They should have been deported, but hundreds of illegal immigrants from dangerous countries were instead granted citizenship by Homeland Security because officials never checked their fingerprints to find out their real identities, the department’s inspector general said in a staggering report Monday.
At least two of those who got citizenship have since been investigated for ties to terrorism, and two others managed to gain jobs in secure areas of airports.
Perhaps most stunning is that Homeland Security and federal prosecutors have let the illegal immigrants turned citizens get away with their potential fraud. Charges were brought in just two of the more than 800 cases identified.
The report was released as the country was learning the identity of the suspect in this weekend’s New York and New Jersey terror bombings — and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump connected the two, saying the U.S. is inviting those kinds of attacks if it can’t assure Americans it’s screening applications correctly.
“The safety and security of the homeland must be the overriding objective of our leaders when it comes to our immigration policy,” Mr. Trump said in a statement hours after the arrest of Ahmad Khan Rahami, whom authorities captured after a brief gunbattle.
There is no evidence Mr. Rahami, whose family fled Afghanistan and sought asylum in the U.S., reportedly in the 1990s, was part of the hundreds who earned bogus citizenship because of bad identity checks. But lawmakers on Capitol Hill said they wanted the problem fixed immediately anyway.
The 858 cases involved people from so-called “special interest” countries, or from neighboring countries with major immigration fraud problems. Special interest countries are those places the government has identified as posing national security problems to the U.S., but the IG report did not break down how many cases were from specific countries.
“This situation created opportunities for individuals to gain the rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship through fraud,” said Inspector General John Roth.
His investigators spotted another 953 cases that also seemed suspicious, but which haven’t been fully resolved yet.
Of the 858 chief cases, two have been investigated by the FBI’s terrorism task force. Another man has since been hired as a law enforcement officer, while three managed to get credentials to work in sensitive areas of infrastructure, including two who had access to secure areas of airports.
The problem, according to the audit, is tens of thousands of illegal immigrants and criminal aliens whose files are so old that their fingerprints are still on paper cards.
Some of them managed to avoid deportation and applied for citizenship anyway, using different names than those in the deportation files. They should have been caught by the fingerprint check, but U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services wasn’t checking the paper files and missed them, never learning about their prior run-ins that usually made them ineligible.
In 2012 Congress carved out $5 million for Homeland Security to digitize its legacy fingerprints, and the department said it made some progress. But the money ran out before they were finished, leaving some 148,000 aliens who have been ordered deported but whose fingerprints still aren’t in the electronic IDENT system the department uses.
Homeland Security officials were ordered in the 2012 spending bill to report to Congress on how much it would cost to digitize everything. The department declined to comment on whether that happened.
“This is a picture of total incompetence,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican. “A bureaucracy that blunders so badly is one that doesn’t take our national security seriously.”
The inspector general first flagged the problem in 2008 after a Customs and Border Protection officer reported some 206 people from four danger-spot countries. Homeland Security launched an effort, dubbed Operation Janus, to try to get to the bottom of the matter.
But Operation Janus was eliminated earlier this year, and the staff disbanded.
“We received this information late in our review and cannot assess the future impact of this change,” the inspector general said in a warning.
Operation Janus had identified some 120 of the 858 immigrants whom the department deemed worthy of being prosecuted. So far, the Justice Department has only accepted two cases and refused another 26 cases.
The Justice Department didn’t respond to a request for comment on why it refused those cases.
Homeland Security leaders, in their official response to the report, admitted they’d bungled by not having all the information needed to make judgments on the cases.
“As a result, USCIS was not made aware of information that may have affected the applicants’ ability to naturalize,” Jim H. Crumpacker, the Homeland Security’s liaison for investigations, said in a memo to the inspector general.
He said they’re working to get more fingerprints uploaded, and hope to issue a contract by the end of the fiscal year to tackle the problem. The department also pointed to its lack of funds to finish the digitization.
Officials insisted that some of the more than 850 applications were valid and should have gotten approval, even taking into account their fingerprints and their actual identities