Keynote: Michael Volpe, Writer, The Daily Caller
Sarah Ryley, Writer, The Daily
Mark Krikorian, Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies
National Press Club, Washington, D.C.
12:00 p.m. EDT
Friday, June 1, 2012
Transcript by Federal News Service
MR. KRIKORIAN: Good afternoon. Good afternoon, folks. Good afternoon. You can feel free to keep eating. And frankly, I paid for all the food, so please don't leave any cold cuts out there. (Laughter). Steve. (Off-mic exchange). I'm suggesting it to Steve. I mean, he'll be – he'll be working through it pretty well.
So the Center for Immigration Studies has been presenting this – a journalism award since 1997. We have named the award in honor of Gene Katz, Eugene Katz, who was a former board member of the center. He is now deceased. He'd worked on both sides of media. He had been a – on the journalism side and reporting side and the business side. He'd started as a young reporter in 1928, apparently, at the Daily Oklahoman, and later joined the family firm selling broadcast ads and owned radio stations – managed radio stations.
Our intention for the award was not so much to promote our particular perspective on immigration, but rather to promote and highlight more and better debate and discussion of an issue that's so important to our country's future. There's a lot of policy debates that are complicated – health care, what have you – but usually you get a lot of varied and often good reporting on them. The problem with immigration is that so much of it, even beyond – even more than other issues, reporting is just formulaic and predictable. It's Snidely Whiplash curling his moustache as he figures out new ways to oppress a noble newcomer from south of the border.
There was only one year that we didn't – since '97 that we just couldn't find anybody to give the award to. There just wasn't anything worth highlighting. Unfortunately, a couple months after that, 19 foreigners who never should have gotten visas flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and then there was a lot more reporting, surprisingly enough, on immigration after that, although frankly, I think we've drifted back somewhat to the Snidely Whiplash approach to covering immigration.
But I think one of the reasons for the better and more reporting on immigration is not just the increased seriousness that people accord it because of 9/11 and related events. But really, also I think new media and the entrance of new people into covering immigration. And our speaker, our keynote speaker, is, I think, an example of that. Michael Volpe writes for – has written for a number of publications. He's written for the Big Government, which is one of the Breitbart sites, also now writes a lot for The Daily Caller. He's in Chicago, has worked with one of our analysts, Jessica Vaughan, who isn't here today, who covers a lot of these law enforcement-related issues. He's covered a lot of the interactions between law enforcement in the Chicago area and immigration, and it's really been outrageous. They're sort of refusing to hold suspects for immigration to arrest, this kind of thing. It's just – it's just ridiculous.
And Mike has done a lot of – a lot of good work on that and he comes from a nontraditional background. He was a financial analyst, a mortgage broker. And believe me, if you think the journalism business is in trouble, imagine the mortgage and real estate business. And interestingly enough, both our honoree and Mike were involved in that. Sarah Ryley, who I'll be talking about briefly, covered real estate, and Mike was a mortgage broker. So journalism is the – apparently the thing you enter once the mortgage business fails, and then – and then we'll hire you after that, because our senior research fellow, Jerry Kammer, is a Pulitzer Prize winner, which doesn't mean you get to keep your job in journalism anymore. So I don't know, I guess nonprofit think tanks are the fallback strategy for employment.
Anyway, Mike's going to give us some of his thoughts about the immigration issue and related things. After that I'm going to introduce Sarah, present her the award. She'll say a few words, and then after that I'll encourage some questions and Q-and-A. So the point is if you have questions or what-have-you, hold off until afterwards so that we can move the program along.
MIKE VOLPE: All right. Let me be the first to congratulate Sarah Ryley on a well-deserved award. And this award is well-deserved and it's well-deserved because in telling the story of rubber-stamping these applications at the U.S. Citizenship Immigration Services, Sarah practiced good journalism. As any journalist can tell you, all you can do is tell the story right. Everything after that is generally out of our hands. Far too often, trivial stories get far too much attention, and important stories get ignored. And more times than not, that's something that's not in the hands of a journalist. All we can do is tell the story right, contact all the sources and make sure all sides are represented. And that's exactly what happened here.
So what do I mean by this? These days, like most professions, journalists are known by an assortment of names. Journalists, new media, analysts, pundits, you name it. Personally, I like the old-school term of "reporter" because if you're really, truly trying to be a reporter, you're doing it right. What a reporter does is they put themselves in the middle of their story, and then they report what they see. If as a journalist you're focused on doing that, you're doing it right, and again, that's what happened here.
But she also took the story one step further, and she became an investigative reporter. And what do I mean by that? An investigative reporter – at least the way I understand it, they insert themselves into a situation someone, somewhere wants kept hidden from the public and reports on that. And that's exactly what happened here, because I can assure you that the powers that be at the U.S. Citizenship Immigration Services, they never wanted this story told. And the best way to accomplish being an investigative reporter, at least in my opinion, is through the use of whistle-blowers. And that's exactly what happened here as well. By seeking out the whistle-blowers, Sarah was able to insert herself in the middle of the story that many powerful forces were trying to keep hidden. And whistle-blowers are, in my opinion, a great tool for investigative reporters, and unfortunately, it's a tool most journalists don't use nearly enough.
