When it became clear early in the Obama administration that no broad amnesty would be considered by Congress, political appointees in the Department of Homeland Security began to consider ways of weakening enforcement of immigration laws without lawmakers' permission.
One part of this approach was first revealed with the leak of an internal memo exploring "Administrative Alternatives to Comprehensive Immigration Reform", listing a variety of measures that would "result in meaningful immigration reform absent legislative action." This push for a backdoor amnesty received considerable media attention.
But another part of the Obama administration's weakening of immigration law enforcement was less widely noted. Sarah Ryley of The Daily, winner of the 2012 Eugene Katz Award for Excellence in the Coverage of Immigration, broke the news that the same political agenda resulted in increased pressure on rank-and-file immigration officers to rubber-stamp visa applications. She obtained an unpublished internal report that found one-quarter of USCIS agents surveyed reported having been pressured to approve questionable applications. Though this is not unheard of, Ryley noted that "high-ranking USCIS officials said the pressure has heightened after the Obama administration appointed Alejandro Mayorkas as director in August 2009 during an effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform, bringing with him a mantra of 'get to yes.'"
This and Ryley's other reporting on the "get to yes" culture in adjudicating immigration applications, including coverage of fraud and the punishment of a whistleblower, have shined a light on a huge weakness in our immigration system, and one that gets little media attention because it isn't related to photogenic border fences.
Specialization on the immigration beat has real advantages, given how multifaceted the issue is. But Ryley's work is an example of how some of the better immigration reporting comes from those who have not covered the issue intensively, and are thus not captive to the anti-enforcement prejudices of the advocacy groups many immigration reporters reflexively identify with.
Another factor is the proliferation of new media. Ryley's employer, The Daily, is the first-ever daily national "newspaper" designed exclusively as an app for the iPad and similar devices. While Ryley's stories could just as easily have been reported by an outlet of the legacy media, the existence of The Daily and the plethora of other multimedia publications and blogs means that the days are gone when the axis of the New York Times/Washington Post/NBC/CBS/ABC could determine what was news, and what was not.
This award is named in memory of Eugene Katz, a native New Yorker who started his career, after Dartmouth and Oxford, as a reporter for the Daily Oklahoman. In 1928, he joined the family business, working as an advertising salesman for the Katz Agency, and in 1952 became president of Katz Communications, a half-billion-dollar firm which not only dealt in radio and television advertising but also owned and managed a number of radio stations. Mr. Katz was a member of the Center for Immigration Studies board until shortly after his 90th birthday in 1997. He passed away in 2000.
Previous winners of the Katz Award are listed at http://www.cis.org/KatzAward.
The Center for Immigration Studies is a non-profit, non-partisan research institute which examines and critiques the impact of immigration on the United States. It is animated by a pro-immigrant/low-immigration vision, but offers the Katz Award not to promote any point of view but rather to foster informed decision-making on an issue so central to America’s future.
Center for Immigration Studies
June 1, 2012
Copyright 2012, The Daily. Reprinted with Permission.
The Daily Exclusive: RUBBER STAMP
Probe reveals feds pressuring agents to rush immigrant visas – even if fraud is feared
By Sarah Ryley Tuesday
The Daily, January 3, 2012
Higher-ups within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services are pressuring rank-and-file officers to rubber-stamp immigrants’ visa applications, sometimes against the officers’ will, according to a Homeland Security report and internal documents exclusively obtained by The Daily.
A 40-page report, drafted by the Office of Inspector General in September but not publicly released, details the immense pressure immigration service officers are under to approve visa applications quickly, sometimes while overlooking concerns about fraud, eligibility or security.
One-quarter of the 254 officers surveyed said they have been pressured to approve questionable cases, sometimes “against their will.”
The report does not call out any particular officials and indicates that the agency has had a problem with valuing quantity over quality since at least the 1980s.
But high-ranking USCIS officials said the pressure has heightened after the Obama administration appointed Alejandro Mayorkas as director in August 2009 during an effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform, bringing with him a mantra of “get to yes.”
Internal communications provided to The Daily indicate that the new leadership seemed to fundamentally clash with career agency employees over when to afford the benefit of the doubt, culminating in a whistle-blower investigation into a senior appointee and, ultimately, the agency-wide inspector general inquiry that produced the report.
“We recognize their right to interpret things as liberally as possible, but you still have to follow the law,” said one high-ranking official who was unhappy with the current push.
