The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a vitally important system called “Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements” (SAVE). But often it is not used properly and many suffer the consequences. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report shines a light on the system, one that AILA members already know is causing unnecessary headaches for immigrants and their families across the nation.
SAVE is a mostly web-based system which allows benefits-granting agencies to confirm the immigration or citizenship status of applicants for federal, state, or local benefits. When checking an applicant’s status, SAVE accesses information from several different government databases and goes through a multi-step verification process: initial verification, then additional (second and third level) verification if necessary. Once verified, the benefits-granting agency, such as a state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or the Social Security Administration (SSA), uses it to decide whether the person is eligible for the benefit requested. In 2016, more than 1,100 agencies were using SAVE, and since Fiscal Year 2012, the SAVE system has conducted more than 86 million checks for benefits applicants. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) performs quality checks every month to make sure that the information SAVE is pulling is accurate and reported a 99.16% verification accuracy rate in 2015.
At this point, you may be thinking that this seems like a pretty straight-forward and practical process. And it should be. However, for the last several years, AILA has fielded reports of individuals who are unable to secure a requested benefit because their status cannot be verified through SAVE. These individuals are in the United States lawfully and are legitimately entitled to a driver’s license and/or social security number, but when SAVE stops them from obtaining these basic benefits, the consequences can be serious: they may not be able to start the job for which they have been hired, or they may not be able to get a driver’s license to get to and from that job. Adding to the difficulties is the fact that when a verification problem arises, only the agency is permitted to communicate with SAVE; there is no avenue for the applicant, the very person who is impacted, to resolve the issue. And with little incentive for the agency to pursue the matter, applicants who find themselves stuck have few options.
Earlier this year, the GAO got involved, and the ensuing report confirms and clarifies many of the issues that AILA members and their clients are experiencing. First, the GAO reviewed the SAVE program and determined that 60% of the time, agencies were not performing all of the necessary steps to verify an applicant’s status. This means that for approximately 8.5 million checks, agencies were prompted to complete additional verification steps but did not. Some agencies (14%) never completed the additional steps, and most agencies (57%) failed to complete the additional steps at least half the time.
Clearly, there is a gap between what should be done and what is being done. Training could be the cause. The GAO found that some USCIS training materials were not clear and that USCIS does not have the resources to confirm that the agencies are conducting training on SAVE. Additionally, the GAO found that benefits-granting agencies are not making applicants aware of how they can correct an error in their records, check the status of their case with DHS, or appeal a seemingly erroneous denial of benefits. This means that individuals, who are stuck in limbo waiting for their status to be verified or who are denied a benefit because their status was not verified, have no idea why they were denied or how to remedy the situation.
In its report, GAO makes a number of recommendations to improve the SAVE process, such as clarifying agency responsibilities, ensuring adequate training is provided, and establishing a redress process for applicants. USCIS and the agencies need to take these recommendations to heart. As it stands, the system is failing far too many.