The Obama administration overruled career Homeland Security officials and expedited visa applications for about two dozen foreign investors for a politically connected Las Vegas casino hotel after repeated pressure from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his staff, according to internal government documents obtained by The Washington Times.
The move to overturn what is normally a non-appealable visa decision came despite concerns about “suspicious financial activity” involving some of the visa applicants from Asia, and it ultimately benefited several companies whose executives have donated heavily in recent years to Democrats, the documents show. It also ensnared Mr. Obama’s current nominee to be the No. 2 Homeland Security official, Alejandro “Ali” Mayorkas, whose appointment is to be reviewed by the Senate on Wednesday.
The intervention from Mr. Reid’s staff was so intense at one point a year ago that a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) official reported that it prompted a phone shouting match, turning a normally bureaucratic review process inside the Homeland Security Department into a politically charged drama that worried career officials.
“This one is going to be a major headache for us all because Sen. Reid’s office/staff is pushing hard and I just had a long yelling match on the phone,” USCIS Legislative Affairs official Miguel “Mike” Rodriguez warned in a Dec. 5, 2012, email to Homeland Security Department officials.
The emails, obtained by The Times from government officials concerned that the EB-5 investor visa program has become too politicized, detail how the SLS Hotel, formerly known as the Sahara Casino, tried to jump to the head of the line for its request for about two dozen visas for Asian investors willing to help it fund a major renovation of the storied property on the Las Vegas Strip.
Despite early pressure from Mr. Reid’s staff, career officials inside the Department of Homeland Security initially turned down the SLS Hotel on the grounds that it failed to meet the criteria for expedited review. The decision, dated Dec. 17, 2012, stated flatly that “there is no appeal or reconsideration of this decision.”
But that simply prompted Mr. Reid to personally reach out to the top official at USCIS, Alejandro “Ali” Mayorkas, setting into motion a process that consumed top political officials inside the Homeland Security and Commerce departments and ultimately resulted in a ruling that granted expedited status to the hotel over the objections of career officials.
“Ali had a call with Sen. Reid on these I-526 cases on Tuesday of this week,” Mr. Rodriguez wrote top officials on Jan. 11. “While no guarantees were made on the call, Ali did promise the Senator that USCIS would take a ‘fresh look’ at the expedited request.”
Government officials did a lot more than give a fresh look — forwarding from Mr. Reid’s office the names of people involved with the hotel project that could help the federal agency change its mind on the expedited status request. Mr. Reid’s staff repeatedly made the case that the hotel would lose its potential funding for its renovation if Homeland Security’s USCIS didn’t expedite the visas.
“As you can imagine this project is pretty important to Southern Nevada. It will probably be the only ‘new’ property opening up on the Strip for some time, and if their $300 million senior lending facility from JP Morgan Chase expires because these visas aren’t processed expeditiously, it will be a huge setback for the project and the 8,600 jobs associated with it,” Michael Vannozzi, then a top aide to Mr. Reid, wrote Homeland Security officials at one point.
The hotel needed the foreign investors’ visas to be approved so that their money could be brought into the country and paired with the JP Morgan financing to underwrite the renovation of the hotel, the documents stated.
Within a few short weeks of Mr. Reid’s personal intervention, the decision not to expedite the visas was reversed, allowing the hotel to secure major funding from JP Morgan Chase.
“Applications approved for expedited processing move to the front of the processing queue but otherwise go through the same robust eligibility and security review utilized for all EB-5 decisions,” the spokesman said.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Reid said the senator “has supported and will support the SLS Las Vegas in any way he can.”