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By James P. Tucker Jr.

An investigation by a government oversight agency recently revealed that in 2005 U.S. immigration authorities either “lost” or could not account for an estimated 111,000 files on immigrants to the United States, resulting in tens of thousands gaining citizenship without any indication as to whether authorities had checked to see if any of them had a criminal history.

The shocking loss was discovered in a study by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) sought by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). As many as 30,000 immigrants obtained citizenship with limited scrutiny as a result.

“In 2002, we had a person who was a threat to the United States that got citizenship and the file wasn’t even reviewed,” Grassley said on the Lou Dobbs TV show Dec. 4.

“How can this happen? Basic incompetence of paperwork or the fact that even paperwork exists as opposed to having this stuff on computer where it can be saved.”

There only has to be “one mistake” and the United States could again become a victim of terrorism, Grassley said, “A terrorist has to be right once,” he said. “We have to be right every time.”

Grassley was referring to an individual who received his U.S. citizenship and was a known supporter of the Lebanese militia group, Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist organization. Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands and Israel also consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The rest of the world considers it a legitimate resistance organization that defends southern Lebanon from Israeli incursions.

“If they can’t handle legal immigration, how are they going to give amnesty to 12 million people that are here illegally?” Dobbs asked.

“A test on that will come next year when we have a debate on an amendment that there can’t be any guest worker programs or even any consideration of legalizing illegality if we don’t control the borders in the first place,” Grassley responded. “In other words, control the borders in the first place and then look at all these other issues as a next step.”

In a prepared statement issued earlier, Grassley said “It takes one missing file of somebody with links to a terrorist organization to become an American citizen. A terrorist can be unsuccessful thousands of times, but we have to be perfect all the time. We can’t afford to be handing out citizenship with blinders on.”

The 30,000 missing files represent about 4% of the 715,000 total applications handled by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in 2005. The CIS is an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. The files, known as “A files,” contain information such as arrest warrants and the results of immigration proceedings. The losses can be attributed to “poor training” and “a lack of emphasis by managers,” the report said.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.), who also called for the investigation, observed that some of the 9-11 hijackers entered the country legally, disappearing until the terrorist attacks.

She called it “unthinkable” that the U.S. immigration system could still grant citizenship to a potential terrorist “simply because they can’t find a person’s file.”

CIS officials told auditors that case adjudicators are not required to document whether they use A files. This means some of the 30,000 could have been reviewed but they don’t know. Auditors recommended CIS tell employees to note whether an A file was used to adjudicate an application—something any clerk-typist would recommend.

(Issue #51, December 18, 2006)

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Updated January 20, 2007