EPIC logo

Spotlight on Surveillance

April 2007:
SAVE System Can’t Save Itself From 11-Year History of Inaccuracy, Unreliability

EPIC’s “Spotlight on Surveillance” project scrutinizes federal government programs that affect individual privacy. For more information, see previous Spotlights on Surveillance. This month, Spotlight scrutinizes the Department of Homeland Security’s Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (“SAVE”) program. For Fiscal Year 2008, DHS seeks $21.6 million for the program run by Citizenship and Immigration Services.[1]

Under the Department of Homeland Security’s draft regulations for the national identification scheme created under the REAL ID Act, SAVE is one of the four systems that States are required to use to verify applicant information.[2] The REAL ID system is supposed to be implemented by May 2008, however SAVE is full of problems and it is unlikely that it will be ready by then.

Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

The cost per transaction “can vary from $.20 to $.26 per query for an Initial Verification and from $.24 to $.48 for an Additional Verification,” according to Citizenship and Immigration Services.


The Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements was created in response to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.[3] That Act required the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (which was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security when the agency was created in 2003), to establish a system for verifying the immigration status of non-citizen applicants for six federal benefits programs.[4] SAVE also is being used to verify employment eligibility status in a pilot program called Basic Pilot.[5]

SAVE and Basic Pilot are supported by the Verification Information System technical infrastructure, “a nationally accessible database of selected immigration status information containing in excess of 100 million records.”[6] SAVE is used by more than 150,000 federal, state and local agency personnel, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services.[7] Of the United States’ 8 million employers, about 11,200 use Basic Pilot.[8]

In the SAVE program, a government agency user searches the system for the citizenship or immigration status of a particular individual, which is used in determining whether an individual is eligible for government benefits.[9] The system either returns a message concerning the immigration status or benefit eligibility and the verification is complete, or a message stating “Institute Additional Verification,” which entails further inquiries.[10] Depending on the inquiry method used and the level of detail necessary, the process can take up to 20 working days.[11]

In its 11-year history, SAVE has been plagued with problems. A 1995 review of the system by the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services found several problems and admitted that she could not determine the cost-effectiveness of the program.[12] Among other things, the Inspector General said that there were deficiencies the design and operation of the SAVE system.[13] “SAVE data is not always provided in a timely manner; the SAVE data base is not current; INS immigration status responses are not always clear; and SAVE is prone to manual keying errors,” said the Inspector General.[14] In a 1997 report and a 2002 follow-up review, the Inspector General of the Department of Justice found that data from the Immigration and Naturalization Service was unreliable and “flawed in content and accuracy.”[15]

In October 2003, the Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) highlighted an important flaw in the SAVE system. “When field staff perform a SAVE verification, the SAVE system generates a unique reference number. However, it is possible to enter a made-up SAVE reference number without having actually verified an individual’s status,” allowing a bypass of the verification system, said the GAO.[16] The GAO also cited to the previous reports by the Department of Justice’s Inspector General “that questioned the reliability, accuracy, and management controls” of the SAVE system.[17]

Basic Pilot, a joint project of Customs and Immigration Services and the Social Security Administration, is a voluntary employment eligibility verification system created in 1997.[18] In the Basic Pilot program, an employer voluntarily fills out an online form with the new employee’s name, date of birth and Social Security Number within three days of the employee’s hire date. This information is checked against Social Security Administration databases to verify identity and, if the employee is a non-citizen, her data is then checked against the Department of Homeland Security databases to verify employment eligibility. If eligibility cannot be confirmed, Basic Pilot sends a tentative nonconfirmation of work authorization status. The employee has eight working days to contest this decision. In August 2005, the Government Accountability Office investigated the program and found several problems, including errors in information from the Department of Homeland Security’s databases.[19]

In a report last year from the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, the groups assessed the SAVE system, which is currently used by 21 states.[20] The groups found SAVE still has accuracy problems. “[I]nsufficient information is available for states to reliably identify and validate an individual’s ‘pending’ immigration status. States also report real-time verification is not attainable approximately one-quarter of the time, which necessitates a time-consuming process to meet this requirement,” according to the report.[21] Though the SAVE verifications should take up to 20 working days at the most, it has taken two months for some verifications.[22]

Though the Department of Homeland Security is mandating that States use SAVE to verify the immigration and citizenship status in the REAL ID system, the agency admits that SAVE may not be nationally deployed by the May 2008 deadline.[23] After 11 years of implementation, the SAVE program remains unreliable and inaccurate. The system should not be deployed nationally or its use made mandatory until its many problems are resolved.

