Flaws in Fingerprint Records Allowed Hundreds to Become U.S. Citizens
WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security granted citizenship to hundreds of people who had previously been ordered deported or removed under different names because of flaws in keeping fingerprint records, according to a report released Monday.
The report from the department’s Office of Inspector General found that nearly 900 individuals were granted citizenship because neither the agency nor the F.B.I. databases contained all of the fingerprint records of people who had previously been ordered to be deported.
Nearly 150,000 older fingerprint records were not digitized or simply were not included in the Department of Homeland Security’s databases when they were being developed, the report said. In other cases, fingerprints that were taken by immigration officials during the deportation process were not forwarded to the F.B.I.
“This situation created opportunities for individuals to gain rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship through fraud,” said John Roth, the inspector general at Homeland Security.
The report comes as members of Congress, Homeland Security and intelligence officials have undertaken a broader examination of the nation’s immigration policy and have raised concern about individuals with ties to terrorist groups gaining entry into the United States. The examination began in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris in November and the shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 people dead in December.
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After the attacks, President Obama signed legislation that tightened visa waivers to make it harder for travelers to enter the United States from Europe if they had dual citizenship from Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria, or had visited one of those countries in the previous five years.
About 38 countries, mostly in Europe, participate in the visa-waiver program, which allows their citizens to visit the United States without a visa on trips of 90 days or fewer. Homeland Security officials have also begun an extensive review of the K-1 visa, also known as a fiancé visa, which allowed Tashfeen Malik, one of the attackers in San Bernardino, to enter the United States.
Officials say the findings illustrate a major security gap.
“This failure represents a significant risk to America’s national security as these naturalized individuals have access to serve in positions of public trust and the ability to obtain security clearances,” Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who is chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, wrote in a letter to Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security.
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, an agency within Homeland Security that oversees citizenship, is supposed to check the fingerprints of applicants for citizenship against a number of databases to make sure that they do not have criminal records or pose a threat.
But since the fingerprint databases are incomplete, the report found that the agency had no way of knowing if the individuals were actually who they said they were.
Investigators found that in more than 200 cases they examined, none of the individuals disclosed that they had another identity or that they had final deportation orders on their naturalization application.
As naturalized citizens, these individuals retain many of the rights and privileges of American citizenship, including serving in law enforcement, obtaining a security clearance and sponsoring the entry of other foreigners into the United States, the report said.
For example, investigators with the inspector general’s office said they learned that at least three people, who became naturalized citizens after having been deported under a different name, had obtained the necessary clearances to conduct security-sensitive work at commercial airports or at ports and aboard ships.
Since being identified, all have had their credentials revoked, the report said.
The inspector general’s report said the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency had investigated few of the naturalized citizens to determine if their citizenship should be revoked. That agency is working to increase its inquiries and digitize all its fingerprint records.
In a statement, Homeland Security acknowledged the issues raised in the report. The statement added, “It is important to note that the fact that fingerprint records in these cases may have been incomplete at the time of the naturalization interview does not necessarily mean that the applicant was in fact granted naturalization, or that the applicant obtained naturalization fraudulently.”