Obama Aide Tied to Failed Immigration Policy; Rushed Citizenship Push Let in Thousands of Criminals

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One of President-elect Barack Obama's top immigration advisers oversaw a Clinton-era program that awarded U.S. citizenship to thousands of convicted criminals and failed to conduct adequate FBI background checks on foreigners during a push to reduce a backlog of naturalization applications.

T. Alexander Aleinikoff, former executive associate commissioner for programs at the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service, staunchly defended the program, Citizenship USA (CUSA), before Congress a decade ago, although the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General concluded in 2000 that the program failed to address weaknesses that pushed the immigration system beyond its limits.

CUSA saw 1.2 million foreign nationals become U.S. citizens in 1996. Many of them later were identified as convicted criminals. The program was endorsed vigorously by President Clinton but attacked by critics as an election-year ploy to speed naturalizations for political gain, noting that the program targeted INS districts in heavily Democratic Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City and San Francisco.

More than 180,000 naturalization applications were vetted without proper FBI fingerprint analyses, including 80,000 immigrants who had fingerprint checks that generated criminal records but were naturalized anyway, according to congressional and federal investigators.

The inspector general's report said applicants who were ineligible because of criminal records or because they fraudulently obtained green cards were granted citizenship because the INS was moving too fast to check their records.

Mr. Aleinikoff, now dean and executive vice president at Georgetown University School of Law, did not return telephone messages for comment left for him this week and last. He and Mariano-Florentino Tino Cuellar, a professor at Stanford Law School and a senior Treasury Department adviser in the Clinton administration, were named last month by Mr. Obama to co-lead his immigration policy transition team.

Mr. Obama's transition team did not immediately return an e-mail on Monday asking for comment.

According to the inspector general's 684-page report, CUSA failed to address national security concerns, did not develop or coordinate anti-fraud operations, and failed to ensure that foreign nationals seeking naturalization underwent law-enforcement background checks.

The report said it was widely known among INS officials in Washington that thousands of foreign nationals with criminal records were allowed to become U.S. citizens. It said INS compromised the integrity of the naturalization system as a result of its efforts to process applicants more quickly and meet a self-imposed goal of completing more than a million cases by the end of fiscal 1996.

It was estimated at the time that INS failed to complete FBI background checks for nearly 20 percent of those naturalized under CUSA.

In testimony before a Senate subcommittee in 1996, Mr. Aleinikoff praised CUSA for reducing processing times for citizenship applications nationwide while maintaining the integrity of the citizenship process. He testified that CUSA handled applications for naturalization in a timely, accurate and responsible manner.

But acting Inspector General Robert L. Ashbaugh said at the time that given CUSA's deficiencies, INS had put any hope for integrity in the adjudication of citizenship at great risk in an effort to process massive numbers of pending cases.

INS leadership took no serious steps before implementing CUSA to protect the naturalization process from further degradation, Mr. …