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Gore citizenship push called political ploy

He says the effort to speed handling of immigrant applications wasn't an attempt to add Democratic voters.

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 19, 2000


WASHINGTON -- Four years ago, according to federal investigators, Vice President Al Gore's staff took steps to speed up processing of immigrant applications for American citizenship in order to -- in the words of one aide -- "produce 1-million new citizens before Election Day" that November.

One result of the intensive effort was that thousands of immigrants were naturalized even though they had criminal records for such crimes as murder and armed robbery that should have either disqualified them for citizenship or forced them to undergo closer questioning.

Gore admits he authorized the effort, but the Democratic presidential candidate denies allegations he did it because new citizens normally vote Democratic and he thought it would help the Clinton-Gore ticket in the November election.

Instead, he told investigators for the Justice Department Inspector General's Office that he was simply responding to complaints from Hispanic groups that the Immigration and Naturalization Service was too slow in processing applications.

Yet an 800-page report detailing the results of the Justice Department's inquiry is replete with evidence to the contrary -- evidence of what former House Judiciary Committee investigator David Schippers, a fellow Democrat, has described as the blatant politicization of the INS by the vice president and the White House.

Even if Gore's motives for intervening in the INS decisionmaking were not political, as he insists, the results of this investigation provide a rare window into the governing style of the Democratic presidential nominee.

The investigative record discloses how a few self-important members of Gore's staff set out to force officials of the Justice Department and INS to do things they felt were improper, and how they invoked the names of the president and vice president whenever they were stymied.

And it shows how Gore's highly touted effort to "reinvent government" did nothing, in this instance, to help solve glaring problems at INS.

At the center of this controversy is a one-year program launched by the administration in September 1995. "Citizenship USA" was designed to naturalize at least 1-million new citizens. When the program appeared to be lagging in early 1996, Gore says, he told members of his staff involved in his "reinventing government" project to see if the INS could process applications for naturalization more quickly.

Schippers, who stumbled on evidence of the vice president's involvement in this matter during the Judiciary Committee's impeachment investigation of Clinton, says it is a perfect, modern-day example of old-fashioned "Chicago politics" in which Democratic bosses tried to pad voter rolls in their favor.

Gore refused to be interviewed by employees of the Justice Department's Inspector General's Office who investigated the case, and instead responded in writing. He answered only 16 of the 49 questions put to him. He said 11 times he "does not recall" or "does not remember" meetings and documents related to the case; he said he "does not believe" he was aware of the fact in 10 other instances.

The vice president told investigators that he authorized his staff to get involved in Citizenship USA after a meeting he had in Los Angeles on March 8, 1996, with about two dozen Hispanic leaders.

The record shows the Hispanic leaders' interest in naturalizing more citizens was political. In a letter to Gore less than a month before the Los Angeles meeting, the Rev. Miguel Vega, a leader of the group, argued that by allowing the backlog of immigrants seeking citizenship to build, "the administration may be blowing a great chance to create a whole lot of pro-Clinton voters."

Vega told investigators that he also made this pitch during the March 8 meeting with Gore.

But when Gore was asked by the investigators if he talked with the Hispanic leaders about the political potential of naturalizing more immigrants, he replied in the third person:

"The vice president does not recall discussing the possibility that reinventing the INS' naturalization process might result in increasing the number of people who would be eligible to vote in the November 1996 election, or the number of people who might likely vote for the Clinton-Gore ticket. . . . While others may have seen a connection between INS reform and the right to vote in the 1996 election, the vice president's concern was to fix a government agency that, in his view, was broken."

Although Gore says he did not authorize his staff's involvement in the naturalization drive until after March 8, investigators found plenty of evidence that the vice president's team for "reinventing government" had already put pressure on the INS before that date.

Douglas Farbrother, a member of Gore's reinvention team, known officially as the National Performance Review, told investigators that he was assigned to the matter by top Gore aide Elaine Kamarck. According to Farbrother, Kamarck told him that the president had asked Gore to look into the problems with naturalization and Gore had, in turn, asked her to make it a task of the government reinvention project.

Before recruiting Farbrother, Kamarck met a month earlier with White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes and INS Commissioner Doris Meissner to discuss a speedup for naturalizing immigrants. Meissner said she warned Ickes and Kamarck that it would be "dangerous" for the White House to get involved in naturalization because it would be seen as politically motivated.

Meissner's warning went unheeded.

