Congressional oversight is often an overlooked function for members of Congress. It's not always glamorous and it's a lot of hard work. However, it's an important responsibility for the legislative branch that helps our government work more efficiently for the American people.
I commend the House Judiciary Committee for having a hearing today to discuss the shortcomings of our immigration benefits adjudication process. Oversight of this process is crucial to ensuring that our immigration system works for all people, including foreign nationals who wish to live and work in the United States.
The Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security issued a report in January of this year entitled, "The Effects of USCIS Adjudication Procedures and Policies on Fraud Detection by Immigration Services Officers." The report provides an insightful look through the eyes of agents on the line. The Inspector General issued this report after I expressed concern about fraud detection efforts by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
While I have long been interested in fraud prevention and rooting out abuse in many visa programs, I jumped into the benefits adjudication process in the fall of 2010. Immigration officers in the field reported to me that they were being subject to pressure to approve applications and petitions because that was the message of managers in headquarters. Many officers felt intimidated and pressured. Some were being relocated. Some were being demoted. The stories were similar, and it appeared that people in Washington were preaching a "get to yes" philosophy when it was apparent that the answer should have been "no."
In September of 2010, I wrote a letter to USCIS Director Mayorkas. I was unsatisfied with his response to issues that whistleblowers brought up to me. Since he refused to answer the allegations, I took the issue to the Secretary and the Inspector General. I told the Secretary that, after many interviews, the evidence suggested that Director Mayorkas was fostering an environment that pressures employees to approve as many applications as possible.
According to several USCIS employees, Director Mayorkas was less concerned about fraud and more about making sure officers were looking at petitions from the perspective of the customer. Some said that USCIS leadership expressed a goal of "zero complaints" from "customers," implying that approvals were the means to such an end. The Department of Homeland Security conducted a human capital survey where USCIS scored low because employees felt pressured by upper management to approve applications. Many said that USCIS leadership "cultivated a culture of fear and disrespect."
So, the Inspector General agreed to investigate. He said that the "integrity of the benefit issuance process is vital," inappropriate pressure on the adjudications process must be avoided. Nearly 52 percent of respondents in their survey said that USCIS policy is too heavily weighted toward promoting immigration. The fact that a quarter of the immigration service officers surveyed felt pressure to approve questionable applications is alarming. There are all kinds of pressure, including from supervisors and outside attorneys. There's also pressure to approve in order to meet agency performance goals.
It's no secret that USCIS officers have been judged on quantity, not quality of their work. For many years, adjudicators have felt pressure to approve so many cases in an hour or a day. Moreover, according to the Inspector General, 90 percent of respondents felt they didn't have sufficient time to complete interviews of those who seek benefits. The Inspector General said that "the speed at which immigration service officers must process cases leaves ample opportunities for critical information to be overlooked." Adjudicators are more apt to approve a petition because it takes less time, and they fear getting behind if they have to put a lot of effort into a case.
I applaud the Director for initiating new performance measures so that there's more focus on fraud and security. However, like the Inspector General noted, many employees will continue to feel as though their work hinges on numbers. Despite the new measures, immigration service officers and supervisors are concerned that production remains the focus. They feel this way because of "the perception that USCIS strives to satisfy benefit requesters in a way that could affect national security and fraud detection priorities." The new performance measures may not be perfect. They may need to be massaged. I hope the Director takes comments of agents into consideration as this issue evolves.
Unfortunately, however, I am concerned that the agency is not taking seriously the Inspector General's recommendation to develop standards to permit more time for review of case files. In fact, USCIS did not concur with this recommendation and said that additional time is not the solution to addressing national security and fraud concerns. Director Mayorkas should reconsider the department's initial response to this recommendation and create an environment that ensures a thorough and complete analysis of all applications.
The Inspector General also recommended that USCIS develop a policy to establish limitations for managers and attorneys when they intervene in the adjudication of specific cases. This recommendation was made because it appeared that certain high-ranking employees at USCIS headquarters were inserting themselves into specific cases, and in one case, putting pressure on adjudicators to approve an application when the individual clearly wasn't eligible. The report also discusses how private attorneys and other parties contacted USCIS managers or attorneys to request a review of a case that an immigration service officer had denied. The perception for many officers was that outside attorneys had too much influence in the process. While the Director of USCIS does not support special treatment for complainants, it's concerning that the agency did not fully concur with the recommendation to issue a policy that ends any informal appeals process and the special review of denied cases.
Overall, this report is eye-opening. The Inspector General discussed the adjudications process with many officers in the field, and brought these issues to light. He made many thoughtful and serious recommendations that should not be ignored.
Unfortunately, despite what the Inspector General has reported, there are still nay-sayers. People within the agency want to discredit the research and findings of the Inspector General. I'm told that some aren't taking this report seriously. That's why leadership on this issue is crucial to enacting any true reform.
In 2008, I was glad to hear the president-elect talk about making this the most transparent government ever. Unfortunately, up to this point, this administration has been far from transparent.
And, it's clear that for the current administration, the rule of law is more about perception than reality. They've circled the wagons, made denials and generally been non-responsive to constitutionally proper inquiries by members of Congress.
Since the founding of our country, our immigration laws have been a source of discussion. We were born a nation of immigrants. We have welcomed men and women of diverse countries and provided protection to many who flee from persecution.
We have been a generous nation. Yet, we have seen our country face many challenges. During these struggles, it is important for lawmakers to bear in mind that the policies we make should benefit our country over the long term and that we must be fair to current and future generations.
People in foreign lands yearn to be free. They go to great lengths to be a part of the United States. It's a privilege that people love our country and want to become Americans. At the same time, however, we must not forget one great principle that our country was founded on. That is the rule of law. We want to welcome new Americans, but we need to live by the rules that we've made. We cannot let our welcome mat be trampled on and we cannot allow our system of laws to be undermined.
For years, USCIS has seen themselves as a service-oriented agency. They strive to make their customers happy. Unfortunately, this "get to yes" culture is a direct contradiction to our number one priority of protecting the homeland. USCIS must do more to ensure that fraud, abuse, and national security are a higher priority than appeasing its customers. It is going to take a strong-willed and determined leader to change this culture.
Reform shouldn't be a bad word. It should be embraced so that immigrants continue to feel welcomed in America and receive the best service possible when trying to navigate the bureaucratic process.
Again, I commend the committee for discussing the integrity of our immigration system, including our benefits adjudication process. With constant vigilance, we can root out fraud and abuse, and enact reforms that will be meaningful for future generations of new immigrants.