The agency charged with admitting immigrants to the United States is in disarray, an internal investigator told closed congressional briefings last week, with employees facing thousands of charges of misconduct and having to make decisions on letting in foreigners without knowing whether there are national security risks.
Two sources familiar with the briefing said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (CIS) employees face 2,500 misconduct charges, including bribery and exchanging immigration benefits for sex. There are also charges that some employees are being influenced by foreign governments.
"The thing that took most of the oxygen out of the room was the realization that there is the distinct possibility that people who have terrorist backgrounds have been able to obtain green cards because of a lack of ability to check their backgrounds," said one of the sources.
The sources said there were two briefings, including one to several members of the House. The sources spoke on the condition they not be named, because the briefing was closed. Both also declined to name the internal investigator who briefed Congress, citing fears of government retaliation against him.
CIS is part of the Department of Homeland Security, taking over the benefits part of the defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service. The enforcement side of INS was split between U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The 2,500 accusations of misconduct at CIS, among 15,000 federal and contract employees, are just the cases that have been turned over to CIS's internal-affairs bureau and might not be the complete list, the sources said. New charges are added at a rate of about 50 per week.
The agency's internal-affairs bureau lacks the manpower and resources to tackle those cases and, in some cases, is being blocked by some superiors, the briefer told Congress.
"The lack of resources to investigate serves to embolden these corrupt public officials," the second source said. "They have no fear of being caught."
Russ Knocke, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman, speaking on behalf of CIS, said he couldn't speak about specific accusations, but said the department takes integrity seriously.
"Integrity of our employees, really, given the nature of the business, is key to CIS," he said. "We're talking about a select few employees out of thousands who really are carrying out professional with integrity."
He also said each accusation deserves a full investigation.
"I'm aware of a couple of internal investigations at CIS in recent months that resulted in appropriate actions being taken by the department to see that employee was terminated," he said.
CIS already faces a backlog of applications for green cards, and the new information about the dysfunction at the agency comes at a time when President Bush is asking the agency to take on millions of new cases under a guest-worker program he is pushing Congress to enact.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, said the information about CIS could doom Mr. Bush's proposal.
"The idea you could possibly add to all this a guest-worker plan of any kind that requires background checks on all these people is ludicrous," he said. "This agency can't do it."
The sources said the briefings touched on two areas in which CIS employees don't have access to needed information.
Up to 1,300 of the 4,000 immigration adjudicators who are supposed to have access to the Treasury Enforcement Communications System (TECS) database have been shut out of it. In some situations, the employees have failed to keep up their certification, while others haven't had the appropriate background checks to maintain access.
The briefings also covered reports of 1,400 cases in which applicants for entry have shown up on TECS as part of a national security investigation. The special group of adjudicators deciding those cases can tell there is an investigation, but lack credentials to find out what the investigation is about, the sources said.
Because of turf battles, the internal-affairs bureau at CIS, whose employees can access the law-enforcement information, have been told not to intervene, the sources said.
Mr. Knocke said CIS is planning to expand access to TECS to speed up adjudication, but said there are already backup checks built in to make sure adjudicators have the information they need.
"We have redundancies in our system to assure there is no compromise of national security in the adjudication process," he said.
As for the national security cases, he said, "CIS adjudicators are trained and empowered to determine how to, working with their supervisors, make a determination on a case in such a circumstance."