At least five agency veterans seen as being too tough on applicants were either demoted, or given the choice between a demotion or a relocation from Southern California — where their families were — to San Francisco and Nebraska, according to sources and letters of reassignment provided to The Daily.
Those kind of threats have caused lower-level employees to fall in line, sources said.
“People are afraid,” said one longtime manager, who requested anonymity for fear of being fired. “Integrity only carries people so far because they’ve got to pay the rent.”
A rank-and-file officer who was not involved in the investigation claimed he was demoted to working on less technical cases because he had a high denial rate. “They don’t reprimand you, they just move you,” he said.
“They attempted to basically get me to come into line and approve a bunch of cases. And I just wouldn’t compromise myself because the approvals they ordered, they weren’t in line with the laws,” said the officer.
These employees’ claims are reflected in the inspector general report, which found that 14 percent of respondents had “serious concerns” that employees who focused on fraud or ineligibility were evaluated unfairly. The report also found that supervisors sometimes take cases away from an unwilling officer and assign them to someone else, against agency rules.
Recommendations for improvements in the report included raising the burden of proof and doing away with the popular informal and special appeals practices, which immigration lawyers said would only lengthen an already onerous process.
Attorney David Leopold, who was recently president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the formal appeals process can take up to two years.
“When you’re dealing with business visas, those visas cannot wait around a year, or two years, for review. They needed an answer yesterday,” said Leopold. “I think when they’ve [the officers] made a mistake at that level ... sometimes you can just reason with people and ask them to take a look at it again.”
Nevertheless, USCIS approved 86 percent of the 3.9 million immigration cases it reviewed between October 2008 and October 2009 — a 4 percent drop from the year before, according to the most recent data provided to The Daily.
And immigration attorneys complained that it seems like officers are just looking for reasons to deny a case, and already demand a higher standard of proof than what is required. That standard is now considered a 51 percent likelihood that a fact is true.
“We’re getting ridiculous denials and requests for evidence on things that should be approved very easily,” said immigration attorney Deb Notkin, adding that it’s particularly tough for specialty industries like fashion, software development and graphic design.
The attorneys applauded Mayorkas’ more open dialogue with them, and other proponents of immigration reform, who had previously felt shut out of the bureaucracy. “Mayorkas, to his credit, is very accessible, so we are able to express our concerns about the adjudication process,” said Leopold.
But sometimes, the openness led to a perception that private attorneys were “running” the agency, according to the inspector general’s report, which cited emails in which individual cases were granted special review after private attorneys complained to management.
Mayorkas and Homeland Security press officers said yesterday they could not comment on the allegations.
IMMIGRATION SCANDAL PROBE
Congressional panel to investigate claims officers were pushed to OK visa requests
By Sarah Ryley and Ashley Kindergan
The Daily, January 4, 2012
Congress will investigate whether federal immigration officers are being pressured to approve questionable visa applications, following The Daily’s revelation of a bombshell government report alleging a “get to yes” mantra among Homeland Security higher-ups.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, said yesterday that the practices detailed in the 40-page report, drafted by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, threaten “the integrity of our immigration system.”
“It’s outrageous that administration officials would compromise national security for their own political agenda and gain,” Smith said, pointing out that visa applications often lead to U.S. citizenship. “The president’s most important job is to protect the American people, but it seems this administration is more interested in ignoring immigration regulations than making sure those who come here will not cause us harm.”
He continued: “The immigration subcommittee plans to hold a hearing in February on visa fraud and will investigate these alleged abuses by the administration.”
In the draft report exclusively obtained by The Daily, nearly one-fourth of the 254 surveyed immigration officers said they had been pressured to approve questionable cases, sometimes against their will. A source within U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told The Daily he had been demoted for denying too many applications.
USCIS spokesman Christopher Bentley said any allegation that employees faced retaliation for denying applications “is categorically false.”
Bentley also said in an emailed statement to The Daily that the agency “takes seriously the responsibility to safeguard the integrity of America’s immigration system.” He said the number of fraud detection officers has been increased by almost 20 percent over the last two years, to more than 750.
The Daily’s report yesterday quoted immigration officers as complaining that since the Obama administration appointed Alejandro Mayorkas as USCIS director in August 2009, more of them were being told to OK visa applications quickly, even if they had concerns about fraud. “People are afraid,” said one longtime manager. “Integrity only carries people so far because they’ve got to pay the rent.”
But immigration advocates and attorneys questioned the findings in the inspector general’s report, maintaining that they have actually been seeing more rigorous enforcement in the last few years. Some said they have seen more detailed requests for evidence, such as an impromptu tour of the home of a couple applying for a marriage visa or photographs of an employer’s office.
