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Report: Federal workers 'pressured' to approve citizenship papers

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
updated 10:49 AM EST, Mon January 9, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sen. Charles Grassley releases a draft report of the survey
  • Draft report says immigration workers complaining about workload pressures
  • It is written by the independent Office of Inspector General

(CNN) -- Some U.S. immigration officers charged with reviewing citizenship applications believe federal policy favors promoting immigration over protecting national security, according to a draft report by an agency watchdog.

When asked whether they had ever been asked by a supervisor to approve applications that should have been denied, 63 of the 254 immigration officers, or nearly 25%, answered "Yes."

Asked if they had enough time to interview applicants, 109, or 43.4%, said they had "serious concerns" that interview times were too short to make a good determination.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, released a draft report containing the survey Friday, and accused U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services chief Alejandro Mayorkas of creating a climate that placed a priority on approving immigration applications to the detriment of national security.

But the draft report said immigration workers have been complaining about workload pressures for more than a decade, and said USCIS "has taken important steps to improve national security and fraud detection."

"USCIS has ... increased fraud detection resources and training," it said, adding that it can take additional steps to insulate immigration officers from "internal and external pressures that continue to hinder" the process.

The draft report was written by the Department of Homeland Security's independent Office of Inspector General. A final report is expected next week.

The draft report provides fodder for administration supporters and detractors. But its main beneficiaries may be the rank-and-file immigration officers who process citizenship paperwork. They are depicted as being overwhelmed by a yearly deluge of 6 million applications or petitions for U.S. citizenship, green cards, employment authorization and other benefits.

Immigration Service Officers, or ISOs, generally must complete 12 to 15 interviews a day, according to the report, limiting interviews to less than 30 minutes.

"The speed at which ISOs must process cases leaves ample opportunities for critical information to be overlooked," the report says.

"The consensus among ISOs throughout the country is that quantity is still at least as important to their supervisors and managers as quality," the report says.

The report said t takes officers "significantly less time and effort" to approve a case than it takes to deny the case or take other actions, such as request more information. Consequently, officers who are pressed for time "might opt to approve a marginal case and move on to the next file," it says.

Time constraints aren't new, the report says. In 2002, the Inspector General recommended that officers needed more time to review files, but it wasn't until 2011 that production became "noncritical" to an ISO's performance evaluation, it says.

In interviews, several employees told the Inspector General that they have been required to approve specific cases against their will. Under USCIS policy, immigration officers should never sign a decision merely because a supervisor directs such action. But "USCIS practice deviates from this policy," the report says.

"Cases are sometimes taken away from us and given to officers who the supervisor knows will approve the case," one ISO wrote, according to the report.

In a news release in October calling for the investigation, Grassley said agency insiders say director Mayorkas is responsible for fostering an environment that encourages the approval of as many applications as possible, regardless of eligibility or potential fraud.

The insiders, whom Grassley did not name, said a "visibly agitated" Mayorkas asked employees, "Why would you be focusing on [fraud] instead of approvals?" and, on a separate occasion, said that there are some "managers with black spots on their hearts" because they would not approve more visa applications.

In a statement Friday, USCIS spokesman Christopher Bentley said the agency's leadership "has consistently reinforced a culture of quality and integrity to ensure that every case is decided based on the law and the facts."

"USCIS concurred with the Inspector General's recommendations about ways in which it can further enhance the adjudication process and continue to improve fraud detection," Bentley said. "Implementation of these recommendations will be another step in USCIS's effort to enhance quality and integrity in the immigration system."

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