San Diego Union Tribune

March 7, 2006

Immigration officers barred from key data
Ex-official raises security concerns

By Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – Many immigration officers handling requests for green cards, citizenship and other immigration benefits do not have access to key law enforcement and national security databases, said a top federal security official who quit over the issue.

The officers' access to the databases, which would allow them to check whether an applicant had a criminal record or was on the terrorism watch list, was cut off because the government has failed to complete required background checks on the immigration adjudicators.

Michael Maxwell stepped down last month as director of the Office of Security at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and sought protection under the federal whistle-blower protection law. He claims that senior agency officials had been retaliating against him for telling Congress about what he described as serious national security vulnerabilities that persisted despite his warnings to those running the agency.

In addition, Maxwell claims the agency lacks the resources to handle some 500 allegations of criminal misconduct against agency employees, including allegations of espionage and acceptance of bribes.

Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Angelica Alfonso declined requests for an interview. She released a statement yesterday that said the agency is confident of its processes, and that it takes the allegations seriously.

“To this end, USCIS has referred the allegations to the inspector general for further investigation,” her statement said.

Beyond their implications for efforts to prevent terrorism, Maxwell's allegations raise questions about proposals by President Bush and members of Congress to grant legal status to millions of illegal immigrants after clearing them through security checks.

Maxwell declined requests for on-the-record interviews.

One of his attorneys, Rosemary Jenks, said his concerns demonstrate an underlying tension between Citizenship and Immigration Services' dual missions of providing immigration benefits to applicants and of protecting national security.

“They always look for a shortcut when it comes to security,” Jenks said.

She noted that acting CIS Deputy Director Robert Divine is a former member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which lobbies for generous immigration policies.

Jenks is director of government relations for NumbersUSA, a grass-roots group that lobbies to restrict immigration and opposes proposals for legalization of undocumented immigrants.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a Judiciary Committee member whose staff has been briefed by Maxwell, wrote a letter last week to Emilio Gonzalez, the new CIS director, that echoed Maxwell's concerns.

Maxwell has warned about problems that keep vital information about applicants walled off from CIS employees who decide whether to grant immigration benefits.

That information is held in a database controlled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a separate part of the Department of Homeland Security, which has strict policies intended to keep the information from falling into the wrong hands.

Adjudicators for Citizenship and Immigration Services are given access to the database only after they have received a security clearance. But Maxwell has told Congress that the agency has been unwilling to pay for background investigations that Customs and Border Protection requires, his lawyer said.

“If this agency had simply bellied up and paid to have proper investigations done, this problem would not exist,” Jenks said.

In a statement yesterday to Copley News Service, Grassley said, “It's time for CIS to focus on combating internal fraud and protecting national security. . . . How can we expect CIS to take care of 11 million immigrants when they can't take care of their own house?”

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