And I also think Sarah will agree with me on this: Whatever accolades she deserves for this story, they pale in comparison to the courage shown by the whistle-blower in this case, Christina Poulos. By telling her story, Sarah also made sure that her courage wasn't in vain. And I think while it's important that Sarah exposed what happened with the pressure from the higher-ups to rubber-stamp visa applications, it's also important in Sarah's story she showed what happened to the whistle-blower and the kind of treatment that Ms. Poulos received. And that included threat of job loss, demotion and relocation. And unfortunately, what happened to Ms. Poulos is far too common with whistle-blowers everywhere, both in the public and in the private sphere.
Recently I wrote a book review about a book on ACORN. The difference between this book on ACORN and most books – it was written by an ACORN whistle-blower. The name of the book is "ACORN 8: Race, Power & Politics," and it was written by a guy named Michael McCray. And here's what I said about him as a whistle-blower: Like most whistle-blowers, rather than meeting him with concern and understanding, the system attempted to cover up his revelations, and they smeared him in the process. And if anybody read the story, that's exactly what happened to Christina Poulos. And like I said, unfortunately, this is what happens to most whistle-blowers.
And like Mark said, I'm from Chicago. In Chicago, I'm friendly with a guy named Pat McDonough. I'm sure no one in this room has heard of Pat McDonough? He's the original whistle-blower on something called the "Hired Truck" scandal, and it's one of the biggest scandals in Chicago history. And I think anybody that knows my city knows what kind of statement that is. (Laughter).
So about seven years ago, Pat McDonough, who was working as a plumbing inspector, he was on a job when he noticed a number of trucks that were just sitting there. That site led to the "Hired Truck" scandal. And for the last seven years and a decade before it, Pat McDonough relied for almost all of his income on the city of Chicago. So think about what he was doing. He was blowing the whistle on corruption in the city of Chicago, all while relying on them to feed himself and his family.
And how do you think the powers that be treated Pat McDonough? Did they throw him a parade? Did they give him a medal? (Laughter.) No, for the last seven years what they've tried to do is get him fired, and they've tried everything they could. And they almost succeeded a couple of times. In fact, he still has a federal case in federal court right now, pending, based on some of the behavior they've done. And this is the kind of thing that whistle-blowers can expect.
And by the way, as crazy as this sounds, we as a society in the world have come a long way in our treatment of whistle-blowers. They used to be treated even worse. The most famous case of a whistle-blower is the case of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss, a European doctor in the 1800s. Dr. Semmelweiss, while he was working for a hospital in Vienna – he hypothesized that patients were dying because doctors weren't washing their hands enough. Think about what he was saying to doctors: Wash your hands more. Doctors who are notorious for huge egos were none too happy that someone was telling them how to perform surgeries. So instead of – instead of embracing what he was saying, his colleagues worked to discredit him until he was discredited and thrown out of the hospital and deemed unprofessional.
He moved throughout the rest of Europe for the next decade. He continued to hypothesize patients were dying because people weren't washing their hands enough. So what happened? The same people that discredited him in Vienna, they reached out to the entire European medical community until he was blackballed entirely.
As a result, he developed a drinking problem, and he started acting erratically. So what did people do? The same powers that be, along with his wife and the rest of his family, had him committed to an insane asylum, and he died there weeks after he was committed.
Seven years after his death, none other than Louis Pasteur himself confirmed everything Dr. Semmelweiss had said, and he had been vindicated. Of course, Dr. Semmelweiss was still dead. And by the way, if there was just one journalist who showed one-tenth of the courage that he had, he would have been maybe vindicated in life and not in death.
Now, he's – since he's become a hero and a martyr. You talk to any whistle-blower – this guy is as big a hero as they get. But he lived a miserable life, and for what? He wanted doctors to wash their hands more. That's all he told people.
And so I want to tell one last story about whistle-blowers, just to show you how important they are, because if journalists don't have whistle-blowers, what we have to do is we have to become whistle-blowers ourselves.
In the late 1800s there was a journalist named Elizabeth Jane Cochrane. And by the way, she didn't write under Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, because back in the 1800s, if you were a woman and a journalist, you couldn't even write under your own name. She wrote under the name – the pen name Nellie Bly.
In 1886 the New York World, then owned by legendary publisher Joseph Pulitzer, gave her an assignment – tell me if you've heard of an assignment this tough – fake being crazy, get yourself locked up in the Blackwell Island insane asylum, and stay there for 10 days. And what she found made the movie "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" look like Club Med, and it turned into the seminal book Ten Days in a Mad-House.
So think about it: If Sarah didn't have a whistle-blower, what would she have to do to tell this story? Get a job pretending to be IT? Janitorial? To see things from inside. That's the kind of courage the whistle-blowers show. And frankly, they make us look good because they're the ones that are courageous, give us the story, and all we do is write it.
And I also – I wanted to – because we're obviously here for the Center of Immigration Studies – I wanted to talk a little bit about some of the impressions I've had dealing with Department of Homeland Security and ICE as a member of the new media.
