House Immigration Subcommittee Has a Lively Hearing

By David North on February 16, 2012

The immigration subcommittee of the House of Representatives had an unusually lively hearing yesterday on the DHS Acting Inspector-General's report about how the USCIS agency staff is pressed to say "yes" to immigration benefit applications and to do so quickly.

The administration's spokesman denied that this was happening.

For the witness list, their statements, and the video of the two-hour session, see here; for a blog on the report which set off the session, see this blog of mine from last month, and here is the text of the report.

Perhaps the highlight of the afternoon was an exchange between the usually rather passive chair, Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-CA), and the embattled USCIS Director, Alejandro Mayorkas.

Gallegly said he had heard that there was a draft internal USCIS report on increasing problems with L-1B nonimmigrant applications (these are multinational corporate executives) and he asked if Mayorkas would send it to him.

Mayorkas spoke articulately about his devotion to doing the right thing, and Gallegly interrupted him to say, "you have not answered my question. Can I have that document by the close of business today."

"You shall have it forthwith, but probably not today," Mayorkas answered at about 4 p.m. yesterday.

"Let's say by noon tomorrow" the chairman replied. The director seemed to acquiesce.

If the committee releases the document, as is likely, it should make interesting reading, as do many previously-suppressed government documents.

There were several exchanges between the committee members and Mayorkas about the EB-5 (immigrant investor) program, with both Democratic and Republican members asking hostile questions about it. (The IG's report did not touch on this program, but it was the first chance the members had to vent on the subject.) For my own take on this problem-filled program, see the CIS my January Backgrounder "The Immigrant Investor (EB-5) Visa: A Program that Is, and Deserves to Be, Failing".

Both of the black Democrats on the subcommittee, Maxine Waters (CA) and Sheila Jackson Lee (TX), asked Mayorkas about the program, with the overtone being that such a program should be putting money into truly depressed areas, such as their own constituencies.

Waters asked him several questions about the front-page story in the December 18 New York Times which told how half-million dollar investments for "low-income areas" were arranged by creating an outlandishly-shaped economic district to including both a proposed building in the (prosperous) Wall Street area and a (not so prosperous) housing project in a distant part of Brooklyn.

Mayorkas fended off the questions without showing any particular concern for the Times reporting.

Then Louis Gohmert (R-TX) blindsided him with another EB-5 story, this one involving a former Mexican government official whose name I did not catch, who allegedly had swindled many millions in Mexico before "buying" investor visas for himself and his family. The Mexican official apparently was wanted in his home country on criminal charges yet, the congressman said, the U.S. State Department had caused him to be sprung from jail after his visa had been revoked.

Mayorkas said that this was all news to him (and it was to me as well) and that he would look into it and tell the congressman what he found.

Perhaps the most telling and pertinent questions of Mayorkas came from the chairman and from vice-chairman Steve King (R-IA), when both pressed him on the question: does a "no" decision create more work for the adjudicator than a "yes" decision and, a related question, how can this be quantified?

Mayorkas did not like the question but more or less agreed that this was the case. (I have sensed during more than 30 years of immigration research that the King-Gallegly position is distinctly the correct one on this point.)

Only Zoe Lofgren (D-Silicon Valley), the ranking minority member, asked Mayorkas friendly questions; she also, in her opening statement, mounted an attack on the methodology of the IG's study which found extensive pressure on line adjudicators to say "yes" to marginal applications. She said the study was not based on random sampling, nor did it make use of administrative data on approvals and denials; she said that the document was "amateurish", a remarkable statement to make about a government document.

Mayorkas, in his opening statement, all but ignored the IG's report – the subject of the hearing – which he said was "based on limited testimonial information and not empirical data. . ."

The overall impression one gets from a legislative hearing is, I think, based on four factors: 1) the orientation of the hearing, generally; 2) the questions from the members; 3) the make-up of the witness list, and 4) the skill of the witnesses in presenting their points of view.

In this instance, I thought:

1) The basic question, regarding executive interference with line decision-making, was tilted towards the restrictionists.

2) So were most of the questions of the members.

3) The witness list was absolutely balanced, which is different than most legislative hearings on immigration, in which the open-borders types usually outnumber the restrictionists by two to one or more. I know that in all my years of testifying before various committees have I have virtually never been in the majority. Yesterday the witnesses were Mayorkas and Bo Cooper, former INS General Counsel, for the more-migration people, and Charles K. Edwards, Acting IG of DHS, and Mark Whetstone, president of an AFGE (AFL-CIO) affiliate representing the rank-and-file adjudicators, for the other side.

4) So far, so good, but the witness-skill variable was all on the side of Mayorkas and Cooper, both of whom have much more experience in testifying than the other two. Both knew when to take advantage of the line of questioning, when to be assertive, and when to be brief. While both Edwards and Mayorkas were under fire, Cooper was not, and with his smooth manner, lack of anger, and deep knowledge he was clearly the star of the day. Whetstone seemed a bit out of his depth, and Edwards was hesitant and not forceful.

Next: In a future blog I will comment on two understated themes of the hearing: the key question of statistical data on USCIS decision-making, and the inherent difficulties (faced by the IG) in prying controversial information out of the employees of any government agency.