An Iraqi-born U.S. citizen suspected of being a foreign intelligence agent was employed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to rule on asylum applications, including those from unfriendly Middle Eastern nations, according to documents obtained from Congress by The Washington Times.
Michael J. Maxwell, the former head of the Office of Security and Investigations at USCIS, is expected to testify about the Iraqi case and other breakdowns at the agency to a House subcommittee today.
Mr. Maxwell will tell legislators that the immigration system is being used by enemy governments to place agents in the United States.
The suspected agent, whose name has not been released, judged 180 asylum applications while at USCIS, the agency that also rules on green cards, citizenship and employment authorization.
A database check during Mr. Maxwell’s investigation turned up national-security questions about nearly two dozen of those cases.
Mr. Maxwell will also tell the panel about criminal accusations pending against USCIS workers and that top USCIS officials have deceived Congress and obstructed the duties of his office, the agency’s internal affairs division.
“The immigration system as a whole is so broken that our adversaries can game it,” Mr. Maxwell told The Times when asked about the documents this week. “I can assure you they’re using it against us; they can with impunity.”
His testimony comes as the Senate debates whether to enact a guest-worker program that would allow current illegal aliens and future foreign workers a new path to citizenship.
An opponent of a guest-worker program, Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House International Relations subcommittee on terrorism and nonproliferation, which is holding the hearing, said USCIS is “deeply flawed” and focuses too much on processing applications and not enough on security, according to his prepared statement.
The House immigration-enforcement bill passed in December included an amendment by Mr. Royce, California Republican, that puts law enforcement at the top of USCIS’ priorities.
Emilio Gonzalez, the agency’s new director, told reporters last month that he has made national security the top priority.
“The minute I walked through these doors here, I let it be known — under my watch, it’s all about security,” he said.
Mr. Gonzalez said the lack of access to databases for some adjudicators — another subject Mr. Maxwell is expected to testify about — hasn’t hurt the agency because other agencies can do those checks and share information.
USCIS officials said they will wait to see Mr. Maxwell’s testimony to respond specifically, but Angelica Alfonso-Royals, a USCIS spokeswoman, said, “We take any allegations of potential misconduct seriously and are investigating them fully.”
Mr. Maxwell now works as an independent consultant on security matters, and a client is Numbers USA, which lobbies for stricter immigration controls and against a guest-worker program. He said this week that the Iraq case was not an isolated case.
“We know the asylum process is in shambles. We know fraud is rampant,” he said, adding that documents show top officials know this and refuse to do anything about it.
In the case of the suspected agent, whose name was blacked out in the documents The Times obtained, Mr. Maxwell said there were many red flags.
“There are indicators throughout this entire case that I saw, professionals within the FBI and the intelligence community saw, that all pointed one way — we were dealing with an individual who was a member of a foreign intelligence agency that had been working within CIS,” Mr. Maxwell said.
“The danger was that he was granting asylum to anybody that he wanted to, with impunity, at a time of his choosing. Who was he letting into this country?”
The man was in demand at USCIS because of his language skills. He was able to do interviews without the need for a translator. At the time, that seemed to be a big benefit to the speed of the process, but in retrospect, Mr. Maxwell said, it posed a security risk.
Mr. Maxwell said they first became suspicious of the man when, while on a yearlong assignment to the Defense Department in Iraq, he walked outside the Green Zone in Baghdad and disappeared. According to documents, authorities first thought he had been taken hostage but concluded he had left of his own accord.
Mr. Maxwell began an investigation that found that the man had been hired by USCIS even though negative “national security information” in his background check caused other federal agencies to pass on him.
A national security polygraph showed repeated deception on his part, and in interviews with Mr. Maxwell, he denied having traveled to Iran, Syria and Jordan while he worked for USCIS, even though electronic databases showed he had made the trips.
The man also made “persistent requests” that Mr. Maxwell help him achieve secret or top-secret clearance so he could go back to work for the Defense Department. Mr. Maxwell said that request was weird because Defense would have had to do its own background check anyway.
The man has since left USCIS and the United States so Mr. Maxwell closed his investigation. But Mr. Maxwell said that despite his findings, USCIS doesn’t even have the ability to go back and see whether any of the 180 cases the former employee approved should be revoked.
“With no internal audit function at CIS, we don’t know who he let into this country,” Mr. Maxwell said.