Mayorkas to USCIS Staff: Just Say Yes – Or Else!

By Jessica M. Vaughan on October 20, 2010

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas and other top Obama administration appointees have been trying to bully career staff into rubber-stamping approvals for green cards and other benefits, and discouraging them from investigating fraud, according to a letter sent last week from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Among the conduct revealed by career staff was a comment by Mayorkas at a conference that there are some USCIS "managers with black spots on their hearts" because they don't always grant benefits, and that he was "dealing" with those managers. Yet both outside studies and reports from USCIS' own fraud detection unit confirm that fraud is rampant in applications for green cards and other benefits, as high as 25-90 percent in some categories and locations. (For some details, see our Backgrounder, "Hello, I Love You Won't You Tell Me Your Name: Inside the Green Card Marriage Phenomenon," by David Seminara.) The latest USCIS workload report shows a 23 percent decrease over last year in the number of applications denied (productivity in general has declined significantly over last year, but denials decreased more than approvals).

The letter details the concerns of career staff of the California Service Center, which processes one-fourth of the more than four million benefits applications filed each year. "Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that Director Mayorkas is fostering an environment that pressures employees to approve as many applications as possible and condones retaliation against those who dissent," says Sen. Grassley. The retaliation against career staff who resisted the "get to yes," "zero complaints" culture apparently took the form of sudden involuntary transfers or personnel investigations. Grassley has asked the agency to respond to these allegations, but so far has been ignored.

The following are excerpts from the letter:

  • During a recent visit to the CSC [California Service Center], Director Mayorkas became "visibly agitated" when advised that the employees were interested in learning more about fraud detection efforts. Mayorkas asked, "Why would you be focusing on that instead of approvals." One witness stated that "his message was offensive to a lot of officers who are trained to detect fraud."

  • Mayorkas admonished officers to "look at petitions from the perspective of the customer."

  • USCIS leadership expressed a goal of "zero complaints" from "customers," implying that approvals were the means to such an end.

  • DHS conducted a human capital survey where USCIS scored low because employees felt pressured by upper management to approve applications.

  • Following a presentation by Director Mayorkas at a management conference in February, Deputy Chief Counsel Doug Craig said that Mayorkas had directed him to "get to yes." At the same event, Chief Counsel Roxana Bacon said that Mayorkas says that all the time and that he had said it recently at a town hall meeting.

  • At a conference in Landsdowne, Virginia, Director Mayorkas said that there are some "managers with black spots on their hearts" who can't see their way to grant benefits. He said, "I am dealing with some of these managers."

  • His comments came just after two senior CSC officials who resisted the "get to yes" culture were involuntarily transferred to other assignments.

  • One high-level official told CSC employees that these managers "were not transferred for approving too many applications."

  • Other USCIS personnel who were seen as too close to these CSC officials were also transferred or detailed to other assignments, in some cases on less than one day's notice.

  • New CSC leadership was "shocked" upon learning that denials were given extra weight in employee performance evaluations because a denial takes longer to process. The senior official said that policy would "have to change."

  • New CSC leadership has "cultivated a culture of fear and disrespect."

  • An employee advised that the CSC recently abandoned an important anti-fraud procedure. Previously, adjudicators would check applications against a list of petitioners with a history of fraud and abuse. The adjudicators would then forward any matching applications to fraud specialists within the division. Now, however, the applications receive no special handling and there are no longer fraud specialists focusing only on such high-risk applications.

Grassley has requested that the agency provide detailed statistics on approval and denial rates, fraud assessments, personnel policies, and other information that will enable Congress and the public to evaluate these accusations, which raise deeply troubling questions about the integrity of our legal immigration system in the hands of its current leadership.