On October 24, James Comer (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Glenn Grothman (R-Wisc.), the committee’s National Security Subcommittee chairman, sent a letter to USCIS Director Ur Jaddou seeking information about one of her adjudicators who, according to the committee’s press release, reportedly “celebrated atrocities committed by Hamas and has made repeated disparaging remarks about Jews and Israelis”. Given that the Biden administration has recently given such adjudicators sweeping (and illegal) powers to adjudicate asylum claims by illegal border crossers, it raises the question as to who, if anybody, is vetting the gatekeepers of our nation?
“We Write with Concern”. That letter begins:
We write with concern over a report about a current [USCIS] adjudication officer who celebrated recent atrocities committed by Hamas, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), and has made repeated disparaging remarks about Jews and Israelis. Antisemites and those who glorify and celebrate terrorism and the slaughter of innocents have no business interacting with the public on behalf of the American government, and certainly should not be given authority to adjudicate immigration benefits.
There’s a lot to unpack in those two sentences, beginning with the fact that USCIS adjudicators play a key role in granting immigration benefits to foreign nationals seeking admission to the United States, as well as to aliens who are already here.
In fact, USCIS’s “Career Opportunities” web page offers applicants for such positions the chance to: “Play a critical role in the agency’s mission of administering the nation’s lawful immigration system by making determinations on applications and petitions for various types of immigration benefits.”
One would assume that if USCIS itself understands that its adjudicators play such a “critical role” that it would also understand that it is essentially handing the keys to our nation — and paths to citizenship — to those adjudicators and thus vet them accordingly.
Head to the federal government’s hiring board, “USAjobs”, however, and check out the qualifications required to be an “immigration services officer”, a position allowing the holder to “grant or deny complex and highly sensitive applications and petitions for immigration benefits and assist with fraud detection and/or other federal agencies in identifying individuals who pose a threat to national security and public safety”, and you will see that a security clearance is “not required”.
That’s despite the fact that the “position sensitivity and risk” for that position is “Noncritical-Sensitive (NCS)/Moderate Risk”. Notwithstanding that description, “NCS” is defined as having “the potential to cause significant or serious damage to the national security”, and “moderate risk” as “likely to produce a fair amount of harm or serious damage to the public’s trust”.
According to USCIS’s FY 2024 budget request, the agency has funding for 12,002 such positions, and 1,136 USCIS asylum officers (AOs), as well. Given those numbers, thorough vetting would be a costly proposition.
Trust me — I have been through more background investigations than I can count, and I know that they (1) are very intrusive and (2) aren’t cheap.
It takes a certain level of fortitude (or naivete) to offer oneself up for such scrutiny, which would likely limit the number of would-be applicants if such an investigation were required, and of course all federal funding is limited and finite.
That said, as listed on USAjobs, that immigration services officer job offers between a GS-11 on the federal government’s pay scale (which starts at $78,592 in the D.C. area and goes to $102,166) and GS-12 (D.C. pay of between $94,199 and $122,459) — none of which counts all the other benefits (including a fairly lavish retirement program) that comes with being a federal government employee.
Compare that to the average annual salary in my current hometown, Charlotte, N.C. (a booming financial center with an unemployment rate of 3.3 percent), of $68,433, and you will see that USCIS pay is, as my father would put it, “the kind of money you’d cross the street to pick up off the ground”.
The burden of listing your past addresses, giving the names of “three friends who know you well”, and submitting to a drug test (all generally required for security clearances), are really just a minor hindrance when the financial benefits are so great.
As for the fiscal and other burdens on the government for performing those investigations, consider that law-enforcement officers at CBP — including Border Patrol agents — must submit to a polygraph examination before commencing employment. Those aren’t cheap, either, particularly given that according to CBP, “Polygraph screening comes in three phases and averages about four hours”.
But no polygraph is required to become a USCIS immigration services officer.
The Dangers of Bias. The individual who is the subject of that letter apparently was an AO before she became a USCIS adjudication officer. It’s unclear how long she served in that position, or how many asylum applications she actually adjudicated, but here’s how the chairmen described her past social media activity:
This employee has recently used her social media accounts to promote content celebrating recent Hamas atrocities that have caused the death of thousands, including dozens of Americans.
One post displayed Hamas terrorists paragliding with weapons accompanied by the text “Free PALESTINE.” Instead of Hamas, she blamed Jews and Israelis for the slaughter, writing “Israeli, American privilege is disgusting ... I hold every Israeli accountable for their governments (sic) actions, IF they do not speak against Israel.” She has also posted antisemitic content, including a video captioned “F*** Israel and any Jew who supports Israel.” Another post celebrated the ultimate goals of Hamas, stating “F*** Israel, the government, and its military. Are you ready for your downfall?” She has also justified the mass murder of innocent civilians by Hamas as the inevitable outcome of “resistance”, writing “Respect our existence, or expect resistance. Simple. No Apologies.” Apparently, this recent conduct is not an isolated incident, as her views have been made known on her various social media accounts for years, where she has previously promoted boycotting Israel and referring to Israel as “APARTHEID Israel.”
While I normally shy away from judging, let alone casting aspersions against, people whom I’ve never met (a courtesy I seldom receive in return), in this instance I do have to admit that such statements are not only inflammatory, but they also evidence unacceptable bias on the part of any adjudicator, let alone an AO.
