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Homeland Security Horrors

Another whistle-blower bites the dust at USCIS

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It was Aug. 11, the day after the recently foiled British terror attacks came to light, when the e-mail popped up on Sultan Farakhan's screen.

When he saw it, a sick feeling of dread washed over him. He knew that he and the other immigration application screeners at the desks around him had let terrorists, terrorism supporters and other dangerous criminals into this country. He was certain of it. The only question was how many. Hundreds? Thousands?

It was then that Farakhan, who had been filing complaints for years about security breaches at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, made his decision. It no longer mattered what the Department of Homeland Security, USCIS' parent agency, did to him. It no longer mattered if he kept his job. The American people had to know that immigration adjudicators had been giving out everything from work visas to green cards to permanent residency status to foreign applicants without checking to see if they were on terrorist watch lists or had terrorist connections or criminal histories here or abroad.

According to that e-mail from the Department of Homeland Security and another in May that were turned over to Congress, immigration supervisors and processors at the Missouri center where Farakhan worked were unaware that they were supposed to push a key or simple series of keys on their keyboards each time they reviewed an application. Hitting the keys would allow them access to a national security databases called the Interagency Border Inspection System, which contains national security information from more than a half-dozen federal agencies and would tell them if an applicant was on national security watch lists.

Employees knew that they should check IBIS when the certain keys lit up on an application. What they and their supervisors weren't told was that the keys needed to be accessed on each application regardless of whether they lit up. According to internal e-mails from USCIS administrators and Farakhan, based on the number of applications processed, up to 2.8 million may have slipped through the center unchecked since 2002.

In the Aug. 11 e-mail, Department of Homeland Security Supervisory Adjudications officer Norma A. Limon warned employees that they still weren't properly screening applicants. Another warning in May to employees said the same thing, but it gave incorrect information for accessing IBIS, so adjudicators kept processing the applications incorrectly, potentially missing hits on over 150,000.

"After yesterday's British terrorist incident, we must ensure that every IBIS record and sub-records are accessed properly," Limon wrote. "I am seeing a lot of IBIS hits where the F14/15 LINKLIST and/or F13 sub-record are not being accessed at all."

Farakhan sought whistle-blower protection from Congress shortly after he came forward in August. On Sept. 19, Farakhan was given a $500 bonus for processing immigration applications quickly, but by the end of the month, he'd been let go from his job. He was the only contractor who wasn't rehired by the center at the end of the four-year contract period.

"I was terrified," said Farakhan about what was going on inside USCIS. "They don't need to worry about me. They need to worry about fixing the system because I know terrorists slipped through."

Farakhan is the second USCIS whistle-blower I've interviewed for this column in the last six months. The first, Michael Maxwell, the formal head of security at USCIS, also asserted in congressional testimony that USCIS processors and supervisors have missed or ignored thousands of national security hits when giving out immigration benefits.

Congressman Ed Royce, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism and Nonproliferation, plans to hold a hearing on Farakhan's claims, the e-mails and the latest set of hair-raising documents to escape USCIS, including a July 27 case in which an applicant was given an immigration benefit allowing him to stay in the country even though he is listed on terrorist watch lists. Other documents dating back two years show supervisors disregarding national security hits in order to process applications fast enough to meet President Bush's October deadline for clearing a backlog.

The scariest thing about this isn't who USCIS -- which was formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Services (or INS) -- has already let in, but how many more people with deadly intentions that the agency may let in in the future.

USCIS is already strapped for workers with the necessary security clearances to check national security hits -- when the agency bothers to access them at all. But if Congress decides to grant amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants already here and millions more who want to come here as part of the current U.S. Senate immigration proposal, those applications will be dumped on USCIS as well.

The national security implications of this are mind-numbing, yet few on Capitol Hill seem to care. Don't get me wrong. The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees USCIS, has shown interest in the problem -- by shadowing whistle-blowers like Maxwell and at times sending two or three of their goons to keep them from testifying, despite the objections of Congress members who want to know the truth.

If this is what the president calls national security, we might as well shut down the Department of Homeland Security and pull our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Why bother?

Got a story idea? E-mail Tara at tara.servatius@creativeloafing.com.

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