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.
Mr. Mayorkas has denied any wrongdoing, saying he got involved in Mr. McAuliffe's EB-5 application because it raised an important issue about a point of law in the program.
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.
CMB was a "Solyndra-style project with a loan guarantee from the Department of Energy," the analyst wrote.
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."
But before the analyst could make that determination regarding CMB Exports, the manager intervened. "Let me know who has this file," the manager wrote in an April 26, 2012, email. "We received an expedite inquiry on this and we need to move the case." The email chain does not specify who issued the expedite order.
The analyst, whose name The Times is withholding because he fears that being identified might harm his future employment prospects, said contract economists under his supervision had noted "potential red flags" with the application.
The analyst said in an email at the time that he found the application "suspicious" and called for additional review of the foreign investors with assistance from "national security agencies."
But the emails show that, far from being subject to additional review, the CMB application was routed directly to the manager for expedited adjudication after she instructed a contract economist that the analyst's involvement in the process "was not necessary."
The manager's actions "highlight that [the office's] chain of command pays lip service to the notion of rigor and due diligence," while fast-tracking the process for the "benefit of external political stakeholders acting on behalf of wealthy and politically connected EB-5 applicants under review," according to the analyst, who has conducted internal audits for several other Cabinet-level federal agencies and Fortune 500 companies.
The analyst told The Times that EB-5 economic reviews of applicants were routinely rushed through the process in four to five days during the months he worked there. Often, he said, the application would arrive, as did the one from Mr. McAuliffe's car company, on a fast track with instructions from the manager that Mr. Mayorkas "needs this fast."
Sometimes, the analyst said, the manager would invoke Donald Neufeld, associate director of field operations, or Barbara Velarde, the No. 2 official in the CIS service centers operation, both of whom are based in Washington.
In December, Mr. Mayorkas announced he would be transferring the program from Laguna Niguel to Washington. Spokesman Christopher Bentley said the move was "a direct reflection of CIS' continued prioritization of the program's integrity," and the agency's new focus on fraud detection and prevention.
"In recent years, the EB-5 program has grown steadily in both volume and complexity," Mr. Bentley said, adding the office in Washington was "staffed primarily with officers who have economic, business, and legal backgrounds and expertise.
The move, completed in May, also made it easier to tap the skills of federal police and intelligence agencies, allowing CIS officials "to work directly and at a high level with our law enforcement and security partners across the federal government."
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