Susan Walsh/AP/File
June 5, 2015 file photo, a view of the Homeland Security Department headquarters in Washington. The US government has mistakenly granted citizenship to at least 858 immigrants who had pending deportation orders from countries of concern to national security or with high rates of immigration fraud, according to an internal Homeland Security audit released Monday.

Fingerprint errors turn nearly 900 deportees into US citizens

According to the Department of Homeland Security, nearly 900 people who should have been deported gained US citizenship instead.

At least 858 people previously ordered to be deported or removed from the United States under a different name were granted citizenship because of incomplete fingerprint records, according to an internal Department of Homeland Security audit released Monday.

The paper records of immigrants from “special interest countries” – countries that pose a national security risk to the US – or neighboring countries with high rates of immigration fraud were not added to fingerprint databases created by both the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the 1990s. Fingerprints taken by immigration officials during the deportation process were also infrequently forwarded to the FBI.

“This situation created opportunities for individuals to gain rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship through fraud,” John Roth, the inspector general of Homeland Security, said in a statement Monday.

Fingerprints are missing from federal databases for as many as 315,000 immigrants with final deportation orders or who are fugitive criminals, according to the report. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has not reviewed about 148,000 of those immigrants’ files to digitize their fingerprints.

Citizenship fraud and the national security concerns it presents have long been a fear of immigration officials. Because this controversy comes in the wake of terror attacks in New York, New Jersey, and Minnesota, however, it has brought renewed focus on this type of fraud.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Service within Homeland Security is supposed to check the fingerprints of citizenship applicants against a number of databases to ensure they do not have a criminal record or pose a security threat, according to The New York Times.

Because the fingerprint databases were incomplete, the agency that oversees citizenship wasn’t able to properly perform this check, according to the report. In other words, the agency didn’t know if citizenship applications are who they said they were.

Investigators found that in more than 200 cases they examined, none of the individuals disclosed they had final deportation orders on their naturalization application. In some cases, they even used different names or birthdates.

The alleged immigration fraud the report reveals has worried immigration and intelligence officials and members of Congress because naturalized citizens are able to receive security clearance, become law enforcement, or sponsor foreigners to visit the country. In three cases, people who are alleged to have committed immigration fraud received security clearance at airports, ports, or aboard ships, according to the report. All three individuals have been removed from those positions, according to the statement.

In a fourth case, an individual is working law enforcement.

Immigration fraud has long plagued  officials. As Faye Bowers reported for The Christian Science Monitor in 2006, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) embarked on a campaign to crack dawn on fraudulent document rings, in which undocumented immigrants used false identification:

The fraudulent document business has long been a thorn in the side of immigration officials, making it hard for them to crack down on companies for knowingly hiring illegal workers.

Although the most recent immigration fraud controversy predates President Obama, his administration, Congress, and other federal agencies “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,” writes Ron Nixon for The New York Times.

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.

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.

To remedy the gap, immigration officials are in the process of uploading fingerprint records. Homeland Security says officials will review "every file" identified as a case of possible fraud.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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