- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2006

A congressional panel demanded yesterday that the Department of Homeland Security explain why one of its agencies rewards employees with “benefit parties” and cash, movie tickets or extra vacation time for granting immigration benefits quickly — a situation that an agency whistleblower said threatens national security.

Michael J. Maxwell, who recently resigned as head of the Office of Security and Investigations at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said USCIS routinely ignored warnings about fraud, redacted information from reports to Congress to hide problems, failed to investigate hundreds of criminal complaints against employees and forced hundreds of adjudicators to rule on cases without being able to see some information from security databases.

Democrats and Republicans on the terrorism and nonproliferation subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee vowed to get to the bottom of the charges.

“We haven’t even checked the checkers, and we’ve instead decided to blindfold them,” said Rep. Brad Sherman of California, ranking Democrat on the subcommittee.

And the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Ed Royce, California Republican, said the system, rather than focusing on security, “is rigged to approve immigration applications.”

Mr. Maxwell told them that just this week he heard from an agency employee who said her supervisors were pressuring staff to process 16 cases per hour — an average of less than four minutes per application.

“The system has been designed at this point to allow for the benefits adjudications to go through the system with very little quality assurance,” he testified. “The employees are tempted to grant benefits in order to receive cash [and] time off.”

Incentives are skewed to push for approvals, he said, because supervisors have to review only denied applications.

Mr. Maxwell also said he met an agency manager who told him of “benefits parties” thrown for employees who adjudicate the most applications each month.

USCIS did not respond to the individual charges, with a spokeswoman saying instead that the agency is committed to a solid immigration system.

“USCIS continues to have confidence in its processes, but it continually strives to improve them, and it takes allegations seriously,” said spokeswoman Angelica Alfonso-Royals.

The agency’s director, Emilio Gonzalez, told reporters last month that rewards for speedy processing wouldn’t happen under his tenure, which began in January.

“Not since I’ve been here,” he said.

The Senate is debating a guest-worker program that would allow millions of illegal aliens to apply for work permits and eventually citizenship and open the doors to hundreds of thousands of new foreign workers a year — all of which would go through USCIS.

Mr. Maxwell and another witness, Janice Kephart, who worked on terrorist travel and immigration system breakdowns as a staffer for the September 11 commission, said the agency is not ready to handle a guest-worker program.

Each application, Ms. Kephart said, should be required to include biometric identifiers, among other improvements, because it cuts down dramatically on fraud. And she said the agency must build its bureaucracy to handle a program.

“It’s not a sexy thing to talk about the bureaucracy, but in the end, that’s what it comes down to,” she said.

Mr. Maxwell also testified about an Iraqi-born U.S. citizen that he thinks was a foreign agent working for USCIS. Mr. Maxwell said the man should never have been hired based on indications that he had received from several foreign intelligence agencies.

The man approved 180 asylum applications while at USCIS.

Mr. Maxwell promised more information about that case and others in a closed-door briefing, which Mr. Royce said the subcommittee will work to arrange.

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