Now, first of all, generally, it's been good. When I ask for statements, they usually give them to me. When I ask them for – before a certain date, they usually give them to me. They're generally mostly professional. And frankly, I've worked with people in government from local to national, and most of them are professional.
That said – and this is very important – the statements I get from DHS are almost always reviewed by a team of lawyers, and these are statements that are little more than legal mumbo-jumbo. And believe me, most people don't want to read legal mumbo-jumbo. And that leads me to my conclusion: Rarely, if ever, will DHS tip you off to a great story.
And think about the difference between the way DHS works with you and the way a whistle-blower works with you. Do you think the whistle-blower brings a team of lawyers with them when they're going to speak to you? Do you think, before they give you a statement, they have a team of lawyers look at it and then only give you the statement that makes them look good?
So another thing to think about – in a totalitarian regime, in Iran, in North Korea, what's the media? The media is little more than people reading off government statements. So if you're a journalist, if you're anybody that only, solely relies on the government for your information, how much different are you than the media in a totalitarian regime? (Scattered applause.)
Now, if I were to give someone advice about dealing with DHS, what I would tell you is try to speak to them last. And the reason I would do that is if you can get as a full a story as possible, you can ask the right question. If you ask the right question, you minimize – notice I said "minimize," not completely eliminate – the chance that they're going to spin you with a nonsensical statement.
And the best example I have is the story I did on a guy named Amado Espinoza-Ramirez. He's a suspected child molester, including child rape and incest. He's also a suspected illegal alien. He was in ICE custody. They gave him – they put a – they put a tracking monitor on him. He cut it off, and now he's in the wind.
Now, I figured all of it out before I came to DHS. I knew that they had him. They were the last ones. I knew that he was in the wind. So I was able to ask the question in the right way. And then when they gave me the answer, they admitted it because they had no choice at that point. And so the reason I believe I was able to do it is because I knew enough to ask the question in the right way.
And so before I turn it over to Mark, I also wanted to say a few words about the Center for Immigration Studies. First, I want to describe it two ways, low-brow and high-brow.
The low-brow way is this: Sometimes in this world, you really need to talk to some smart people. And on the issue of immigration, the Center for Immigration Studies has a full stable of really smart people. I was just talking with Mark. One of them obviously is Jessica Vaughan, who is – I don't – I don't know what her IQ is, but it's off the charts.
And on a more serious note, CIS, like most think tanks, are a sophisticated effect for the First Amendment. I always tell people, the First Amendment isn't first by accident. It wasn't like they had a lottery like in the NBA draft. (Laughter.)
The First Amendment is first because it's the most important one. Free press, free speech – as long as they're truly free, any other injustice can be tackled. And so the Founding Fathers, I believe, wanted truly free speech because that leads to innovative speech, and innovative speech leads to democracy that's not only solid – that's solid, but not – and not fragile.
And that's what CIS is. It's an organization that, on the issue of immigration, each and every day delivers free speech in a sophisticated matter, and then, of course, helps continues this great experiment known as the United States of America. (Applause.)
MARK KRIKORIAN: I'll give Mike his check afterwards. (Laughter.)
Apropos of his North Korea comment, I'm telling you, if you look online, the North Korean news service actually has their press releases there; they're way more interesting than our government press releases. (Laughter.) I mean, oh man, they're really quite entertaining, actually. So in that sense, it's actually better. I mean, it's – if we have reporters transcribing North Korean press releases, the newspaper would be more interesting to read.
Anyway, to give some context for Sarah's reporting, when it was clear, when it became clear early in the Obama administration that there wasn't going to be any broad amnesty – comprehensive immigration reform, so-called, was even deader than it was – than it had been under the previous administration – the political appointees in the Department of Homeland Security began to consider ways of weakening enforcement of the immigration laws. In other words, if they couldn't have amnesty, let's sort of do it in another way.
One part of that approach has been reported pretty widely. It was revealed by a leak of an internal memo. And frankly, I think Sarah's whistle-blower is probably the person who leaked that memo too, but that – I'm not sure we really know that. It was a memo exploring so-called, quote, "Administrative Alternatives to Comprehensive Immigration Reform," unquote. In other words, how do we legalize illegal aliens without having Congress actually vote on it? And there was this whole menu of items. It was – basically, it was – it was an attempt to effect a backdoor amnesty. And that got a lot of attention. That's not something that was covered up.
But there is another part, or other parts. One of the other parts of this broader effort to weaken immigration law less widely noted, and that's something that our honoree today dug up, Sarah Ryley of The Daily, whose stories that we're honoring are in the handout that you got. She broke the news that the same political agenda resulted in increased pressure on people in the field in USCIS basically to rubber-stamp – as the story headline put it, rubber-stamp visa applications. She had gotten an unpublished internal report by inspector general report, that found that one-quarter of USCIS agents who had been officers who had been surveyed said they had been pressured to approve questionable applications.
