- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2006

The director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said yesterday that the agency is now ready to run a guest-worker program, just five months after he told a Senate hearing that the agency was not prepared.

Emilio Gonzalez said the agency can handle whatever program Congress sets up, in part because much of the workload would be outsourced to contractors.

“We have the tools, we have the personnel, and I believe we have the structure to adequately handle a guest-worker program if and when we get one,” he said. “Obviously, we’ll need some additional tools and some resources, but we’re ready.”

In October, at his confirmation hearing, Mr. Gonzalez told the Senate Judiciary Committee that USCIS wasn’t ready because “the systems that exist right now wouldn’t be able to handle it.”

Mr. Gonzalez said that “a lot of things have happened” in those months. He was sworn in as director early in January and said he has begun a reorganization that will leave a “leaner, more effective” staff. He also said technology upgrades were in the works.

As for the workload — a concern for many in Congress, given an existing backlog of immigration-benefit applications — he said outsourcing to contractors will help.

“We do that now, so this would be nothing new; it would just have to be done on a larger scale,” he said.

USCIS is the arm of the immigration service charged with granting immigration benefits such as permanent residence or citizenship.

Speaking with reporters at a morning briefing at the agency’s headquarters, Mr. Gonzalez disputed a draft Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which The Washington Times obtained and reported on Monday, that said USCIS has no systematic way to detect fraud or to learn from other agencies’ experiences.

“Oh, but we do,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “I’m not going to sit here [and] get into a contest whether GAO says we can or can’t. Like anything else, can we do better? Sure. But understand, we work with the tools we have. We identify egregious cases of fraud, and we take corrective action.”

The GAO said USCIS doesn’t have a handle on the size and scope of fraud, and Mr. Gonzalez said he doesn’t know how extensive the problem is nor could he say how many times the USCIS has pursued administrative or criminal penalties for fraud. But he said fraud is not overwhelming the agency.

“That there’s fraud out there — I assume there is. Is this something that’s rampant and we don’t have a handle on? I think that’s probably going a bit too far,” he said.

“When we identify fraud, we take actions, we work with our colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security. I’m not sure I could give you a total number of fraud cases out of a total number we adjudicate, but this is a huge agency. I mean, we do 135,000 background checks a day,” he said.

USCIS has come under fire from many in Congress.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, sent a letter in February listing problems such as adjudicators’ lacking access to the right databases and having to make decisions without being able to see derogatory information that another law-enforcement agency has.

He said managers at USCIS show a “lack of concern for security and nearly exclusive focus on processing as many benefit applications as possible.”

But Mr. Gonzalez said yesterday that he has told employees to err on the side of national security.

“The minute I walked through these doors here, I let it be known — under my watch, it’s all about security,” he said.

He said the lack of proper access “hasn’t affected our ability to do proper adjudications” because other agencies within the Department of Homeland Security can obtain and share the information.

Mr. Gonzalez also said the agency will not reward adjudicators for speedily disposing of cases.

The Times in November reported that adjudicators in the Houston USCIS office earned time off by churning out cases quickly. According to a memo provided by Rep. John Culberson, Texas Republican, completing an average of six cases a day over a given quarter earned an employee an extra day off, and averaging 10 cases per day for the quarter earned an employee a week off.

“That’s not how I do business,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “I want to get the job done, and I want to get the job done well.”

He also said that under his tenure, advancement has not been based on speed of adjudications.

“Not since I’ve been here,” he said.

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