WASHINGTON — The FBI system for performing background checks on immigrants has become so overloaded since the Sept. 11 attacks that thousands of legal immigrants are waiting years to get into the United States or obtain citizenship, according to findings from an internal investigation released Monday.
The Justice Department's inspector general concluded that the FBI's National Name Check Program is working with outdated technology, and that poorly trained personnel and overworked supervisors are falling far behind. As of March, there was a backlog of 327,000 requests for names to be validated, some of which had been pending for up to three years.
The report also said the breakdown in the name checks means that potentially thousands of criminals are slipping through the system.
"The name-check process can result in lengthy delays and the risk of inaccurate information," said Inspector General Glenn A. Fine. He warned that improvements to the system, particularly with the government's ongoing effort to search for potential terrorists in this country, should be "a priority."
The FBI must vet all immigrants before they can get citizenship or a green card. The bureau has been criticized by lawmakers and immigration rights groups for slowing the immigration process.
John Miller, the FBI's head of public affairs, said in a statement that the inspector general's recommendations are being implemented, and that FBI officials will work hard to catch up.
He noted that more than 4 million name-check requests from various law enforcement agencies were made in the 2007 fiscal year alone, and that about 86% were processed within 60 days. The FBI is making 77,000 name checks a week -- completing nearly 97% of all requests submitted in the last five years, he said.
Nevertheless, Miller acknowledged that the 2001 terrorist strikes jammed the system, especially when federal immigration officials asked the bureau to rerun 2.7 million names for more thorough reviews after the attacks on New York and Washington.
"This unexpected deluge of immigration-related name checks overwhelmed existing resources," Miller said. "As a result, the NNCP was not able to address the increasing demand."
In his report, Fine acknowledged the extra burden posed after Sept. 11. Before the terrorist attacks, the system only searched the FBI's main files to see if individuals might be connected to criminal activities. After the attacks, the searches were broadened to encompass information from all sorts of law enforcement databases, adding to the time required for each background check.
"This change was designed to detect derogatory information about individuals who may not have been identified as the direct subject of an FBI investigation, but who are connected to subjects with criminal and investigative histories," Fine said.
The name-check program and its FBI fingerprint database are the largest in the world, containing prints and background histories on more than 50 million people.
The system was taxed all the more after Sept. 11, and the inspector general's investigation turned up processes that are "inefficient and untimely, rely on outdated technology and provide little assurance that pertinent and derogatory information is being retrieved and transmitted."
As of March, 371 employees were working on name checks, an increase of 30% since November. By the end of this fiscal year 300 employees more will be assigned to the system.
But Fine worried that without improvements, "limited training, supervision and quality control measures may result in a higher potential for name-matching errors."