Now, this kind of thing, of course, has – it's not like it's been completely unknown in the past. There's no doubt this has happened before. But as she noted in one of her stories, quote, "high-ranking USCIS officials said this pressure has heightened after the Obama administration appointed Alejandro Mayorkas as director of the agency in August 2009 during an effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform, bringing with him a mantra" – this is important – "bringing with him a mantra of ‘get to yes.'"
In other words, basically, if someone's asking you for some kind of immigration benefit, get to yes. Find – it's almost like – it reminds me of a used car salesman. It's like, "what can I do to have you drive off the lot in this car?" (Laughter.) Essentially, we're giving visas – "what can I do to get you this visa so you can come or stay in the United States?" This and Sarah's other reporting on this "get to yes" culture, which included some stories on immigration fraud as well as a profile of the whistle-blower herself that Mike had referred to, have shined a light on this huge weakness in our immigration system, and one that doesn't get a lot of media attention.
And the reason for that, the reason it doesn't get media attention is because what's the – what's the arc you can put with a story on pressured USCIS officials approving visas? Well, there's no fence to take a picture of, and other – it's not a just photogenic story, and yet it's extremely important, because – I mean, one – just to give you one sense of it, something like 40 percent – we're not really sure, but something like 40 percent of all the illegal aliens in the country were approved for some kind of lawful admission – they got some kind of visa and then just never left. So it really is an essential part of the broader story that just never gets covered.
Now, in the past I've complained that there hasn't been enough specialization in the media on immigration; in other words, the immigration beat in a lot of papers had disappeared. And I think there is something to that, because this is such a multifaceted issue that it really does help to have people who have a kind of deep knowledge and background on it.
On the other hand, Sarah's work is an example of how some of the better immigration reporting comes from people who aren't specializing in it, people who are, like Sarah, enterprise reporters, investigative reporters who are able to approach the issue without a lot of the preconceptions that you end up – that, unfortunately, a lot of immigration beat reporters end up being captured by the culture of these advocacy groups, and they don't even see that they're buying into this Snidely Whiplash narrative about immigration; it's just sort of natural to them. And so it actually – it's – I think it's very helpful to have people who haven't been marinated in that advocacy group culture to approach the issue.
And another factor, I think, is this proliferation of new media. Sarah's employer is The Daily, and it's a(n) iPad-only – or it started as an iPad-only publication. It's a newspaper, but it's a newspaper with no paper. I mean, it's – The Washington Post, everybody has websites, but they have paper, too. The Daily has no paper version, and it really is – Rupert Murdoch presumably sees this as the future of media and wants to get in on the ground floor where paper is going to disappear and it's all going to be like that.
But – and the advantage of, I think, is – not that this story couldn't have been reported – these stories that Sarah found couldn't have been reported by a newspaper; they could have. I mean, this could have been the – regular legacy media could have run this story. But what the proliferation of new media does, and the entrance of a lot of new people into this, is break this stranglehold that the ABC/CBS/New York Times/Washington Post axis has on what is to be considered news and what isn't. There is – and The Daily Caller has been actually very good at this; Big Government and the other Breitbart sites have been good in getting things covered that become big stories that just wouldn't have been covered because – not because there is some cabal, where the New York Times and the Washington Post, ABC, CBS and NBC all pick up the red phone and say, fellas, what are we going to bury today? It's that, like bees in a hive, they all operate independently toward the same goal. They're like fish that don't know they're wet because nobody they know voted for Richard Nixon – that kind of thing. (Scattered laughter.) And so what this does is make sure – new media ensures that that kind of "no one I know voted for Richard Nixon" perspective isn't sustainable, because there is always other voices coming in and saying, this is sort of kind of like an important story, and it eventually can catch on.
So without – you don't need to hear me anymore – without further ado, I'd like to present our 2012 Eugene Katz Award for Excellence in the Coverage of Immigration to Sarah Ryley of The Daily. And here's the tchotchke that she gets. There you are, Sarah. I think we're supposed to shake hands for the cameras or something. (Laughter, applause.) And I present to you Sarah Ryley.
SARAH RYLEY: Thank you. Thank you very much. It's definitely an honor to receive this award. And it's a particular honor because, as they've mentioned, I'm not an immigration reporter; I'm a GA, investigative and enterprise reporter. So – and my background is, had been in large public-private development projects, a lot of investigative work with that and the real estate market before I came to The Daily. So it's a particular honor for my work to be recognized by a major immigration organization.
And also, of course, I want to say thank you to my sources. Christina Poulos, my whistle-blower, was mentioned as one of those sources, and it did take a lot of courage for her to come forward. But I also had dozens of other internal USCIS sources that also have put a lot on the line and were also very concerned about providing me information and about potentially being discovered and losing their jobs in a tough economy but still felt so strongly about the stories that they wanted to come out that they did put a lot on the line to have phone conversations with me, to meet me in some cases, to send me over email or sometimes via snail mail – and internal documents. I think through my reporting on this issue, I probably amassed internal documents – a stack of it about this high. So it was –
MR. KRIKORIAN: We'll take some of those. (Laughter.)
MS. RYLEY: I'm not allowed to share them. (Laughs.) But no, we – but was – it was definitely an incredible experience.
