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FBI Name Check

Note: Please read critical updates at the bottom of this page.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) conducts three types of background checks on all applicants seeking immigration benefits. One of them is FBI name check. Although the other two - IBIS name check and FBI fingerprint check - usually are completed within days if not hours, the FBI name check is a completely different story. In fact, as of May 2007, there are 329,160 cases pending the outcome of FBI name checks. More importantly, 106,000 of them have been pending for more than one year [1]. If this isn't enough, there are more than 300,000 new I-485 cases filed under the July visa bulletin and all of them will be poured into this already heavily backlogged process.

It is bound to be a nightmare for numerous legal immigrants in the coming years.

The problem is so severe that we believe the FBI name check should be right up there with visa retrogression as the nation's top immigration issues. Unlike visa number shortage, however, FBI name-check victims are often left in total darkness. People affected have no idea what is holding up their cases. Inquiring with the USCIS is basically useless, as the best answer they will get is either "pending" or "in process."

Frustrating customers aside, a lengthy name check process can actually put national security and public safety in jeopardy, and may not accomplish its intended objectives.

How FBI Name Check Works

FBI name check is conducted by the National Name Check Program (NNCP) located in Washington DC. Its main mission is to look up an individual's name in a giant database (Central Records System - CRS) and find any matching records. It may sound simple but is actually a multi-step process that can get quite complicated. This is a typical work flow:

  • Receiving requests: USCIS submit thousands of names weekly to NNCP on magnetic tapes;
  • Electronic search: Batch names are searched against the CRS' General Indices;
  • Easy clearance: If no record was found in either main files or reference files of the Universal Index (UNI) for a particular name, the name check is considered cleared;
  • Manual search: Names returned with potential matching records ("hits") are searched again manually. Additional names are cleared after this step;
  • Manual review: Names still remaining will be reviewed manually, and matching records located across the country must be forwarded to the agent for analysis.
  • Completion: Results are returned to the USCIS who will make a decision as to what effects the information may have on the case.

What Is Causing Delays?

There are several potential reasons:

A fundamental problem faced by the FBI is the sheer volume of name check requests. More than 70 government agencies and entities submit over 3 million names to NNCP every year. USCIS alone, being the largest customer, sends about 27,000 name check requests on a weekly basis. Office of Personnel Management is another major customer who conducts background checks on people seeking government employment. Intelligence and counter terrorism activities obviously also need support from the NNCP.

When a name is returned with one or more "hits," the matching records must be retrieved from their sources. The problem is that not all files are in digital format. In this case the paper documents have to be transferred to the NNCP from FBI offices located all over the country. This is a time consuming process, and can literally take months or more to complete.

The biggest problem, however, is not how long it takes to actually process a case. Rather it is the time it takes for an agent to actually get to a case that needs further investigation. An agent's work load is no doubt a factor for this delay, but more importantly, the lack of an effective tracking system may be a bigger reason. One has to wonder if those cases pending for several years have just been left in the dark, untouched, for most of that time.

For frequently asked questions, visit the FBI Name Check FAQ page.

Update 02/2008:
USCIS has revised its policy and should begin approving cases including I-485's without FBI name check clearance, as long as they have been pending for more than 180 days and are otherwise approvable. This new policy does not apply to citizenship applications, however.

Update 04/2008:
USCIS and the FBI has announced a joint plan to eliminate the backlog of name checks pending with the FBI:

  • May 2008 - Process all name checks pending more than three years
  • July 2008 - Process all name checks pending more than two years
  • Nov. 2008 - Process all name checks pending more than one year
  • Feb. 2009 - Process all name checks pending more than 180 days
  • June 2009 - Process 98 percent of all name checks within 30 days and process the remaining two percent within 90 days.

Update 08/2008:
USCIS 'On Target' to Achieve FBI Name Check Milestones - "The first milestone was for all FBI Name Checks pending for more than four years to be finalized by March 31, 2008. The second milestone was for all FBI Name Checks older than three years to be finalized by May 31. The third milestone was for all FBI Name Checks older than two years to be finalized by July 31. The first three milestones have all been met. USCIS and the FBI have set four additional milestones. As of August 4, the agencies were on target to achieve all four of the remaining milestones."

Update 09/2008:
CIS Ombudsman announced a significant decline in the number of pending FBI name checks for individuals seeking immigration benefits in the United States.

  • There were 269,943 name checks pending on May 6, 2008. There are 95,449 pending as of August 12, 2008.
  • There were 185,162 name checks pending for more than six months on May 6, 2008. There are 61,817 pending more than six months as of August 12, 2008.
  • USCIS met its April 2, 2008 goal to process all name checks pending more than two years by July 2008.

Update 03/2009:
USCIS announced that the backlog for FBI name checks pending more than six months has been eliminated. Mike Aytes, USCIS Acting Deputy Director, said on March 20 that only 6,756 name check requests are still pending, and not one of them has been pending for more than six months.

As a result of this improvement, USCIS has revised its policy and now requires USCIS Headquarter authorization before approving a case with pending FBI name check result.

Update 06/2009:
USCIS announced the elimination of (entire) FBI name check backlog as of June 22. Their next goal is to achieve a sustainable performance level by the NNCP of completing 98 percent of name check requests submitted by USCIS within 30 days, and the remaining two percent within 90 days.

If you have been stuck in the FBI name check backlog, what can you expect next? According to USCIS, their adjudication process may now include updating fingerprint results, scheduling interviews, requesting additional evidence and other reviews to determine whether you are eligible for the requested immigration benefit.

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