Senate Democrats pushed through committee President Obama’s pick to become the No. 2 official at Homeland Security on Wednesday, dismissing warnings about an ongoing probe of the nominee’s role in a visa program that has raised security concerns about politically connected foreigners using it to buy citizenship.
Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee chairman, acknowledged that there have been issues with the EB-5 visa program, but said Alejandro Mayorkas, who heads U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, is working furiously to fix problems raised by whistleblowers and is needed now at DHS.
Mr. Carper pointed out that Mr. Mayorkas created an office to manage the EB-5 program and give it more oversight, increased staffing from nine people in 2009 to more than 80 today, hired senior economists and embedded national security officers, and engaged other agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, the FBI and the Treasury Department to help police the program.
But Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, said he has requested information on departmental regulation changes and security concerns with the program from a number of high-level officials, including National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice — and hasn’t received a response.
The EB-5 regional centers, which help process the investor visas, are possibly being exploited “by terrorists, by spies, and by other threatening actors,” said Mr. Coburn, ranking member on the committee.
He said whistleblowers pointing out suspected improprieties within the program are hesitant to come forward for fear of retribution from their bosses.
The EB-5 program allows foreigners who invest at least $500,000 in new U.S. businesses to apply for legal status.
Democrats didn’t address a report in Wednesday’s editions of The Washington Times that showed 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.
Internal government documents obtained by The Times showed that the move to overturn what is normally a non-appealable visa decision was made 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.
It also showed that Mr. Reid personally reached out to Mr. 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.
Mr. Reid’s office said he has supported and will continue to support the project in any way he can. “Sen. Reid believes it is his job to do all he can to promote economic growth and development in the state, and he makes no apologies for helping to bring jobs to Nevada,” said spokeswoman Kristen Orthman.
In October, a Homeland Security whistleblower told The Times that he tracked more than 30 applications from U.S. companies seeking to participate in the program and calculated an average approval time of 4.3 days per case for reviews that ideally should take weeks, if not months.
A USCIS spokesman said then that the agency made “a concerted effort to strengthen national security and our antifraud programs” across all its visa programs by establishing a Fraud and National Security Directorate.
The agency “takes seriously the responsibility to safeguard the integrity of America’s immigration system,” said the spokesman, Christopher S. Bentley.