DHS No. 2 regrets perception of favoritism in visa cases

WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas steadfastly defended his work on three foreign-investor visa cases while testifying before a House committee Thursday, following allegations that he used his post to help well-connected Democrats.

But Mayorkas said he did regret creating a perception of favoritism when he got personally involved in the visa cases as head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“I regret the perception my own involvement created,” Mayorkas told members of the House Homeland Security Committee. “I did my job and fulfilled my responsibility,”

He told lawmakers that he was involved in “more (visa) cases than I can count” to help ensure that the agency was doing its job.

“I was involved in these cases, as I was in many, many cases, and the level of my involvement depended on the need for my involvement to help resolve difficult issues,” Mayorkas said.

Mayorkas was testifying for the first time about a 99-page report from his agency’s inspector general that concluded he violated ethics rules when he intervened as head of USCIS in three foreign-investor visa cases involving prominent Democrats. He insisted he only got involved to deal with complicated legal questions.

Inspector General John Roth didn’t accuse Mayorkas of breaking the law. But Roth said the deputy secretary violated agency rules that Mayorkas had drafted as head of USCIS.

Mayorkas’s defense didn’t seem to convince Republicans on the committee.

“I think you also violated your own ethics policy,” said Committee Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas. “Political appointees should be held to the same ethical standards, I believe, as the rank and file.”

McCaul said the report and a committee review of other documents raised serious questions about Mayorkas’s role as director of USCIS. He said he plans to investigate further the agency’s foreign-investor visa program, known as EB-5.

“There may be nothing there, but I think it warrants further review,” McCaul said.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, the top Democrat on the committee, said Thursday that Roth’s report was incomplete and didn’t highlight that Mayorkas was responsive to both Republicans and Democrats.

“I am disappointed that, after expending months of resources to investigate these cases, the inspector general produced an incomplete report,” the Mississippi Democrat said.

Roth found that Mayorkas improperly meddled with three visa cases involving the youngest brother of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

At a March hearing in front of McCaul’s committee, Roth told lawmakers that “in each of these three instances, but for Mr. Mayorkas’ intervention, the matter would have been decided differently.”

The EB-5 program allows foreigners to obtain visas to live permanently in the United States with their spouse and children if they invest $500,000 to $1 million in projects or businesses that create jobs for American citizens. Approved investors can become permanent residents after two years, and later can become U.S. citizens.

Mayorkas has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing since the allegations first surfaced days before his July 2013 Senate confirmation hearing. The investigation was first reported by The Associated Press and prompted a boycott of his hearing by Senate Republicans.

During that hearing, Mayorkas called the allegations “unequivocally false.” After Roth’s report was made public, Mayorkas said he disagreed with the findings but said, “I will certainly learn from it and from this process.”

Thursday he told lawmakers that he has spoken with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson about the report’s findings and “lessons learned.” He added that he has “embraced” policy changes suggested by his boss.

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