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.
All nine Democrats on the committee voted to send Mr. Mayorkas' nomination to the full Senate, and all seven Republican members voted "present."
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.
Government whistleblowers also have claimed that Mr. Mayorkas improperly aided the investor visa application process for a company associated with Virginia Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe. During a hearing in July, Mr. Mayorkas denied doing so, and Mr. Carper said Wednesday that the author of that decision insisted that Mr. Mayorkas did not influence his deliberations.
Nevertheless, the DHS inspector general's office is in the middle of probing the claim. Mr. Carper said that while the investigation likely wouldn't be completed for months, an update last week from a staffer has found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing of anyone at DHS, including Mr. Mayorkas.
Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat, pointed out that any number of people make accusations all the time and that at some point investigators need to deliver. But he also suggested that the program itself may have to be ended if the issues Mr. Coburn alluded to aren't resolved.
"The EB-5 program may be something we need to work on and do away with, if it's a problem," Mr. Tester said.
But David North, a policy analyst with the Center for Immigration Studies, said the program is bad idea and apart from that said Homeland Security is not the right agency to run it. He said DHS is in "over its head" when it comes to investigating financial wrongdoing.
"This is not in the Department of Commerce, the Small Business Administration or Treasury," said Mr. North, whose group favors less immigration in the U.S. "If you wanted to find out what the climate was at the South Pole, you wouldn't call the Marines. The Marines are very good at what they do, but that's not really their thing."
It appears some of those issues are being addressed, Mr. Carper said.
"It's not always pleasant for people to hear they're not doing a very good job or that their skill set might be a better fit elsewhere," Mr. Carper said. "At the end of the day, though, Director Mayorkas made the difficult — and sometimes unpopular — decisions that he felt were needed to improve this program and move his agency forward."
For the moment, Congress reauthorized the program, first passed in 1990, for another three years in 2012. But under the immigration bill approved earlier this year by the Senate, the Regional Center program would be permanently authorized.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, also introduced an amendment that would add additional oversight tools to the program, like allowing the secretary of homeland security to bar those who have been liable of financial or other crimes from using the program and to conduct background checks on potential regional center managers.
"Those who want to see these reforms enacted should join me in calling on the House to take up the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration bill," said Mr. Leahy, who also applauded Wednesday's committee approval of Mr. Mayorkas.
"This nomination deserves consideration by all senators, and that consideration should not be delayed by a highly questionable investigation by the Department of Homeland Security's office of inspector general," Mr. Leahy said. "In my view, this flawed investigation does not merit the delay of Director Mayorkas' confirmation process."
Mr. Coburn said it would be a disservice to Mr. Mayorkas, DHS and the Senate to advance the nomination while an active investigation is ongoing.
"If we confirm Mr. Mayorkas under a cloud, we haven't helped him; we haven't helped the Department of Homeland Security," Mr. Coburn said, repeatedly stressing that no criminal wrongdoing has been found but that wrongdoing still could be uncovered. "My hope is that he gets a totally clean bill of health."
Without a bipartisan vote, Mr. Coburn said, "we will be sending the wrong message to all DHS employees."
"For a number of reasons, today's vote is unfair to the entire Senate," he said.
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