And obviously, also I want to thank my editors too for giving me the time and the support that was necessary to do the reporting on this story. I know Mark wanted me to talk a little bit about new media and The Daily, and I think that one thing is special about The Daily is even though we have a small staff that is attempting to cover the entire nation and competing against media outlets that have hundreds of reporters trying to cover the same stories that we are, we - we definitely have a strategy of instead of mostly dedicating staff or reporters to a high quota of aggregation stories, they realize that the enterprise and the investigative stories are the ones that are going to allow us to sort of break through the national noise and get noticed and sort of be the catalysts for reactions – hopefully positive. And so a lot of our reporters and producers are dedicated to enterprise and investigative reporting for that reason. And I think that they've definitely seen the payoff in that, and because of the payoff that we've had, they've even increased the amount of reporters that they're dedicating to enterprise reporting.
In the case of this series, it became the topic of a congressional hearing and the USCIS director, Alejandro Mayorkas, was forced to answer in the – in the hearing to some of the issues that were raised in these stories. And also, I know from my dozens of internal USCIS sources – (chuckles) – that the – the – it was – created huge waves within the agency. And you could just tell, I guess, with some of the rhetoric that came out after that, that the issues were taken into consideration. We've had other stories that have had a big impact as well. So I think that that's a good lesson for new media that's definitely proliferating now is that the enterprise and the investigative reporting, even though it costs money and it takes time, it's definitely worthwhile. And I'm very fortunate to be at a place that recognizes that and also is willing to let me travel for the story. I took several trips. And it definitely was an expense for them, so I appreciate it.
So like – on the – on the rubber-stamp series, like many of my better stories, it was just something that I kind of stumbled upon. I was actually reporting on something completely different and unrelated and happened upon a very disgruntled – (chuckles) – USCIS employee, and that sort of started the chain of events that led to this series. And as I said, I found myself with stacks of internal documents and emails. Definitely my background in – has given me a patience with looking through highly technical and dry documents and helped in this case.
But, one important thing that I want to note is that as a publication with my editors, we made a conscious decision to focus on the integrity of the USCIS system or the integrity of the vetting process. And if you've looked through the stories, you'll see that we didn't really wade into the issue of how many immigrants should be allowed to come into the country or the impact that they have on things like employment and communities. So we really wanted to focus on the integrity of the process. But I really did find that when I raised these issues – I think with this story I got maybe more response in my email box and by phone than I've gotten at any other series of stories that I've done.
But I – one thing that was interesting to me was that I found that people on both sides of the sort of immigration debate took this issue of security as something that is more hand-in-hand with the anti-immigration stance, which I found quite surprising, because I consider it two completely separate and distinct issues. I think using the example of New York City, 37 percent of the population of the city that I live in is foreign-born, but the city was attacked by people who had legal visas. So there's a difference between quantity of immigrants and the actual integrity of the system.
And I guess one example with that – this wasn't actually in my story; it's something that I'm interested in, though. A high-ranking internal USCIS employee had talked about Transformation, which is the very delayed and over-budget effort to digitize the petition process and to immigrate – or I'm sorry, integrate the security checks. One thing that came out in my reporting was that officers often don't – just don't have enough time to do the myriad of security checks that they're supposed to do for a typical petition, and they – and they can't even check all the aliases. So the system is supposed to sort of streamline that process and make it possible for them to do those security checks. And the Obama administration realizes that an amnesty measure would be impossible, actually, without the Transformation system because it's just not possible to process all of the petitions that would come in once an amnesty measure was – if it was approved, were approved. So that's an example of a system that would actually improve the vetting process, and the efficiency of immigration petitions. So it's something that's, I think, important to both sides, just, as I said, an example of how this issue is sort of separate from the other policy considerations.
So I'll talk a little bit about the story, a couple of the things that I found, and then open it up to questions, although a lot of the stuff was already mentioned. (Chuckles.) But the, the first, the first big document that I reported on was an unreleased Office of Inspector General report that detailed the intense production pressure that Immigration Service officers feel that they're under in order to approve visa petitions as quickly as possible. A quarter of the officers surveyed said that they felt they were pressured to approve questionable petitions, sometimes against their will. And another portion said that they had concerns that they were evaluated unfairly if they were too focused on fraud, that petitions were reassigned to officers who were more willing to just sort of give it the rubber stamp, which is against policy, and that some of the officers that I spoke to felt that they were reassigned or demoted to less complicated cases if they were too security-focused on – or too fraud-focused, particularly on the business-based visas.
And this is actually a problem that had been – that has – that the report identified as dating back to the 1980s, although certainly, there was a lot of – what I found, there was a lot of internal strife with the new administration, which was sort of urging a more open-handed interpretation of the immigration laws that are in place. And part of the reason, of course, is because it would be impossible with the current situation in Congress to pass any sort of meaningful immigration legislation anyway – but as a way around that, had been urging for just a more open-handed interpretation. And I think that that internal strife is what led to a lot of these leaks, like the prosecutorial discretion memo and the leaks that I had detailed in my story.
