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Immigration Services "rubber-stamping" applications
Green-card quota seen as undercutting security
By Stephen Dinan
October 4, 2005

Immigration officials said yesterday that every application for a green card is subject to background checks, but union officials said managers' efforts to reduce a backlog of applicants mean adjudicators cut corners and could be letting in the wrong people.

;"The push to reduce the backlog has compromised the integrity of the system," said Kevin Tinker, an official with the National Homeland Security Council (NHSC), a part of the American Federation of Government Employees. "The average adjudicator is not sure whether the decision he's making is the right decision. He doesn't have the time."

He said he knew of several customer-service centers where adjudicators feel they are "rubber-stamping" applications in order to make performance quotas.

The Washington Times reported yesterday that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), the agency charged with admitting foreigners, is in disarray, with some adjudicators not being able to see some law-enforcement databases before making a decision and with employees facing thousands of charges of misconduct. An internal affairs investigator briefed some members of Congress behind closed doors on the disarray last week, said two sources familiar with the briefing.

Yesterday, CIS officials said the agency's system requires adjudicators to certify that the background checks have taken place.

"The crux of the issue here is we have a strict policy regarding these background checks and there is not rubber-stamping going on," said CIS spokeswoman Angelica Alfonso. "There's always room for improvement, but the issue of cutting corners and rubber-stamping does not apply when it comes to our background checks."

She said all applications are put through law-enforcement checks, and those checks must be completed before a green card or other immigration benefit is granted.

"USCIS maintains a strict policy requiring that all law-enforcement checks be resolved prior to granting an immigration benefit," she said.

The internal investigator said at the briefing that there is a particular problem with about 1,200 national security cases, which are archived at CIS' headquarters with the best adjudicators.

Those cases are being held up because the applicant's name has come up in connection with a national security investigation by the FBI, CIA or some other agency. The adjudicators, who lack the law-enforcement background to see the details of the investigation, are forced to make a decision without knowing the details, according to the sources familiar with the briefing.

There are employees within CIS who could access the information, but they are being blocked by a turf battle, the sources said.

Ms. Alfonso, though, said the adjudicators receive enough information to know how to judge these cases.

"We sometimes do not see the file in its entirety. It's not always handed over to us in its entirety," she said. "But the law-enforcement agency that has the file in its possession gives us enough information. In other words, we ask for enough information to adjudicate the case properly."

Doris Meisner, who was commissioner of the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Clinton and is now at the Migration Policy Institute, said some of the briefer's charges sounded "slightly exaggerated" but said the information-sharing problems are real.

"That's been a classic problem," she said. "That was a problem when they were in one agency -- the adjudicators and investigators did not work well together. Now it's more important they work together."

She said the job CIS performs always has been considered the "soft side" of immigration, but it is important because an application granted to a terrorist or for the wrong reason could have consequences.

"You would think they would be focusing on that with a laser, and it seems that is not getting the kind of focus and attention it should be getting," she said.

As for the accusations of misconduct, which Congress was told range from credit-card misuse to undue influence by a foreign government, the union officials said that, too, is explained by the push to reduce the backlog.

Charles Showalter, president of the NHSC, said they don't condone misconduct, but often managers are making charges as a way to prevent or retaliate against employee complaints, particularly about the workload.

He said security has taken a back seat to numerical goals for deciding cases.

"Backlog reduction has become the only issue of importance with the agency. It is backlog reduction, don't care how you do it, just do it," he said. "I was horrified when I found out managers were saying this is acceptable risk, this is the cost of doing business."

Employees were told last week that the backlog has been reduced from a high of 3.8 million cases to just less than 1 million at the end of August.

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