On Risk Management and Risk Mitigation at USCIS

By Dan Cadman on January 31, 2014

Before we drive onto the roadways, most of us almost reflexively check to ensure that the rearview and sideview mirrors give us the best sighting possible of what's behind us. If not, we take a few moments to adjust them to their proper angles and, where the rearview is concerned, also adapt it to low-light conditions if it's night time.

We do this because we know that you sometimes need to look backward to see what's coming. It's so fundamental and obvious a truism that saying so borders on platitude.

That's why it is such a puzzle to me that our bureaucracies so rarely show the wisdom to do this where their core missions and operations are concerned, preferring instead to brave embarrassing incidents, after which they blithely plow forward again without taking the time to do post-mortems in order to figure out what went wrong, when, and what signals or warning signs they missed that could have averted the mistake(s).

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and its component agencies, seem to me to fall into this pattern. I was forcefully reminded of this after reading "H1-B Scammers Invent a University and Get Away with It for Years", a case study just published on the Center's website by Senior Fellow David North. It has an unmistakable Keystone Kops quality to it that should be deeply embarrassing to DHS.

But, while with many bureaucracies the consequences of missed cues are costly, or time-consuming, or both, they are rarely of a nature to upset the public order and safety, or to cause serious injury or death. This isn't true with DHS; particularly with its component bureau, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). There is a direct nexus between the ability of USCIS officers to competently, and without political interference, adjudicate various applications and petitions that provide individuals the right to enter or reside in this country, or to naturalize. Yet, time and again, we have seen evidence of both incompetence and egregious, heavy-handed interference to force approval rates up and denial rates down.

Some of the decisions have resulted in inappropriate grants to people like the Tsarnaev brothers of Boston Marathon bombing infamy. And they are not the only ones. Trace many, perhaps most, of the terrorist incidents and near-misses of the past several years, and you will find a trail of breadcrumbs leading back to aliens improperly granted benefits, even as DHS has repeatedly invoked "risk management" as its operative principle for securing the homeland. (For a recitation of several examples, see Center Backgrounders "Connecting the Dots" and "Upholding the Value of Our Citizenship".)

I have always understood the baser side of that mantra, which is an attempt by the department's leadership to bulletproof itself in advance of catastrophe. It is as if to say, "Look, we can't absolutely eliminate risk, and that being the case, don't blame us if something horrible happens."

True. But the flip side of that truth is that DHS owes the public a serious attempt not only at risk management, but at risk mitigation. Every time a serious terrorism- or espionage- or national security-related incident occurs involving someone granted an inappropriate immigration or citizenship benefit, it is the department's absolute responsibility to do exhaustive post mortems, digging to the bottom in order to figure out what went wrong, when, and what signals or warning signs they missed that could have averted the mistake(s) — and then to undertake the steps needed to correct those mistakes.

They do nothing of the sort. Instead, policy memoranda and orders flow unabated from headquarters downward that thwart even the best-intentioned USCIS examiner from applying scrutiny, legal acumen, and independent judgment to the cases in front of him or her.

And what has happened to Alejandro Mayorkas, the former USCIS director responsible for this abysmal record in the past several years? Why, he was recently nominated by the White House, and approved by a feckless Senate in a farcical pretense of its constitutional advice-and-consent role, to become the number-two honcho at DHS. 'Nuff said.