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Obama aide tied to failed immigration program

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2008

One of President-elect Barack Obama's top immigration advisers oversaw a Clinton-era program that awarded U.S. citizenship to thousands of convicted criminals and failed to conduct adequate FBI background checks on foreigners during a push to reduce a backlog of naturalization applications.

T. Alexander Aleinikoff, former executive associate commissioner for programs at the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service, staunchly defended the program, Citizenship USA (CUSA), before Congress a decade ago, although the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General concluded in 2000 that the program failed to address weaknesses that pushed the immigration system beyond its limits.

CUSA saw 1.2 million foreign nationals become U.S. citizens in 1996. Many of them later were identified as convicted criminals. The program was endorsed vigorously by President Clinton but attacked by critics as an election-year ploy to speed naturalizations for political gain, noting that the program targeted INS districts in heavily Democratic Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City and San Francisco.

More than 180,000 naturalization applications were vetted without proper FBI fingerprint analyses, including 80,000 immigrants who had fingerprint checks that generated criminal records but were naturalized anyway, according to congressional and federal investigators.

The inspector general's report said applicants who were ineligible because of criminal records or because they fraudulently obtained green cards were granted citizenship because the INS was "moving too fast to check their records."

Mr. Aleinikoff, now dean and executive vice president at Georgetown University School of Law, did not return telephone messages for comment left for him this week and last. He and Mariano-Florentino "Tino" Cuellar, a professor at Stanford Law School and a senior Treasury Department adviser in the Clinton administration, were named last month by Mr. Obama to co-lead his immigration policy transition team.

Mr. Obama's transition team did not immediately return an e-mail on Monday asking for comment.

According to the inspector general's 684-page report, CUSA failed to address national security concerns, did not develop or coordinate anti-fraud operations, and failed to ensure that foreign nationals seeking naturalization underwent law-enforcement background checks.

The report said it was "widely known" among INS officials in Washington that thousands of foreign nationals with criminal records were allowed to become U.S. citizens. It said INS compromised the integrity of the naturalization system as a result of "its efforts to process applicants more quickly and meet a self-imposed goal of completing more than a million cases by the end of fiscal 1996."

It was estimated at the time that INS failed to complete FBI background checks for nearly 20 percent of those naturalized under CUSA.

In testimony before a Senate subcommittee in 1996, Mr. Aleinikoff praised CUSA for reducing processing times for citizenship applications nationwide "while maintaining the integrity of the citizenship process." He testified that CUSA handled applications for naturalization "in a timely, accurate and responsible manner."

But acting Inspector General Robert L. Ashbaugh said at the time that given CUSA's deficiencies, INS had put "any hope for integrity in the adjudication of citizenship at great risk" in an effort to process massive numbers of pending cases.

"INS leadership took no serious steps before implementing CUSA to protect the naturalization process from further degradation," Mr. Ashbaugh said. "Instead, they added highly unrealistic production quotas which overtaxed the system and led to further diminution of naturalization quality.

"INS failed to address known system weaknesses before implementing a program it knew would tax that system as it never had been taxed before," he said.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report at the time also warned that CUSA had significant loopholes, including the fact that INS was able to accept fingerprints handed in by the applicants themselves instead of performing them in its offices. As a result, the GAO said, immigrants with criminal records could cheat the system easily by switching someone else's fingerprints in place of their own.

The GAO also determined that many naturalization cases were adjudicated without INS ever locating or reviewing the applicants' files.

Within six weeks of Mr. Aleinikoff's favorable testimony, INS Commissioner Doris M. Meissner forwarded a memo to field offices saying problems with the plan no longer could be ignored. She called for upgraded fingerprint checks, supervisory reviews and the implementation of a quality assurance program.

Michael W. Cutler, a retired 31-year INS senior criminal investigator and intelligence specialist, said that under CUSA, the Clinton administration had "thrown caution and common sense to the wind" just three years after terrorist attacks on the CIA and the World Trade Center. He said the program constituted "a level of malfeasance that left me utterly outraged.

"In the two attacks of 1993, many of the aliens involved had made use of immigration fraud to enter the United States and embed themselves in our country," Mr. Cutler said. "Had the administration learned the lessons of the attacks of 1993, in terms of how the terrorists had gamed the immigration system, the horrific attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, might well have been averted."

In January 1993, two CIA employees were killed and three others wounded in a shooting near the entrance of the agency's Langley headquarters. A month later, al Qaeda terrorists detonated a bomb under the World Trade Center in New York, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000.

Mrs. Meissner authorized CUSA to reduce a three-year backlog of pending naturalization applications to within six months. To reach its goal, INS increased its work force, opened new offices dedicated to adjudication and engaged new processing strategies to streamline the naturalization process.

But the inspector general's report said hundreds of newly hired adjudicators were superficially trained and unprepared for anything but routine cases. It said they worked without adequate supervision, including in New York, where 100 new workers reported to only six experienced employees.

According to the report, many were led to believe it was quantity, not quality, that mattered, and inquiries they made were limited by a lack of applicant criminal-history checks and permanent files. It said a centralized fingerprint-clearance center that opened in June 1996 was "poorly planned, poorly timed and insufficiently staffed."

The report also noted that INS officials misled Congress with inaccurate assurances about the extent of processing errors. It said the inaccuracies were often the product of "insufficient care in gathering the requested information" and INS' desire "to project the agency's work in a most favorable light."