That was the chairmen’s assessment as well:
Asylum officers “[a]djudicate asylum applications, conduct credible and reasonable fear screenings, and adjudicate other benefit applications managed by the asylum program ... .” It is unfortunate that foreign nationals who made claims for protection in the United States due to alleged persecution in their home countries on account of a protected ground — including race, religion, or membership in a particular social group — may have had their cases reviewed by an employee who harbors such repugnant views.
The Biden Administration’s Sweeping (and Illegal) “Asylum Processing Rule”. Which brings me to a regulatory change implemented last May, formally captioned “Procedures for Credible Fear Screening and Consideration of Asylum, Withholding of Removal, and CAT Protection Claims by Asylum Officers”, but informally called the “asylum processing rule”.
To explain the implications of that rule in this instance, some brief background is necessary.
In 1996, Congress mapped out a plan to curb asylum abuses and facilitate the removal of illegal entrants and other aliens who lacked proper documents to enter the United States. Specifically, it amended section 235(b)(1) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) to allow immigration officers at the ports and Border Patrol agents between them to quickly remove such aliens without placing them in removal proceedings before an immigration judge (IJ), a process known as “expedited removal”.
There is an exception in the expedited removal provision for aliens subject to expedited removal who request asylum or claim a fear of harm upon return. Those aliens are to be sent to AOs for interviews to determine whether they have a “credible fear” of persecution.
Between 1996 and the implementation of the asylum processing rule, immigration judges (IJs) in formal removal proceedings — not AOs — exclusively adjudicated asylum claims made by illegal migrants encountered by CBP who were subject to expedited removal and who had received positive credible fear determinations from AOs.
The asylum processing rule, however, now allows the same AOs who considered those migrants credible fear claims to also grant them asylum, following non-adversarial “Asylum Merits Interviews”, at which those AOs — not IJs in formal removal proceedings — decide whether those aliens should receive asylum.
Asylum Merits Interviews are “non-adversarial” because there’s no other government party present during that interview to cross-examine the alien or offer evidence contradicting the alien’s claim (a role played by ICE attorneys in immigration court). In order words, while the rule allows the alien applicant to have a lawyer present when AOs are adjudicating those asylum claims, the American people aren’t extended that courtesy.
The asylum processing rule is a radical and untested change to a well-established process, but that’s just one of the problems the Center identified in the 83-page comment it filed when that rule was being proposed.
AO Bias Could Lead to Terrorists Being Granted Asylum. Based on the facts as set forth in that letter, I agree with the chairmen that the expression of “such repugnant views” raises concerns that the AO in question may have denied asylum to applicants who would have merited such protection, absent the AO's bias.
My more salient concern, however, given the unprecedented latitude and power accorded to AOs under the asylum processing rule, is that an AO who “celebrate[s] the ultimate goals of Hamas” or any other terrorist organization (FTO), or who “justifie[s] the mass murder of innocent civilians by Hamas” or any other terrorist organization, could well grant asylum to a terrorist, with no one else being any the wiser.
That concern is “more salient” by my lights because if AO bias were to result in an applicant being denied asylum, that applicant would have the opportunity to appeal and have that application ruled on by an unbiased IJ. If a biased AO were to grant asylum to a terrorist, on the other hand, there not only wouldn’t be any ICE attorney to appeal that decision, but there would be little or no review at all.
As the chairmen note:
Our country has learned, through painful loss, that bad actors and terrorists will exploit any vulnerability in our lawful immigration system to gain a foothold in the United States. There is no justification for permitting an open terrorist sympathizer and antisemite to have authority to determine immigration benefits.
Those points are undeniably true.
As my colleague Steven Camarota explained in his 2002 report, “The Open Door”, at least three aliens who planned or carried out terrorist attacks prior to 2001 — Mir Aimal Kansi, who murdered two CIA employees in 1993, Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the first (1993) World Trade Center attack, and would-be 1997 Brooklyn subway bomber Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer — had pending asylum applications.
Yousef and Abu Mezer were both stopped attempting to enter the United States, Yousef at JFK and Abu Mezer after crossing the Canadian border. The conference report for the REAL ID Act of 2005, which among other things amended the asylum provisions in section 208 of the INA to make it less likely that alien terrorists could exploit our asylum laws, referenced both of those actors.
As a congressional staffer, I was a primary drafter of those asylum amendments, and never imagined that any administration would hand asylum claims by aliens like Yousef (or his associate, Ahmed Ajaj, who came through JFK with him, but was detained) or Abu Mezer over to AOs to potentially grant them the right to live and work — and act — in this country, as the asylum processing rule does.
But then, I also never imagined that a USCIS adjudicator would take to social media to post a video captioned “F*** Israel and any Jew who supports Israel” or who publicly derided “American privilege”, either.
I should note that the chairmen explain that they:
are also concerned that this employee may have acted out her bias in adjudications. Accurate adjudications that protect against ineligible applicants, deliver a fair process for qualified applicants, and guard against national security threats must be the priority for the agency.
Thus, the possibility that what they describe as an “antisemitic terrorist sympathizer” could act on such sympathies in granting a potential terrorist asylum is plainly on their respective radars.
It’s also critical, however, to note the vulnerabilities inherent in the asylum processing rule that would make such an asylum grant all the more likely — to the detriment of homeland security and the safety of the American people.
The administration’s May 2022 asylum processing rule gives asylum officers largely unfettered power to admit border migrants to the United States. Given the terrorist dangers facing this country and its allies, USCIS must either thoroughly vet those officers for bias or ditch the rule. If the claims in the Oversight Committee’s letter are true, the agency should really do both.