On March 15, 1996, Farbrother went to talk to the INS commissioner himself. Investigators said Meissner recalled that the vice president's young aide showed up "in his usual attire -- jeans and no socks -- and handed her a two-paragraph memo" that he wanted her to sign. The memo would give INS directors in key cities the right to "waive INS rules and regulations within the confines of the law" to naturalize immigrants more quickly.

Meissner told investigators that she was stunned by what she thought was an audacious request from the vice president's office, and she regrets she did not say to him: "Are you kidding? What in the world are you talking about?" Instead, she referred the matter to her deputy.

In a self-congratulatory memo after his meeting with Meissner, Farbrother wrote: "I met with Doris Friday, I told her that to get the results the vice president wants, I need to get plenty of authority into the hands of the district directors in the big cities. I simply don't have time to deal with your entire multilayered organization."

Meanwhile, Kamarck was becoming impatient with resistance at INS. In a memo to Farbrother on March 21, 1996, she declared (in capital letters): "THE PRESIDENT IS SICK OF THIS AND WANTS ACTION. IF NOTHING MOVES TODAY, WE'LL HAVE TO TAKE SOME PRETTY DRASTIC MEASURES."

Upset by pressure from the vice president's office, INS officials then sought help from their bosses at the Justice Department. This led to a meeting between then-Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, INS officials and Farbrother on March 22, 1996.

"Uniformly, the Department of Justice/INS attendees saw Farbrother as arrogant," investigators wrote in their report, referring to the meeting in Gorelick's office. "Gorelick told (investigators) she was "shocked' by Farbrother's attitude. . . . Farbrother, in her view, came in and tried to tell the Department of Justice what to do in a tone she characterized as "peremptory.' "

Although Gorelick rejected Farbrother's plan to waive INS rules, she nevertheless ordered the agency to find some more acceptable ways to streamline the naturalization process. At the same time, she phoned Kamarck, telling Gore's aide to "back off" on the citizenship issue. She also said she never wanted to see Farbrother again, considering how "insufferably" he behaved.

But Farbrother did not give up. In an e-mail to Gore on March 28, he wrote: "I can't make Doris Meissner delegate broad authority to her field managers. Can you?" In a reply e-mail, Gore wrote: "We'll explore it. Thanks."

Some Republicans in Congress have charged that because of interference from the vice president's office, the INS failed to adequately check to determine whether the applicants had criminal records that would disqualify them. So far, the Justice Department has identified nearly 400 people who were naturalized improperly and 5,500 others whose criminal records should have been reviewed more carefully.

The Justice Department's Inspector General's Office, in its report, says Gore should not be held directly responsible for the INS bestowing citizenship on criminals. It credits the INS with averting any negative consequences by resisting interference from the vice president.

At the same time, investigators concluded that pressure from Gore's staff "did not serve the program well." They say the focus of Gore's staff "on accelerating the pace of naturalizations -- while giving all too little thought to the quality of adjudications, even though they recognized obvious weaknesses -- imposed additional stress upon a process that, even without their intervention, was substantially flawed."

What caused these criminals to be naturalized was a faulty INS system for checking fingerprints with the FBI. The record shows Farbrother recognized that the fingerprint process was "ridiculously flawed," but he made no effort to mend it.

If Gore's staff was interested in creating an efficient naturalization process, the report said, it should have "suggested some responsible changes that would have allowed INS to thoughtfully make progress on its backlog." Thus Gore failed in his stated goal of trying to "fix" the process.

A few Republicans in Congress have urged GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush to make a campaign issue of the the Justice Department findings in this case. These Republicans think Bush should find a murderer who became a citizen to demonstrate how Citizenship USA subverted what is widely viewed as a sacred process. So far, however, Bush has not mentioned it.

Instead, Bush has made an issue of another event that occurred in the spring of 1996: Gore's visit to a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles.

Ironically, there is a connection between Gore's efforts to speed up naturalization and his relationship with the Buddhists.

Investigators found in the vice president's files a letter written to Kamarck by Maria Hsia, who arranged for Gore to visit the Buddhist temple. In the letter, Hsia suggested that the Buddhists could be called upon as volunteers to teach citizenship classes and interview and test applicants.

Hsia, who has since been convicted of illegal fundraising in connection with her efforts to raise money from the Buddhists for the Clinton-Gore campaign, told Kamarck that she had already discussed this idea personally with the vice president. But as it turns out, the INS never called upon the Buddhists to help with naturalizing immigrants.

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