Iowa Republican David Young Thursday “had a memorable exchange with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Sarah Saldaña during a House Committee on Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing on the agency’s budget. Saldaña interrupted Young to say agency policy trumps the law, which I think feeds into the larger narrative of management flaws, dysfunction and distrust at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS); it is a disturbing trend,” a Capital Hill source told Homeland Security Today on background.
The policies Saldana and Young were debating were implemented by presidential executive orders on November 20, 2014. The President’s long expected series of executive actions overrode laws to allow ICE to prioritize deporting felons not families, and requiring an estimated four million – but likely many, many more — currently illegal immigrants in the country to pass a criminal background check before being given work permits, Social Security numbers and required to pay taxes in order to temporarily stay in the US without fear of deportation.
During his heated exchange with Saldana, Young was attempting to get clarification about “the continued mixed signals regarding the agency’s placement of administration policy above the law.”
Focusing on individual ICE officials and Border Patrol agents who Young said “have been directed to follow the president’s new directives on immigration, the president has made it clear that if these officials do not respect the policy, there are going to be consequences.”
"If I had policies or directives that were contrary to the law I would understand if my employees did not want to follow them. I would expect them to follow the law first," Young told Saldana, who responded, "That is where you and I probably have a fundamental disagreement."
“This was an odd week in Washington; a senior government official shocked the nation with an honest answer to a question I asked her. While I was questioning … Saldaña … interrupted me and confirmed what many have long feared: the Obama administration expects its directives and policies to take precedence over the laws of the land. Let me take you back to explain how we got to that point.”
“One of my responsibilities is to attend congressional hearings. I ask a lot of questions at these hearings because I am always looking for ways to make our government more accountable,” Young said. “When I am home in Iowa each weekend, I am asked why Washington cannot live by the same rules as the rest of us.”
“This week I continued to ask questions. When director Saldaña appeared before one of the subcommittees I serve on, the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, I took this opportunity to ask her about President Obama’s recent comments on immigration. The president said, ‘If somebody is working for ICE and there is a policy and they don’t follow the policy, there are going to be consequences to it.’ He was commenting on whether ICE agents should follow the law rather than his directives and policies,” Young said.
Young said, “The purpose behind my question was straightforward: I wanted to know how far the president and his top officials at the Department of Homeland Security and ICE would be willing to go. I sure got my answer.”
“I told director Saldaña that if I had policies or directives that were contrary to the law I would understand if my employees did not want to follow them. I would expect them to follow the law first,” Young said. But, “director Saldaña interrupted me to say, ‘That is where you and I probably have a fundamental disagreement.’ She went on to say that she expects those under her to follow her orders, not the law.”
Young said he was surprised by Saldana’s answer and pressed her “further regarding the possible threat that DHS officials might feel is being leveled at them when they are simply trying to obey the law,” the Hill source said.
"We can have policy debates and disagreements, but we must demand better management of our federal government at every level,” Young retorted, noting that, “Reports show that of all the federal agencies, ICE currently ranks last in employee satisfaction. The morale is low, employees up and down the line do not know who they can trust, nor can they rely on the plain letter of the law."
"America is a nation of laws and I take that very seriously. The culture problems at ICE run very deep, but I think they start at the top," concluded Young.
Young said he was floored by Saldana’s response because “America was founded on the principle that no person is above the law and I take that very seriously.”
Young said, “When the director of the second largest federal law enforcement agency, and a former US Attorney, believes that officers sworn to defend the Constitution should follow her policies instead of the law, you know there is something deeply wrong.”
And, “It does not stop there,” Young said in a statement from his office. “ICE agents have reported feeling threatened and intimated by their superiors for simply trying to obey federal law. In some cases they have even faced suspensions. Morale is low — employees up and down the line do not know who they can trust because they cannot rely on the plain letter of the law. Surveys show that of all the federal agencies, ICE currently ranks among the lowest in employee satisfaction.”
Young added that, “The mismanagement, dysfunction and distrust do not end at ICE, it is the entire Department of Homeland Security. Director Saldaña’s statement … is just the latest in a disturbing trend of behavior from high ranking officials in this administration, and it must end.”
Saldana’s office did not have an immediate comment.
Young’s dust-up with Saldana followed a DHS Inspector General’s (IG) investigation into allegations by career US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) employees that Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas exerted "improper influence in the normal processing and adjudication of applications and petitions in” the Employment-Based Fifth Preference (EB-5) program administered by USCIS in which the IG said the allegations were not without merit.
Mayorkas was alleged to have been involved in improperly influencing decision regarding special business-related visas that resulted in benefits for politically-connected and powerful individuals is extremely concerning.
Established by Congress in 1990, the USCIS the EB-5 program is intended to stimulate the US economy through job creation and capital investment by foreign investors. Through the EB-5 program, foreign investors may obtain lawful, permanent residency in the United States for themselves, their spouses and their minor unmarried children by making a certain level of capital investment and associated job creation or preservation.
USCIS whistleblowers alleged Mayorkas exerted “influence” to give specific “individuals preference and access not available to others,” the IG said.
Homeland Security Today reported the IG found Mayorkas “was in contact, outside of the normal adjudication process, either directly or through senior DHS leadership, with a number of applicants and other stakeholders having business before USCIS,” and that this “method of communication violated established USCIS policy for handling inquiries into the program.”
While the IG conceded it does “not have direct evidence of what Mr. Mayorkas and these applicants and stakeholders discussed; some emails suggest that the conversations were quite substantive. In Mr. Mayorkas’ testimony for his confirmation as deputy secretary, and inhis interview with [the IG], he stated that he simply received information from a variety of stakeholders and then acted on it to improve the program. With few exceptions, the other parties to the conversations declined to speak with us.”
“In three matters pending before USCIS,” the IG’s report stated, Mayorkas “communicated with stakeholders on substantive issues, outside of the normal adjudicatory process, and intervened with the career USCIS staff in ways that benefited the stakeholders. In each of these three instances, but for Mr. Mayorkas’ intervention, the matter would have been decided differently.”
More recently, In Fiscal Year 2014, the IG’s investigations of 16,281 complaints of wrongdoing — a substantial number of which alleged DHS personnel engaged in misconduct — resulted in 112 criminal convictions and 36 personnel actions.