Eleanor Pelta, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said she has seen a higher rate of both visa denials and requests for more evidence in the last few years. She suggested that the reports that immigration officers feel pressured to approve applications may be a backlash against publicly announced efforts by Mayorkas to better train field staff in certain areas.
“When an adjudicator is looking at the body of evidence in a case, the evidence needs to show that it is more likely than not that a person is eligible for the benefits sought,” Pelta said. “When headquarters reminds the field staff that that’s the standard of review, often what we see is that the field says headquarters is pressuring them to approve cases.”
But immigration hawks disagreed with that assessment.
“The report by the DHS inspector general is yet another confirmation of the lengths to which the administration is prepared to go to subvert the enforcement of U.S. immigration laws,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “This latest report indicates that they are also engaging in intimidation tactics to ensure that career officers at USCIS carry out their jobs according the political dictates of this administration, rather than the laws they have sworn to uphold.”
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said that visa decision-making has seemed more consistent since the Obama administration gave more power to fraud detection officers in 2010.
Stanley Renshon, a professor in the political science department at the City University of New York who has written extensively about immigration, said visa processing delays are an old problem, but that speeding through approvals could jeopardize national security.
“We have to be careful that we’re not letting people in who don’t deserve to be or shouldn’t be here, and that takes time, and you need people to do that,” Renshon said. “It’s about resources and time and trade-offs.”
FRAUD FOUND – AND IGNORED
Immigration officials disregarded reports of abuse in four visa programs
By Sarah Ryley
The Daily, January 9, 2012
Despite finding evidence of widespread fraud and abuse in applications for four different types of immigration visas, the federal government still does not do routine site visits on these applicants like it does with two other common visa types, The Daily has learned.
Between 2005 and 2010, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services conducted fraud assessment studies on eight different types of immigration applications, which involved in-person visits to a random sample of applicants.
The results of four of those assessments — for political asylum, marriage-based, Yemeni family-based and L1 intercompany transfer visas — worked their way up through the agency starting in 2008, but were never finalized, released to the public nor acted upon.
But The Daily was provided a draft of the L1 visa study, which showed fraud in nearly a third of cases.
From Florida to New York, fraud officers found evidence of fraud and technical noncompliance in 29 percent of the 238 site visits they conducted on L1 visas. The violations ranged from nonexistent businesses and missing beneficiaries to less egregious issues like an exaggerated description of the duties carried out by the applicant, who was often a relative of the business owner.
L1 visas are for the purpose of transferring employees who are managers, executives or have specialized knowledge, from an overseas companies to the same firm’s office in the United States.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has said these visas are especially problematic because “there are no wage protections, no annual numerical limits, fewer obligations on the employer, and thus, fewer protections for American workers.”
Don Crocetti, who presided over all of the studies as the associate director of the fraud detection unit, declined to provide the fraud rate for the other three unreleased studies, but said they were all in the “double-digits … high enough that there should be a concern, and that the agency and the department should want to correct it.”
USCIS spokesman Christopher Bentley said the reports were not released because the methodology was not statistically sound enough for public consumption.
But many within the agency suspect the move was to protect the Obama administration’s immigration reform agenda, since some of the unfavorable and potentially alarming statistics would have been released right as the president rolled out his immigration initiative in a May 2010 speech in El Paso, Texas.
Emilio Gonzalez, USCIS director during the George W. Bush administration, said he also doesn’t think these fraud assessments should be publicly released, even though members of Congress often push for them.
An internal email chain from April 2007 showed internal anxiety over releasing a report on the “politically sensitive and high profile” professional visas, known as H-1Bs, which was finally made public in September 2008 and showed a fraud and non-compliance rate of 21 percent.
The religious worker visa assessment released in August 2005 found a 33 percent fraud rate.
Crocetti said his methods for collecting the data were sound.
“There’s a concern about timing; coming out with a certain finding of fraud where there are efforts toward getting certain legislation passed,” he said.
“[But] I most certainly would have released them... I would stand behind every one of them.”
Bentley countered that the methods for the fraud assessments were outdated and discontinued in 2009.
“We continue to collect, analyze, and use information from the field to inform how we allocate our resources to most effectively combat fraud,” he said in an emailed statement.
Using contract workers, the agency only routinely does site visits for all religious worker visa applicants, and a random sampling of some companies applying for professional (H1-B) visas.
