned. Although the INS captures information about departures in its NIIS database, adjudicators were not required to access NIIS in every case to ensure that the applicant had not departed the United States while the application was pending.
In sum, while the adjudicator approved the applications in accord with standard INS practices and policies existing at the time, these practices and policies were significantly flawed. They resulted in adjudicators approving applications without complete information.
The INS has since revised some of its procedures for change of status applications and has proposed regulations that affect the processing of these applications. We address these processing and regulatory changes in subsequent chapters of this report.