By Sarah Ryley Tuesday, January 3, 2012
A 40-page report, drafted by the Office of Inspector General in September but not publicly released, details the immense pressure immigration service officers are under to approve visa applications quickly, sometimes while overlooking concerns about fraud, eligibility or security.
One-quarter of the 254 officers surveyed said they have been pressured to approve questionable cases, sometimes “against their will.”
The report does not call out any particular officials and indicates that the agency has had a problem with valuing quantity over quality since at least the 1980s.
But high-ranking USCIS officials said the pressure has heightened after the Obama administration appointed Alejandro Mayorkas as director in August 2009 during an effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform, bringing with him a mantra of “get to yes.”
Internal communications provided to The Daily indicate that the new leadership seemed to fundamentally clash with career agency employees over when to afford the benefit of the doubt, culminating in a whistle-blower investigation into a senior appointee and, ultimately, the agency-wide inspector general inquiry that produced the report.
“We recognize their right to interpret things as liberally as possible, but you still have to follow the law,” said one high-ranking official who was unhappy with the current push.
At least five agency veterans seen as being too tough on applicants were either demoted, or given the choice between a demotion or a relocation from Southern California — where their families were — to San Francisco and Nebraska, according to sources and letters of reassignment provided to The Daily.
Those kind of threats have caused lower-level employees to fall in line, sources said.
“People are afraid,” said one longtime manager, who requested anonymity for fear of being fired. “Integrity only carries people so far because they’ve got to pay the rent.”
A rank-and-file officer who was not involved in the investigation claimed he was demoted to working on less technical cases because he had a high denial rate. “They don’t reprimand you, they just move you,” he said.
“They attempted to basically get me to come into line and approve a bunch of cases. And I just wouldn’t compromise myself because the approvals they ordered, they weren’t in line with the laws,” said the officer.
These employees’ claims are reflected in the inspector general report, which found that 14 percent of respondents had “serious concerns” that employees who focused on fraud or ineligibility were evaluated unfairly. The report also found that supervisors sometimes take cases away from an unwilling officer and assign them to someone else, against agency rules.
Recommendations for improvements in the report included raising the burden of proof and doing away with the popular informal and special appeals practices, which immigration lawyers said would only lengthen an already onerous process.
Attorney David Leopold, who was recently president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the formal appeals process can take up to two years.
“When you’re dealing with business visas, those visas cannot wait around a year, or two years, for review. They needed an answer yesterday,” said Leopold. “I think when they’ve [the officers] made a mistake at that level … sometimes you can just reason with people and ask them to take a look at it again.”
Nevertheless, USCIS approved 86 percent of the 3.9 million immigration cases it reviewed between October 2008 and October 2009 — a 4 percent drop from the year before, according to the most recent data provided to The Daily.
And immigration attorneys complained that it seems like officers are just looking for reasons to deny a case, and already demand a higher standard of proof than what is required. That standard is now considered a 51 percent likelihood that a fact is true.
“We’re getting ridiculous denials and requests for evidence on things that should be approved very easily,” said immigration attorney Deb Notkin, adding that it’s particularly tough for specialty industries like fashion, software development and graphic design.
The attorneys applauded Mayorkas’ more open dialogue with them, and other proponents of immigration reform, who had previously felt shut out of the bureaucracy. “Mayorkas, to his credit, is very accessible, so we are able to express our concerns about the adjudication process,” said Leopold.
But sometimes, the openness led to a perception that private attorneys were “running” the agency, according to the inspector general’s report, which cited emails in which individual cases were granted special review after private attorneys complained to management.
Mayorkas and Homeland Security press officers said yesterday they could not comment on the allegations.
The Daily has exclusively obtained a Homeland Security Office of Inspector General draft report on fraud detection issues within the agency’s immigration arm. The inspector general interviewed 147 managers and staff at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, and received 256 responses to an online survey. Here are some of the findings in the report.
“63 of 254 Immigration Services Officers (24.8%) responded that they have been pressured to approve questionable applications.”
“Several USCIS employees informed us that officers have been required to approve specific cases against their will.”
“Another 35 ISOs (13.9%) had serious concerns concerns that employees who focus on fraud or ineligibility were evaluated unfairly.”
“Cases are sometimes taken away from us and given to officers who the supervisor knows will approve the case … Another survey respondent was threatened with a formal reprimand if a case was not approved as the supervisor required.”
“… data confirm that USCIS was more likely to grant O visa status [for aliens who have extraordinary ability in science, arts, business, or athletics] incorrectly than to deny a legitimate position.”
Source: Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, “The Effects of USCIS Adjudication Procedures and Policies on Fraud Detection by Immigration Service Officers,” September 2011.