The follow-up visits can be conducted for any other type of visa if there is a special request for one, but several USCIS employees told The Daily this rarely happens.
One fraud detection officer, who asked to remain anonymous, said the service officers aren’t sending them requests for site visits on L1 visas because they are “afraid.”
Last week, The Daily exclusively reported on a draft report from the Office of Inspector General that found many immigration officers felt pressured to approve questionable visa applications — and that the culture of the agency has dramatically shifted under the current director's mantra of “get to yes.”
Immigration chief vows better training after visa application scandal
By Sarah Ryley
The Daily, January 10, 2011
http://www.thedaily.com/page/2011/01/10/011012-news-immigration/Blowing the whistle
The director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services promised changes after the final version of a scathing Office of Inspector General report was released yesterday.
Alejandro Mayorkas vowed to increase fraud training for rank-and-file officers, look at ways to improve background checks, and work to dispel the perception that the agency is unduly influenced by outside sources, such as private immigration attorneys.
The Daily exclusively reported on the draft report last week, which found that one in four of the agency’s rank-and-file officers felt pressured to approve questionable visa applications, sometimes “against their will.”
In his response to the report, Mayorkas questioned the inspector general’s survey methods, pointing out that 256 of the 403 interviews were conducted via an online survey, which he said “scholarly research concludes can produce flawed results.”
Nevertheless, he wrote that “the subjective feeling of undue pressure among some of its [the agency’s] personnel is deeply troubling.”
Only 10 percent of the survey respondents said they had enough time to complete their work, which the inspector general noted was a longstanding and problematic issue.
In response, Mayorkas said the agency would better educate its staff on the rules, analyze whether officers need more time to complete quality work, and conduct more outreach to explain the new performance standards, which just dropped quantity as a chief measure last year.
He took issue with the inspector general’s depiction of managers and attorneys steering a case in a particular direction, saying their focus should be “on a particular former employee and perhaps another individual.”
And he defended his practice of being more receptive of complaints from outside stakeholders, such as private immigration attorneys, saying it’s part of a continued effort “to make certain that the nation’s immigration system is administered fairly, honestly and correctly.”
Mayorkas also pledged to provide fraud detection training program for the agency’s rank-and-file service officers, which could include temporarily assigning these officers to the fraud units.
And he added that he would also create a “working group” to determine how to improve background checks, identified as another longstanding agency weakness.
Don Crocetti, the recently retired associate director of the fraud detection unit, said Mayorkas had been one of his biggest proponents in increasing security, but has encountered pushback from others within the agency.
“Even with his authority as the presidentally appointed leader of the USCIS, he has been met with resistance,” said Crocetti.
Immigration official says her complaints about ‘get to yes’ policy led to demotion
By Sarah Ryley
The Daily, February 17, 2012
She went from being a rising star at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to a thorn in its side, spurring a half-dozen investigations and congressional hearings from behind the scenes after clashing with Obama administration appointees over what she claims was a push to “get to yes” on questionable immigration petitions.
Now, she is revealing her identity as a whistle-blower exclusively to The Daily.
Christina Poulos, 56, started her career with the USCIS as an information analyst in 1989, when it was still called the Immigration and Naturalization Service. She steadily climbed the ranks and in 2006 became director of the agency’s California Service Center, where she managed a staff of roughly 1,200 employees and contractors responsible for reviewing around a quarter of the nation’s immigration petitions.
She had a reputation for being a hard-driving manager, leading some to call her the “Wicked Witch of the West.” Still, during her tenure, the California Service Center was ranked among the top 10 best places to work in Orange County by two local publications.
Poulos says she maintained an “unblemished record” during her first 20 years working for immigration. Then, in May 2010, she was shocked with the news that she was being reassigned to San Francisco, a seven-hour drive from her family.
When she turned that down, USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas demoted her to deputy director. She ultimately took a training job based out of her home office, with her golden retriever her sole co-worker.
Poulos claims the real reason for the demotion was retaliation for initiating a conflict of interest investigation against a high-ranking member of Mayorkas’ staff — former chief counsel Roxana Bacon, who eventually resigned.
“I want my vindication,” Poulos told The Daily yesterday, saying Mayorkas “totally ruined my professional life, my reputation, and my legacy.”
Poulos and at least three other senior agency employees are now complainants in ongoing whistle-blower retaliation investigations being conducted by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency.
After her demotion, Poulos claims a flurry of “frivolous” and “retaliatory” investigations were launched against her, looking into everything from alleged misuse of official vehicles to whether her subordinates bought her lunch one day. So far, she says no charges have been filed.