But I also found that the pressure to approve applications boiled down to even the management level separate from the administration level. After our publication of the story, I received in the mail a flier from the California Service Center, which approves about a quarter of the nation's immigration applications. And it was a flier for an annual morale-building day. So this happens every year where there's one day where the team that is able to process the most immigration applications actually gets prizes. (Laughs.) And – yeah, I thought that that was quite shocking – (chuckles) – actually. And the problem with that is that there's actually no – once an application is – or a petition, rather, is approved, it just sort of goes straight through. There's no additional steps. So if you approve, you can process applications or petitions really quickly, but if you deny, there's several steps that it has to go through, so it really sort of slows down the whole production. So you can see that there's a great incentive to approve petitions and a huge disincentive to disapprove petitions. And I think that –
AUDIENCE MEMBER: That's funny.
MS. RYLEY: (Laughs.) Yeah, and, with this administration, another complaint that I heard from some USCIS employees was I know that Mayorkas has made an initiative to have more open lines of communication with immigration attorneys. And their reason for that is that if they're not able to raise a concern about a denial that might be based on an error, for example, then the petition then has to go to the appeals process, which takes about two years. But on the other side and what the OIG report had found was that there was a number of instances – and also some internal emails that were forwarded to me show a number of instances where attorneys called USCIS management or administration officials directly to complain about a denial and then that was sort of trickled down to the – the service center and the officer level to try and pressure them to push that through.
So also on that end, I know that under this administration, fairly recently production was removed as an evaluation criteria. But then it was very quietly put back on as one of the evaluation criteria for Immigration Service officers. So there does still exist this pressure to approve petitions.
And then another story that I did focused on fraud assessment studies that were conducted by the fraud division in USCIS, and these assessment studies that were never released found evidence of widespread fraud and petitions for intercompany transfers, which are L-1 visas, marriage visas, Yemeni family-based visas and political asylum. And again, these reports were never released. There's no – actually, there was no intention of releasing these reports. The new administration decided that they weren't really of value, which I'll get to in a second. (Laughs.)
But the Yemeni – or I'm sorry – the Yemeni family-based visa fraud assessment found about 50 percent rate of fraud, and the L-1 visa fraud assessment found a one-third rate of fraud, so a pretty high fraud rate. The reason why releasing them is important is because when the H-1B visa and the religious worker visa reports – fraud assessment reports were released, that was a catalyst for change in these – in this petition process.
So there's a routine practice of doing site visits for companies or religious organizations that are applying for such visas. But this is an example I discussed with you is kind of interesting is that they then contracted out these site visits. So the contractor will go to a religious worker visa site or H-1B visa site, and if they aren't able to – or if they need to do more than one visit, which is often the case if you read these fraud assessment reports sometimes they go and, like, the, the visa holder isn't there or the manager isn't there, and they have to go somewhere else. And that might just be 15 minutes away, but because it's an outside contractor instead of an internal staffer, they actually can't do a second visit; they have to go back to the office and, like, put in a request to do a second visit, and then they'll either – and the office could be like two hours away, especially if you're in places like Iowa or something like that, or four hours away.
So at that point – as an investigative reporter, I know that at that point your target has already been tipped off, and you've basically just kind of blown your investigation. (Laughs.) But – so it's just a really inefficient system. But at least the site visits exist. And that's only because the H-1B and the R visa reports were released. And, as I said, these L-1 visa – (inaudible) – family-based visa, marriage visa and asylum reports were not released so there's little or nothing that is being done about the findings.
And I think that with the issue of the whistleblower – the whistleblowers, another thing that was really surprising that I found was not just from Christina Poulos and some of the other sources that I spoke with that went against the current administration who thought that they had – that retaliatory investigations had been launched against them, but I spoke to, like, dozens of people who detailed investigations that they felt were retaliatory. And I just found that really shocking. I can't imagine if our company's HR department was used as a way to get back at people at a routine basis. So I guess that want to open the – open it up for questions and –
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah. And we'll – just FYI, we have to get Sarah out of here in about 18 minutes so she can get her train.
MS. RYLEY: Oh. OK.
MR. KRIKORIAN: So keep the questions short and no speeches. (Laughter.) And go ahead. You first, Jim, and then Frank.
Q: So –
MR. KRIKORIAN: And speak up.
Q: Was there any evidence of these informants, employees being monitored or surveiled, wire-tapped – any of those kinds of things? And secondarily, were any of those visas or whatever these visas – applications that were rapidly put through, were any of those then rechecked? Or is it even possible to recheck to kind of capture them?
MS. RYLEY: On the surveillance question, I actually – no one actually – well, actually there is one example of surveillance. But most of the sources that I spoke with, including Christina Poulos, did not mention that they felt that they were being monitored or surveiled. The one instance was someone who was suspected of violating the worker compensation law. I think it's a little bit of a separate issue.
But in terms of if there's been checks after the fact, the fraud assessment reports that I spoke about were of – mostly of visa petitions that were approved. So the visa holders, the immigrants were actually in the country and had their petitions approved. And so when you talk about one-third fraud rate in a company transfer, I think all or more than half – I can't remember the breakdown for each of the different fraud assessments were of petitions that were actually already approved. So, if you take that as a statistical sample, then you realize that that's a(n) enormous number of fraudulent abuses that have been approved.
