Lawmakers to Question Top Officials about Controversial Visa Program for Wealthy Foreigners

PHOTO: Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas declines to answer questions on camera from ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross.PlayABC News
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Republicans in Congress voiced strong objections Tuesday in response to a scathing Homeland Security investigation that found a senior official appeared to give special treatment to politically-connected applicants when he ran a little-known federal program that offers visas to those who invest $500,000 in a job-creating business.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the committee chairman, said he viewed the findings of the Homeland Security Inspector General “extremely concerning” and said he will hold hearings Thursday to determine if further investigation is needed.

PHOTO: Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas declines to answer questions on camera from ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross.ABC News
Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas declines to answer questions on camera from ABC News' Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross.

"These allegations appear to be at odds with [the immigration agency’s] expressed mission to 'administer the nation’s immigration system fairly, honestly and correctly,'" McCaul said.

The Inspector General’s investigation focused on the leadership of Alejandro Mayorkas, who served as director of the immigration program known as EB-5, an obscure but increasingly popular method for obtaining highly-sought-after American Green Cards. The program caters to wealthy foreigners, requiring them to invest $500,000 or sometimes $1 million in a qualifying U.S. project that promises to create jobs. In late 2013, Mayorkas was promoted by President Obama to Deputy Secretary of the department over objections from Republicans who had already begun to hear rumblings of problems with his handling of the immigration program.

The IG report came on the heels of an ABC News investigation that revealed that a number of visa recipients were approved despite objections from career officials, who found instances where foreign applicants accused of fraud, money laundering, even involvement in child pornography, had received permission to move to the U.S. The ABC News investigation also found evidence that spies and even possible terrorists had attempted to exploit the visa program to enter the country.

The Inspector General’s report focused on allegations that Mayorkas had exerting improper influence on behalf of politically connected EB-5 applicants.

“The juxtaposition of Mr. Mayorkas’ communication with external stakeholders on specific matters outside the normal procedures, coupled with favorable action that deviated from the regulatory scheme designed to ensure fairness and evenhandedness in adjudicating benefits, created an appearance of favoritism and special access,” the report found.

Mayorkas wrote a robust response to the report, saying his efforts were focused on improving a troubled program, and were always vetted by agency attorneys. On Tuesday, he issued a statement saying, "While I disagree with the Inspector General’s report, I will certainly learn from it and from this process."

"The EB-5 program was badly broken when I arrived at USCIS [United States Citizenship and Immigration Services]," he said. "I could not and did not turn my back on my responsibility to address those grave problems. I made improving the program a priority and I did so in a hands-on manner, through cases, policies, and sweeping personnel and organizational changes."

The Inspector General's findings did not reach conclusions about Mayorjas's motives.

“Regardless of Mr. Mayorkas’ motives, his intervention in these matters created significant resentment in USCIS. This resentment was not isolated to career staff adjudicating within the EB-5 program, but extended to senior managers and attorneys responsible for the broader USCIS mission and programs,” it said.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, an early critic of the EB-5 program, said the Inspector General’s findings validated his objections to the way Mayorkas had run the immigration office.

“Digging into the report and reading about specific cases, you can see just how questionable Mr. Mayorkas’ ethics and judgment were,” Grassley said. “And, just as bad, is the blind eye that the Obama administration turned when elevating this individual to the number two slot at the Department of Homeland Security.”

Both the ABC News investigation and the Inspector General’s report were based on numerous interviews with, and documents provided by agency whistleblowers, a group of insiders that included senior immigration officials. The inspector general said 15 different federal employees shared similar stories of Mayorkas intervening on behalf of influential applicants.

“The sheer number of whistleblowers who came forward is a darn good indication as to how bad things were at the agency,” Grassley said. “They are courageous people for reporting these very serious allegations despite fear of retaliation, especially given that Mr. Mayorkas was being elevated by the President to be Deputy Secretary.”

Reaction to the report fell largely along partisan lines, and the report may have lasting political reverberations. Among those who profited from the EB-5 program was Anthony Rodham, the brother of presumptive Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton. The report specifically noted that Rodham attempted to contact Mayorkas. Messages left for Rodham by ABC News were not returned.

While Republicans voiced strong objections, Democrats rallied around Mayorkas, focusing on the fact that the Inspector General failed to find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, issued a statement saying the investigators and whistleblowers misunderstood Mayorkas’s actions.

“The Inspector General provided no definitive determination of wrongdoing and instead found that Deputy Secretary Mayorkas’ hands-on and reform-minded leadership style may have been misinterpreted,” Thompson said, adding that the report “paints a picture of an advocate and manager who demanded reform and responsiveness from his agency.”

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, had a similar reaction, praising Mayorkas as a “dedicated, thoughtful, and talented public servant” and a change agent.

“As many of us know, change at any kind of organization isn’t always easy and can meet resistance,” he said.

But even Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson acknowledged in a statement that the report raised issues that should not be ignored or overlooked.

“I believe there are lessons to be learned from the Inspector General’s report – by Ali, and all of us who are leaders in public service,” Johnson wrote. “Each of us in leadership must be mindful that, when we become involved in individual matters that happen to reach our desk, we risk the appearance of preferential treatment and the suspicion of our subordinates. As public servants, we must maintain the trust and confidence of all those around us, and be above reproach. I have discussed this with Deputy Secretary Mayorkas and I am confident he understands this.”