Immigration as DHS's Stepchild

By Dan Cadman on May 22, 2019

I agreed with many, probably even most, assertions in a recent blog post, "USCIS Needs Direct Access to Law Enforcement Power to Curb Rampant Immigration Fraud", written by an anonymous but serving government officer, but there are a few things that I think are worth noting because they don't quite fit with my understanding of reality.

First, while I am in no way a detractor of USCIS director Francis Cissna, when I read that "[a]ccording to many in USCIS, Cissna has been the best director in the agency's 16-year history", I feel obliged to observe that that's a low standard. Cissna's predecessors in both the Bush and Obama administrations were marginally competent political hacks.

Next is the suggestion that Cissna needs to "[f]orce a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the investigative arm of DHS that will require prosecution of immigration fraud". That investigative arm happens to be Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). I myself have repeatedly criticized ICE – specifically its Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division – for doing everything it can to shirk immigration-related work, and that most certainly includes benefit fraud. But think about that suggestion. Both USCIS and ICE are subordinate agencies within the same Department of Homeland Security. They don't need an MOU. What they need is a DHS secretary who has the intelligence and gumption to recognize the disconnect, and order ICE/HSI to do its job. That this has never happened is evidence of the overall dysfunction of DHS.

President Trump recently cashiered the DHS secretary incumbent, Kirstjen Nielsen, and designated the Customs and Border Protection Commissioner, Kevin McAleenan, to act in her place. McAleenan, though, is unlikely to order HSI to take its benefits fraud responsibilities seriously for the simple reason that, like most of the agents in HSI, he hails from the Customs side of the immigration/customs shotgun marriage that formed DHS. He's unlikely to rein them in because, whatever poker face he displays and stock phrases he mouths in public pronouncements on border crises and immigration matters, it seems clear to me that he isn't really invested in the immigration side of the house. He's simply riding the wave.

For that matter, it doesn't need to be McAleenan. The Trump nominee to head ICE, Mark Morgan, could order the HSI side of his organization to do the right thing. But I doubt that will happen either because Morgan's immigration background and experience are near nonexistent; they're limited to a short spate as Border Patrol chief in the last few months of the Obama administration. That doesn't seem like an auspicious pick to me, but let's all hope I'm wrong.

Then there is this comment in the post in question about the other half of ICE, Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO): "ERO does not investigate immigration crimes, it only removes those who are convicted." I'm being picky, but that's not completely true. In the course of their duties, ERO agents do, for instance, investigate and refer for prosecution selection immigration crimes such as reentry after removal (8 U.S.C. Sec. 1326) and the occasional willful failure to depart (8 USC Sec. 1253) and other such crimes related to their primary mission of alien apprehension and removal from the interior of the U.S. Still, it's true enough that this isn't the arm of ICE that, as things now stand, should be working with USCIS to combat immigration benefits fraud.

Finally there is USCIS itself. The Fraud Detection and National Security (FDNS) portion of USCIS is supposed to be doing a lot of the quasi-investigative work to ferret out fraud, and the author of that blog post suggests this could form the basis of a happy union between FDNS and ICE/HSI in detecting and prosecuting immigration fraud. Perhaps in the long run that's so, but it isn't necessarily the case now. I know from personal contacts that some number of the people in FDNS happen to be immigration adjudicators who shifted to FDNS. In some cases, no doubt they did it because they are interested in correcting the culture of approve-approve-approve, and one way to do that is to get involved in the fraud detection effort. In other cases, though, it seems that they shifted for other, less noble, reasons such as not having to work so hard at producing widgets. The point I'm making is that the vetting process for selecting FDNS employees to ensure fitness for the task is at its nascency (I'm being polite here). Some number of the FDNS employees simply don't have a clue as to how to go about fraud detection; and some smaller number probably don't care, they just wanted shelter from the storm of what is still essentially a benefits completions-driven agency.

Worse, FDNS is still subject to the whims of field directors, who are most certainly interested in ensuring that the benefits-approving widgets get counted; their annual ratings depend on it. I know for a fact that in at least one major metropolitan area, immigration officers assigned to a supposedly top priority denaturalization project (which only became necessary after an Office of Inspector General report documented a huge number of fraudsters who illicitly gained citizenship) have been pulled off from time to time – catch the irony here – to aid in setting up naturalization ceremonies.

In the end, though, there is a fundamental truth in the writer's words: what it all comes down to is that immigration truly is the stepchild, not just within ICE/HSI, but within DHS, no matter how many photo ops are taken with border barriers as the backdrop. And as long as the immigration functions are split between three agencies – USCIS, ICE, and CBP – thus encouraging the kind of stove-piping we now see that is so injurious to a well-functioning national system, an MOU would just be a band-aid over a large, suppurating chest wound.