Q: And they're not going to be pulled back?
MS. RYLEY: I think that – I mean, this is just a small statistical sample and actually – for the – for this – I mean, they would then maybe refer to, I think, INS, which obviously has a very full –
Q: ICE. ICE.
MS. RYLEY: -- or ICE, sorry – which obviously has a very full plate. But I think that even in these fraud assessments, they didn't make it to the step where they would then refer all those cases and make sure that it's fraud.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Frank.
FRANK MORRIS: Sarah, one for reporting; you were reporting during the time that the Republican primaries were heating up in January and February.
MS. RYLEY: Mmm hmm.
MR.. MORRIS: So my question is simply this, it seems like – (inaudible) – remember any of the Republican candidates bringing this up as an opportunity to hit the Obama administration on, putting the national security at risk for incompetency, even a cover-up on the frauds. And my real question is was the – is the – was it because of countervailing power within the Republican Party to the powerful economic interests for H-1 and – (inaudible) – visas. Do you think that's oppressed – (inaudible) – or if they just weren't competent?
MS. RYLEY: Well, I'm not really sure. I mean, this story didn't get a ton of pickup, although it did have – it definitely had some impact on the policy level, I think. But I should note, too, that if you actually look at the approvals for USCIS, it seemed like the approvals were around 90 percent during the Bush administration and then there's a huge drop around the economic crash and then now under the Obama administration. So a big drop, I think, around, like, 2007 to, like, 2009, there's a big spike in denials. So the approval rate has actually just now matched what it was under the Bush administration. So I, I think that each administration – well, I don't really want to get too into the politics of it, but I think –
MR. MORRIS: OK.
MS. RYLEY: -- yeah, they have their interests in various types of visas. But this isn't – I don't think that this is an issue that's particular to the Obama administration.
MR. KRIKORIAN: In the back. Yes, sir. OK, Steve. Go ahead.
STEVE CAMAROTA: Actually, I just wanted to sort of answer the question that you posed before. You said something which was: I can't understand why preserving the integrity of the process is so much related to your general view on immigration. Should there be more or less of it?
MS. RYLEY: Mmm hmm.
MR. CAMAROTA: In other words, it's mostly the people who want less of it who tend to want to preserve the integrity. And the people who want lots of immigration don't seem to care very much. Just so you understand, the reason partly for that is that if you step back, it's probably not possible to have this level of legal immigration and have a thorough vetting of applicants and so forth.
MS. RYLEY: Mmm hmm.
MR. CAMAROTA: And the people who want lots of immigration get it – get that. So what they want is a very slipshod system so they keep the numbers very high. If you actually followed the law, the numbers (wouldn't/would ?) necessarily have to decline. And that's why they don't really want to follow the law. They want a lot of political pressure, they want it to be quick, partly because they don't think that law really matters very much and it's all sort of an arbitrary government restriction and these people have a right to come and all that ideology behind it. So that's the reason.
So people who want expansive immigration, it turns out, also want a slipshod system. In theory, it wouldn't have to be that way, but as a practical matter, it does pretty much have to work out that way, unless you were prepared to actually dump the resources that are necessary for processing.
MS. RYLEY: Well, I think that that was the point that I was trying to make with the transformation system, the digitation – or digitization system that is definitely a priority of the Obama administration because they realized that it's actually not possible to have an amnesty measure without it. So there is an understanding of – I think that on both sides of the debate there is some level of understanding of the security and the integrity of the vetting process benefits either side.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Jerry.
JERRY KAMMER: Sarah, could you talk about the involvement of the former USCIS chief counsel, Sarah, Roxana Bacon, in the situation you described?
MS. RYLEY: Oh, yeah, that that was a topic of one of my stories. Well, what do you mean specifically about the involvement?
MR. KAMMER: Well, I wasn't quite clear on the extent of her apparent attempts to manipulate a process involving the University of Arizona. And I noticed that she has resigned.
MS. RYLEY: Yeah, she has.
MR. KAMMER: You reported that. So –
MS. RYLEY: Well, I think that in the story I did say too that she resigned, but at the time that she was – that she resigned, she was facing possible criminal charges in that matter of a conflict of interest investigation.
MR. KAMMER: Has that been dropped?
MS. RYLEY: Yeah. I think the internal documents that I had showed that the criminal charges that were being considered were dropped, and it didn't say because she resigned, but when she resigned that they were dropped.
But yeah, I mean, I think that Roxana Bacon, from my reporting, was an example of someone who has a background as an immigration attorney who was pushing, again, for a much more open-handed interpretation of the immigration law and had definitely clashed with a number of people, particularly at the California service center who handled the L visas and a lot of the other business-based visas.
And some of the documentation or the – and the email chains that I received showed just how frustrated she was and how she was trying to put pressure on them to approve a petition particularly. I think the conflict of interest investigation rose because one of the petitions that she was pressuring them on was for the University of Arizona, which she has a lot of ties to.
