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Immigration staffers pressured to rush visas for wealthy investors
Staff at a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in California were regularly pressured by senior officials to fast-track visa applications from wealthy and well-connected foreign investors, causing security concerns so severe that the program was moved to Washington this year.
Documents obtained by The Washington Times and whistleblower accounts from inside the CIS Laguna Niguel field office show that staffers, who said they were acting under orders from senior officials, often rushed or skipped altogether economic reviews of applicants to the EB-5 visa program, which doles out coveted green cards to foreign investors who sink $500,000 or more into a U.S.-based business.
Emails from the Laguna Niguel office show that the EB-5 vetting process was a daily struggle for government analysts charged with, among other tasks, assessing the economic viability of applicants’ investment plans. The internal documents detail repeated violations of agency procedures that allowed foreign applicants to bypass proper economic review.
Economic reviews of EB-5 applicants and their projects are needed, immigration analysts say, because of the security risks posed by investors who have not been screened for links to foreign intelligence services, terrorist groups or organized crime; or whose funds come from, or flow to, unvetted sources.
The violations came to public attention over the summer when Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, revealed that CIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas had become personally involved in the processing of an EB-5 application filed by Democratic heavy-hitter Terry McAuliffe, now Virginia’s governor-elect, related to electric car company GreenTech Automotive.
Nonetheless, the program is the subject of an audit by the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, of which CIS is part.
Mr. Mayorkas, who is President Obama’s nominee for deputy secretary of the troubled department, also faces a criminal probe by the inspector general, according to documents released by Mr. Grassley.
The FBI and the Securities Exchange Commission are investigating a suspected Ponzi scheme in Texas involving an EB-5 applicant, and the FBI also is looking into foreign business executives who bought into the program, particularly Chinese nationals, who constitute the majority of the program’s investors.
Suspicions of foreign intelligence links of a Chinese investor was one of the factors holding up Mr. McAuliffe’s EB-5 application before Mr. Mayorkas intervened. But that was far from the only time when a case that raised national security red flags was pushed through at the behest of senior officials, according to a federal whistleblower complaint filed by an analyst on the program.
A May 3, 2012, memo that the whistleblower sent to David Garner, chief performance and quality officer for the CIS in Washington, warned of irregularities in processing an EB-5 application filed by an investor in CMB Exports LLC — a firm set up to bundle EB-5 money for an eligible project.
The memo alleges that in April 2012 a CIS manager who now serves as special assistant to the director of the Laguna Niguel office took steps to “circumvent the established review process as a means to expedite” the CMB application. Those steps, the memo states, included bypassing the analyst’s required review and ignoring protocols regulating contact between adjudicators and the contract economists reviewing applications.
A multimillion-dollar contract between the Department of Homeland Security and ICF Inc. provided for the economists to be available, on-site, to support the CIS office of fraud detection and national security. That office was a key part of the plan to tighten procedures for granting immigration benefits.
An April 4, 2012, email stated that the manager should convey information from EB-5 applicants to the analyst, “who will then determine whether or not a full evaluation by one of the contract economists will be required.”
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About the Author
Shaun Waterman is an award-winning reporter for The Washington Times, covering foreign affairs, defense and cybersecurity. He was a senior editor and correspondent for United Press International for nearly a decade, and has covered the Department of Homeland Security since 2003. His reporting on the Sept. 11 Commission and the tortuous process by which some of its recommendations finally became ...
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