June 16, 2006, 1:25AM

A fifth of U.S. visa applicants reportedly unchecked
Ex-Homeland official says failure to do background probes pose risk to national security

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - The federal government failed to conduct background checks on a fifth of the 7.5 million applicants for U.S. visas last year, posing a serious national security risk, a former Department of Homeland Security official alleged Thursday.

Michael Maxwell, former director of security and investigations at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, said the mind-set at the agency was "customer service, customer service, customer service" to alleviate the application backlog, which averages two years.

"National security has to be the No. 1 focus" instead, Maxwell said.

The former official, who said he resigned from the agency in February to openly share his misgivings about immigration enforcement, commented during a forum organized by opponents of a Senate immigration bill that would increase the number of available visas.

Maxwell cast doubts on the government's ability to carry out the Senate proposal, which also would allow about 10 million of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the country to apply for so-called earned citizenship after 11 years of meeting various requirements.

Staffing, funding shortages
A Homeland Security spokeswoman said Maxwell, in alleging that visa applicants' backgrounds went unchecked, may have overlooked a tiered system the agency uses to investigate the foreigners.

Nevertheless, "we take very seriously all the allegations that Mr. Maxwell has raised a number of times. ... We actually have turned a lot of them in to the Inspector General's office," Joanna Gonzalez said.

The Senate debated about staffing and funding shortages at the agency before passing its bill, which differs sharply from the House version. Sponsors of the bill proposed paying for the agency's increased work with additional fees that visa applicants would have to pay.

"There's going to be a lot of kinks that have to be worked out," said Christina DeConcini, policy director at the National Immigration Forum, which backs the legislation. "But people are not writing these bills without thinking about implications."

Immigration restrictionists at the Thursday forum argued that the Senate had not fully considered the nation's ability to handle large increases in the legal immigrant population.

'We need to slow down'
"We need to take a deep breath. We need to slow down. We need to ask ourselves what should a good immigration policy be," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who wants to kill the Senate bill.

Estimates of the number of legal permits that would be granted under the Senate bill vary widely.

The Center for Immigration Studies, which sponsored the Thursday forum, released a report stating that 14.4 million people would enter the legalization process, and of those, 13.5 million would eventually gain permanent residence status in the first 10 years of the program.

The Congressional Budget Office has predicted the U.S. population would grow by almost 8 million during the next decade under the Senate plan.