[1] Dep’t of Homeland Sec., Budget-in-Brief Fiscal Year 2008 123 (Mar. 2007), available at http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/budget_bib-fy2008.pdf.

[2] Dep’t of Homeland Sec., Notice of Proposed Rulemaking: Minimum Standards for Driver’s Licenses and Identification Cards Acceptable by Federal Agencies for Official Purposes, 72 Fed. Reg. 10,819, 10,830-35 (Mar. 9, 2007) [“REAL ID Draft Regulations”], available at http://a257.g.akamaitech.net/7/257/2422/01jan20071800/edocket.access.gpo.gov/2007/07-1009.htm; see generally, EPIC, National ID Cards and the REAL ID Act Page, http://www.epic.org/privacy/id_cards/; EPIC, Spotlight on Surveillance, Federal REAL ID Proposal Threatens Privacy and Security (Mar. 2007), http://www.epic.org/privacy/surveillance/spotlight/0307.

[3] Pub. L. No. 99-603, 100 Stat. 3359 (1986).

[4] Id.

[5] Dep’t of Homeland Sec., Notice to alter a system of records; request for comments, 72 Fed. Reg. 17,569. 17,570 (Apr. 9, 2007), available at http://a257.g.akamaitech.net/7/257/2422/01jan20071800/edocket.access.gpo.gov/2007/E7-6611.htm.

[6] Id. at 17,569.

[7] Gov’t Accountability Office, Immigration Enforcement: Weaknesses Hinder Employment Verification and Worksite Enforcement Efforts, GAO-05-813 10 (Aug. 2005) (“GAO Report on Basic Pilot”) available at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d05813.pdf.

[8] Gabriela C. Guzman, ID, Please: N.M. Companies use free program to verify a worker’s name and immigration status, Albuquerque Journal, Dec. 4, 2006.

[9] Citizenship & Immigration Serv., Dep’t of Homeland Sec., Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) Program, http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.5af9bb95919f35e66f614176543f6d1a/?vgnextoid=71cf58f91f08e010VgnVCM1000000ecd190aRCRD&vgnextchannel=91919c7755cb9010VgnVCM10000045f3d6a1RCRD.

[10] Id.

[11] The cost per transaction “can vary from $.20 to $.26 per query for an Initial Verification and from $.24 to $.48 for an Additional Verification.” Id.

[12] Office of Inspector Gen., Dep’t of Health & Human Serv., Review of the Save System’s Processes (OEI-07-91-01231) (Nov. 1995), available at http://oig.hhs.gov/oei/reports/oei-07-91-01231.pdf.

[13] Id. at ii.

[14] Id.

[15] Office of Inspector Gen., Dep’t of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service Monitoring of Nonimmigrant Overstays, Rept. No. I-97-08 (Sept. 1997), available at http://www.usdoj.gov/oig/reports/INS/e9708/index.htm; Follow-Up Report on INS Efforts to Improve the Control of Nonimmigrant Overstays, Rept. No. I-2002-006 (Apr. 2002), available at http://www.usdoj.gov/oig/reports/INS/e0206/index.htm/; and Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Ability to Provide Timely and Accurate Alien Information to the Social Security Administration, Rept. No. I-2003-001 (Nov. 2002), available at http://www.usdoj.gov/oig/reports/INS/e0301/final.pdf.

[16] Gov’t Accountability Office, Social Security Administration: Actions Taken to Strengthen Procedures for Issuing Social Security Numbers to Noncitizens, but Some Weaknesses Remain, GAO-04-12 10 (Oct. 2003), available at http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-04-12.

[17] Id. at 7.

[18] Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, 8 U.S.C. §1324a(b) (1996); Basic Pilot Extension Act, Pub. L. No. 107-128 (2001); and Basic Pilot Program Extension and Expansion Act, Pub. L. No. 108-156 (2003); see generally, EPIC, Spotlight on Surveillance, Expansion of Basic Pilot Would Steer Employment Verification Toward Disaster (Apr. 2006), http://www.epic.org/privacy/surveillance/spotlight/0406.

[19] GAO Report on Basic Pilot at 25, supra note 7.

[20] Nat’l Governors Ass’n, et. al, The REAL ID Act: National Impact Analysis 12 (Sept. 19, 2006), available at http://www.nga.org/Files/pdf/0609REALID.PDF.

[21] Id.

[22] David Migoya, Immigrants’ wait for IDs, aid getting longer, Denver Post, Oct. 20, 2006, at B04.

[23] REAL ID Draft Regulations at 10,833, supra note 2.

EPIC Spotlight on Surveillance Page | EPIC Privacy Page | EPIC Home Page