US Government Mailing Green Cards to Wrong People

Inspector General Bristles at Immigration Agency's Response

Sample of a US immigration green card
Green Card Specimen. United States Customs and Immigration Service

Green cards, precious little documents giving foreigners living in the United States virtually all the same rights and protections as United States citizens are too often being mailed to the wrong people, according to a report from a federal government watchdog. And this time, things got nasty.

Green Card Background

Officially called “Permanent Resident Cards,” green cards allow qualifying foreigners living in the United States to remain and work here, get Social Security and Medicare benefits, apply for drivers’ licenses, own guns and other property, and attend public schools and colleges.

Green card holders, classified as having Legal Permanent Resident status, are required to obey all laws, pay federal and state income taxes, keep their current addresses on file with the Department of Homeland Security. In addition, males between ages 18 and 25 must register for the military draft.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, priority for being granted Legal Permanent Resident status is given to foreign nationals with close family relationships with a U.S. citizen or another Legal Permanent Resident; job skills needed in the U.S.; have refugee or asylee status; or come from countries with relatively low levels of immigration to the United States.

During 2013 alone, at total of 990,553 persons were issued green cards and became Legal Permanent Residents of the United States. About 54% of them were already living in the United States when they were granted Legal Permanent Resident status.

According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), an estimated 13.3 million Legal Permanent Residents lived in the United States on January 1, 2012. Of those 8.8 million were eligible to apply for naturalization. The majority (61%) had been granted Legal Permanent Resident since 2000.

The United States Customs and Immigration Service (CIS) is responsible for granting Legal Permanent Resident status, mailing green cards, and maintaining status records on green card holders.

But When the Wrong People Get Green Cards

As you can imagine, green cards are something the millions of people living illegally in the United States would love to get their hands on, one way or another.

Green cards have always been illegally bought and sold on the “black market,” but when the government itself starts mailing them to the wrong addresses, that’s an even bigger problem.

Especially during the probably never-ending War on Terror, green cards falling into the wrong hands can be far more dangerous than an undocumented immigrant working or getting a driver’s license.   

'We're Having Some Computer Problems'

So it should be pretty troubling to the people in charge of U.S. immigration when the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issues a report revealing that since CIS started using its high-tech Electronic Immigration System (ELIS) in 2012, the more green cards than ever are being mailed to the wrong people.

According to DHS inspector general John Roth, CIS officials have admitted they have “no accurate means of identifying the exact number of potentially hundreds of cards sent to incorrect addresses for (green card) cases processed in ELIS.”

Apparently this time, blaming the computer is not, as it often is in government these days, a cop-out for human mismanagement.


In this case, inspector general Roth reported that a “system limitation” in the ELIS system software was blocking human CIS operators from changing green card holders’ mailing addresses, even when they had submitted change of address forms as required by law.

In addition, noted Roth, “the system did not always accurately display address information, often eliminating or cutting off critical elements such as apartment numbers.”

CIS officials told Roth’s investigators that the “the “only option for addressing the problem of incorrect addresses was to manually send out notices with instructions on how to mail the cards back.”

Inspector Calls Terror Risk 'Intuitive'

But does sending green cards to the wrong people really pose a terrorism risk? According to Roth, “It is intuitive that sending official USCIS credentials to unauthorized individuals poses potential national security risks.”

Inspector general Roth is not alone in that opinion. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee stated, “With ISIS and other terrorist groups active around the world and committed to attacks on our country, our national security depends on our systems for screening visa and immigration applications working effectively.”

Overdue and Over Budget Again

According to Roth’s report, CIS officials have estimated it will take them three more years – already four years longer than CIS originally estimated in May of 2012 – and another $1 billion in taxpayers’ dollars to fix all that ails the ELIS system.   

In his office’s sixth thumbs-down review of the ELIS system, Roth called it a “deeply troubled program” that had already wasted hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Until USCIS fully implements ELIS with all the needed improvements, the agency will remain unable to workload processing, customer service, and national security goals,” stated the report.

As the purpose of his office’s report, Roth sent the CIS a set of four specific recommendations for how the agency should proceed to fix the ELIS system and better ensure that green cards ended up in the hands of qualified, legal permanent residents, rather than potential terrorists.

And Then Things Took an Ugly Turn

When an inspector general or the Government Accountability Office sends recommendations to an agency, the agency usually just agrees and promises to do them, and then either does or does not.

But this time was different.

This time, the CIS rejected two of Roth’s four recommendations and accused the inspector general of basing his report largely on “inaccuracies” and of failing to take into account comments made by CIS officials during the course of the investigation.

Mr. Roth, however, would have none of that.

“Non-concurrence of this nature does not appear to be rational … and suggests (CIS’) continued effort to promote disagreement for its own sake rather than collaboration toward the shared goal of promoting effectiveness and efficiency in Department operations,” he wrote.

Roth went on to call CIS’ accusations of inaccuracies and ignored comments incorrect. “This report is the result of a rigorous process … to ensure compliance with the Government Auditing Standard for quality and independence,” he responded.

Roth stressed that his report was based on face-to-face interviews conducted by investigators with over 125 CIS and DHS employees, including over 60 actual users of the ELIS system.

“We went to the field office locations where ELIS was being used and literally stood over the users’ shoulders and watched them struggle with the system,” he wrote.

So as it stands right now, those ELIS users will continue to struggle with the system, and some ineligible foreign nationals will continue to hit the green card jackpot.