BuzzFeed: “Welcome to America — Now Spy on Your Friends”

by Joseph McKeown

The FBI has been pressuring Muslim immigrants who face long delays when applying for permanent residency and US citizenship to become informants in order to expedite their cases, a BuzzFeed News investigation alleges.

The investigation, based on government and court documents, official complaints, interviews with immigrants, immigration and civil rights lawyers, and former special agents, finds that pressuring Muslim applicants to become informants in order to have their cases expedited—or, conversely, threatening to deport them if they do not comply—violates the FBI’s own rules regarding informants. These rules are detailed in the “Attorney General’s Guidelines Regarding the Use of FBI Confidential Human Sources” and forbid FBI agents from making any promises or commitments regarding the “alien status of any person or the right of any person to enter or remain in the United States.”   

Moreover, according to these guidelines, agents must explicitly warn potential informants that the FBI cannot assist with their immigration status in any way. BuzzFeed finds the opposite has happened:

Mandated to enforce the law, the bureau has assumed a powerful but unacknowledged role in a very different realm: decisions about the legal status of immigrants — in particular, Muslim immigrants. First the immigration agency ties up their green card applications for years, even a decade, without explanation, then FBI agents approach the applicants with a loaded offer: Want to get your papers? Start reporting to us about people you know.

BuzzFeed shares the story of one Pakistani software programmer named A.M. (he did not want his name used), who had spent seven years attempting to obtain a Green Card. After a series of interviews, three encounters with the FBI, and unexplained bureaucratic delays, with his work visa shortly expiring and no apparent end in site, he decided to file suit against the Department of Homeland Security, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and the FBI.  Afterwards at another meeting with the FBI he was asked to write down names of people he thought were terrorists. When he replied that he didn’t know any terrorists nor was he aware of any suspicious activity, he reported to BuzzFeed that one of the agents told him: “We know about your immigration problems…And we can help you with that.” The catch: he had to make secret reports on his community, friends, and family.

He refused, and shortly thereafter immigration authorities revoked A.M.’s existing work visa and FBI agents turned up unannounced at his home and workplace. Soon A.M. and his family sold their possessions and left the US, where he had lived for seventeen years. 

The goal for the FBI, BuzzFeed reports, is to take advantage of many immigrants’ desperation no matter how useful their supposed “terrorist” contacts would be or if they even have any reliable intelligence about terrorism. This wide-scale approach to intelligence gathering is not even effective according to Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now a national security expert at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. He told BuzzFeed. “All of this investigative effort is against people who are not suspected,” he said, of “terrorism or any other criminal activity.” He added: “This becomes an obstacle to real security.”

Many delays for Muslim immigrants begin with the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program (CARRP), a once secret USCIS program designed to identify security risks among applicants for visas, asylum, Green Cards, and naturalization. Established in 2008, CARRP targets a wide range of applicants, including not only suspected or known terrorists, but also for applicants based on a range of criteria, including geographical factors, knowledge of someone who is under surveillance, whether any money transfers have been made abroad, having worked for a foreign government, or even certain foreign language skills.

With CARRP, critics contend, the FBI can easily influence the immigration process. Indeed a 2013 report by the ACLU found that immigration authorities “are instructed to follow FBI direction as to whether to deny, approve, or hold in abeyance (potentially indefinitely) an application for an immigration benefit.”

Christopher Bentley, a USCIS spokesperson, told BuzzFeed that each applicant’s file is reviewed and decided by immigration officials alone (not law enforcement) on a “case-by-case” basis. The FBI’s National Press Office said they couldn’t comment to BuzzFeed on the specific strategies and tactics used to recruit informants.

While many have criticized the FBI’s use of informants within Muslim communities, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the FBI believed recruiting informants within the Muslim community was crucial to preventing future terrorist attacks. The Heritage Foundation details at least eighty-one potential terrorist attacks they say have been thwarted since 9/11 and notes that the use of informants was key to preventing many of the attacks. The authors stated: “Both government outreach efforts and the vigilance of Muslim communities against terrorism have proven vital in protecting the US” while noting that “more must be done to enhance mutual trust and partnerships between government, intelligence, and law enforcement and Muslim communities.” And after the recent San Bernardino terror attacks, Edward Gernat, a supervisory special agent for the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in San Diego, explaining how the FBI operates in general, told the San Diego Union-Tribune: “Our No. 1 goal is to prevent acts of terrorism…We will use any law enforcement tool legally available to us to prevent an act.”