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Obama choice to run controversial immigration program faces a fight

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HOT SEAT: USCIS nominee Leon Rodriguez will walk into a grilling by Sen. Charles Grassley.

HOT SEAT: USCIS nominee Leon Rodriguez will walk into a grilling by Sen. Charles Grassley on the immigration investor-visa program.

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Hard questions about a controversial investor-visa program await President Barack Obama’s choice to head the embattled U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Leon Rodriguez was tabbed last December to lead the agency that oversees the EB-5 program, which grants green cards to foreign nationals who invest $500,000 to $1 million in select U.S. companies.

Former USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas is under investigation by DHS’ Office of Inspector General for his handling of EB-5 applications.

The Securities and Exchange Commission also is looking into the EB-5 regional center that funds Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s GreenTech Automotive Inc.

The federal investigations began after Watchdog.org reported on the electric-car company, and its connections to Mayorkas and other high-level administration officials.

Rodriguez is controversial in his own right.

Bowing to united Republican opposition in 2011, the White House withdrew Rodriguez’s nomination to direct the Wage and Hour Division at the Department of Labor.

Though the former chief of staff at the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department oversaw immigration work, immigration specialists say they know little or nothing about him.

Michelle Mittelstadt, communications director for the Migration Policy Institute, a pro-immigration group, said her organization did not have enough information on Rodriguez to form an opinion.

Kristen Wiliamson, spokeswoman at the enforcement-oriented Federation for American Immigration Reform, told Watchdog:

“I’d be concerned that he didn’t receive a hearing for the Department of Labor nomination because he was considered controversial” at the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said he plans to pepper Rodriguez with the same EB-5 concerns he posed to Mayorkas.

Citing a Homeland Security Investigations memo, Grassley said another federal agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, identified key vulnerabilities in EB-5 visas:

1)    Export of sensitive technology/economic espionage.
2)    Use by foreign government agents/espionage.
3)    Use by terrorists.
4)    Investment fraud by regional center.
5)    Investment fraud by investors.
6)    Fraud conspiracies by investors and regional center.
7)    Illicit finance/money laundering.

Characterizing Mayorkas’ responses as vague or nonexistent, Grassley cited another ICE memo asserting that EB-5 “may be abused by Iranian operatives to infiltrate the United States.”

HE WANTS ANSWERS: Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, detailed national-security vulnerabilities in the investor-visa program known as EB-5.

HE WANTS ANSWERS: Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, detailed national-security vulnerabilities in the investor-visa program known as EB-5.

The Iowa Republican took to the Senate floor Dec. 19 – the day Rodriguez was nominated — with more security issues about EB-5 regional centers and USCIS.

“When Homeland Security’s law enforcement database, TECS, has a hit on someone applying for a regional center, Citizenship and Immigration Services sends an email to the law enforcement agency that put the record in,” Grassley said.

“But the problem is that Citizenship and Immigration Services isn’t waiting for law enforcement. … If law enforcement doesn’t get back to (USCIS) soon enough, they just go ahead and approve the person’s application.

“That’s not coordination — it’s a sham. It should be simply unacceptable to any of us who are concerned about the national security of our country.”

USCIS does not divulge how much foreign capital has been raised or how many jobs have been created by individual EB-5 regional centers. A government audit last year declared that the agency “is unable to demonstrate the benefits of foreign investment into the U.S. economy.”

Rodriguez did not respond to Watchdog.org’s request for comment at the Department of Health and Human Services, where he is director of the Office of Civil Rights.

The Senate Judiciary Committee — chaired by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and fervent EB-5 advocate — has yet to schedule a confirmation hearing for Rodriguez.

Kenric Ward is a national reporter for Watchdog.org and chief of its Virginia Bureau. Contact him at kenric@watchdogvirginia.org or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward

 

 

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Kenric Ward is a veteran journalist who has worked on three Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers. A California native, he received a BA from UCLA (Political Science/Phi Beta Kappa) and holds an MBA. He reported and edited at the San Jose Mercury News and the Las Vegas Sun before joining Watchdog.org in 2012 as Virginia Bureau Chief.