A USCIS spokesman declined to comment for this story, citing personnel privacy issues.
Friction seemed to begin with Bacon’s appointment as the agency’s chief counsel in October 2009, as the Obama administration was ramping up efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Bacon ardently pushed for a more “open-handed” immigration policy, but angered some agency employees when she allegedly tried to reverse the denial of a visa petition filed by the University of Arizona, to which she had close ties.
Things got so heated that in January 2010, Bacon wrote an email saying, “No question we need some serious head changes here ... it’s like Whack A Petitioner here.”
Around that time, Poulos complained about Bacon’s involvement in the University of Arizona case, which prompted a Homeland Security Office of Inspector General investigation; complained to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, about the culture of “get to yes,” resulting in a 40-page Inspector General report; and sent Grassley a report that found widespread fraud in visa cases involving an employee coming to work in the U.S. as a company transfer.
Mayorkas was forced to turn over that visa report at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, and sources told The Daily that the Inspector General is investigating the agency’s handling of these visas.
In all, Poulos said she has sent complaints to more than a dozen federal lawmakers.
She said she decided to come forward because she felt Mayorkas was not being truthful during the hearing on perceived pressures on USCIS employees to push through visas. Poulos had asked to testify, but was not called.
Don Crocetti, former director of the agency’s fraud division, told The Daily that Mayorkas was actually trying to change the production-driven environment.
Crocetti added that the California center has had a problem with “not singing from the same sheet of music” as the national agency for decades.
Other colleagues sang Poulos’ praises. “I thought she was a very competent leader and I never had any problems with her,” said Emilio T. Gonzalez, USCIS director under the George W. Bush administration. “The people that she did report to on a daily basis thought she was a good worker, a good leader and a good supervisor.”
Wealthy foreigners frozen out
U.S. appears to be restricting ‘cash for visas’ green-card program
By Sarah Ryley
The Daily, February 27, 2012
The federal government may be clamping down on a “cash for visas” green-card program that has drawn fire from critics even while giving a boost to the construction industry in many recession-battered markets, The Daily has learned.
The program, known as EB-5, gives wealthy foreigners the chance to obtain citizenship by investing between $500,000 and $1 million in ventures as varied as wind farms, ski resorts, gas stations and office towers. Two years after the investment, the visa recipient must prove that his or her money created at least 10 jobs for a chance at citizenship.
Critics slam the program as a “cash for visas” scheme, but an increasing number of developers have been calling it their saving grace in the wake of the financial crisis that caused construction financing to dry up.
“We’re using EB-5 because it’s the only money available,” said Henry Liebman. He has used the program to build more than 30 projects in an industrial section of south Seattle, including a two-building retail and office development called Home Plate Center, and is now looking to use it as source of funding for projects in four other states.
The niche program, created in 1990 and today open to 10,000 investors and their family members per year, has exploded since the financial crash left America pockmarked with stalled construction sites.
Nationwide, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the program, has approved 219 development zones — rural areas or areas of supposedly high unemployment, where money can be raised through the EB-5 program at the discounted $500,000 per investor rate. That’s up from just 11 zones in 2006. California has the most with 58; Florida is second with 20.
But the agency has been increasingly denying applications to create new development zones, officially called “regional centers,” and issued a letter last week saying it was toughening its standards.
During the first quarter of fiscal year 2012, the agency denied 61 percent of the applications for new regional centers — 22 applications in total — compared to 39 percent during fiscal year 2011.
USCIS spokesman Christopher Bentley cautioned against drawing conclusions about the spike in denials, noting, “It’s only a three-month window.”
But the agency also sent a letter last week saying it would be demanding more evidence that certain types of projects, such as office buildings and retail space built for tenants, would actually create new jobs, rather than just provide a new building for existing jobs to move into.
A high-ranking source within the agency indicated that the move could impact 70 pending regional centers across the country that have these type of projects, and perhaps in the neighborhood of $1 billion in construction financing.
For some developers, that construction financing represents a huge discount from what they would have to pay if they were trying to obtain financing through a bank. Developers are not required to pay interest on loans from immigrant investors through the program, or to pay them back if the project fails.
“It’s just a way of being able to get free money, basically, to build all sorts of projects,” said Victor Essam, vice president of acquisition for Global Premier America, which is raising $5 million through the program to build medical offices in Orange, Calif.
Topics: Eugene Katz Award