So – and I think that that conflict definitely was a catalyst that led to a lot of the leaks because it did create a lot of internal strife, particularly in the California service center. And I think that that then those employees who were upset about it, who complained then, I guess, felt that they were getting penalized for that and so then started leaking more and more documents. So definitely was sort of a catalyst for the rest.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yes, sir.
Q: Yeah. You mentioned retaliatory investigations being conducted against whistleblowers. What was the general nature or thrust of such retaliatory investigations?
MS. RYLEY: In terms of the topics of the investigation or – I mean, that the thing is that it's hard to tell why an investigation has been initiated. So I have to be careful. The perception of the people who were being investigated was that it was in retaliation for something that was unrelated to the reason why they were being investigated.
I mean, I think Ms. Poulos had said that like she felt that she was being investigated for extremely frivolous things. She said that after she was demoted essentially, she had a lunch with her staffers. And I think they each put in like a dollar or something like that and she was – she says that she was investigated for that. So a lot of like really frivolous matters that we're paying for as taxpayers.
Q: In general, these investigations are just a way to get something going. In the case of Pat McDonough (sp), they actually had a guy following him around. In the city of Chicago, if you work for the city of Chicago, you got to live there. And he did, but his ex-wife didn't. And they had a guy followed him around. He went to his ex-wife's house. They got photos of him going in and out. They go: Aha! We caught you. You don't live in the city. And for three months he had to prove that he didn't live in the city. Go find anything.
And it's a way to discredit you. That's the most important thing. (inaudible) – a great example. The guy's crazy. Obviously, we need to wash our hands. They'll find any reason to investigate you. It has nothing to do with what she was working on. They were just looking for a reason to get rid of you.
MS. RYLEY: Yeah.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Let's take one more question so Sarah can make it back to New York. Yeah – (inaudible) –
JANICE KEPHART: Yeah. I haven't had the opportunity to deal with the fraud shop at USCIS in a really, really long time since I was on the 9/11 commission staff. And I would talk to them extensively then. But Don Crocetti at the time was trying very hard to transform that into a place that really created statistics on fraud, because it was the thing that INS could never do and never knew how much fraud was in the system.
However, because they're not a law enforcement entity that – at all, that it was stripped of them when they went to DHS, as you said, they can only refer fraud cases to ICE. So at this point after seeing internal documents, et cetera, and talking to them, what do you see as the value-added of the anti-fraud shop that they have at USCIS now? Because I'm not sure what it is other than to crunch statistics because, as you said, they're not letting the reporting out and they're not doing investigations and they're not even doing – (inaudible).
MS. RYLEY: Mmm hmm.
MS. KEPHART: So what do you see from your bird's-eye view on it?
MS. RYLEY: Well I think that Don Crocetti was extremely frustrated that the fraud reports weren't released. And I, I think that he believes that there should be more of them. And I think that there still is the potential with that unit to have more fraud assessment.
So I don't think that the existence of the unit itself is the problem. I think there's definitely more potential there. And I think it's something that the administration that they claim that they have put a lot more resources and a lot more staff into the fraud unit. I know that if a(n) immigration service officer, for example, suspects fraud, then they refer it to the fraud unit, and the fraud unit investigates it. So they do have like a very active role in the sort of routine approval process.
And I think that that – one of the issues that was raised in the OIG report, though, that was the lack of communication between the service officers and the fraud officers, that once a case is referred to their fraud officers, the service officers are not able to and, in fact, are discouraged from having communication with the fraud officers. And I think that there's a potential there, and the report noted, and I think that even the – that – (inaudible) – agree that there's potential by increasing communication for better performance on both ends and for service officers to be trained in fraud detection practices so that they can get better at detecting it on the front-end. So I mean, I think that – I think there's definitely more potential. But I mean, it is a – it is a relatively new unit. It's only, what, like since 2003? Yeah.
MS. KEPHART: Yeah. It's new with the creation of USCIS –
MS. RYLEY: Right, yeah.
MS. KEPHART: -- to do it the way they – they're doing it, which is automated, et cetera. Yeah.
MS. RYLEY: Right, yeah.
Q: And new software and so. (Applause.)
MR. KRIKORIAN: I want to congratulate Sarah. She was actually nervous about speaking in front of a group, so I think she did a fantastic job. (Applause.)
AUDIENCE MEMBER: She did.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah.
MR. KRIKORIAN: And thank you to Mike for his comments. I actually – I don't think I knew the story about the guy with the – washing the hands. That's actually a great whistleblower story. Thanks to all of you for coming. We're going to have a video and transcript of this up, I don't know, maybe next week or sometime soon. Our office is a total disaster because we just moved, so it may take a little longer. So if you want to see it all over again, you're free to be able to do that. (Laughter.)
All of our other information is online at cis.org. And while Sarah has to run, I think Mike is here to be accosted and the rest of us, if you want to come up afterwards. But I want to respect people's time in case – I don't know – somebody has a job or something to go do. (Laughter.) But anyway, thank you very much, and hope to see you at our next event. (Applause.)