A former contractor working as a records custodian at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has been sentenced to five and a half years in jail for doctoring computer files to help illegal aliens obtain “legal” passports, Justice Department officials announced this week. The case reflects a larger problem the agency has experienced with personnel who have manipulated computer systems at various USCIS centers, according to internal documents and a former information technology manager. Federal investigators recently discovered that plans for an ongoing project to computerize the processing of immigration forms, which is supposed to enhance fraud detection, failed to address insider threats.
According to federal district court papers reviewed by Nextgov, Richard Abapo Quidilla, 39, of Pico Rivera, Calif., deleted the names, birth dates and other personal data of naturalized citizens in a secure database and substituted the corresponding information of illegal immigrants. He pleaded guilty in March to charges of computer fraud, procurement of citizenship unlawfully and aggravated identity theft, U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy said.
During the time Quidilla perpetrated the crimes, between Dec. 31, 2009, and Oct. 28, 2010, he was under contract with Dell Perot Systems at the USCIS San Diego office, according to the plea agreement. The government assigned him a user identification code to access the system he admitted to tampering with. Quidilla then assigned the alien registration ID numbers of nearly 30 naturalized citizens to about 30 illegal immigrants in a way that would trick anyone searching the database using the immigrants’ personal information to believe they were naturalized.
At least two illegal immigrants used their false ID numbers and citizenship statuses to get passports, according to the plea. One of them paid Quidilla at least $1,300 for cribbing the information; the other gave him at least $4,100.
When asked whether Quidilla obtained the proper clearances and passed background checks to manage immigration records, Lori Haley, an Immigration, Customs and Enforcement spokeswoman, said she could not comment because the incident is under investigation at ICE.
Quidilla’s supervisors did not know he posed a risk, Dell officials said. “Dell had no knowledge of the former employee’s criminal behavior prior to his arrest,” company spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll said. “Dell holds its team members to the highest standards, and has a zero-tolerance policy for unethical behavior.”
This is not the first time USCIS employees have orchestrated citizenship scams — and auditors are warning that a troubled $2.4 billion project to automate immigration paperwork lacks controls to guard against future internal wrongdoers, according to a report released earlier this year by the Homeland Security Department Inspector General’s Office.
Frank Deffer, assistant IG for information technology audits, listed the initiative, called Transformation, and its susceptibility to insider threats as among the “most prevalent, high-impact areas of concern” in an assessment of steps the agency is taking to protect IT systems and data against unauthorized use by employees and contractors. “Insiders at USCIS have perpetrated fraud in the past,” his audit stated. “USCIS insiders are capable of granting legal residency or citizenship status to someone who poses a national security risk to the United States.”
Separately, a serious incident report obtained by Nextgov shows, in 2008, USCIS officials discovered that employees within the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate — hired to ensure dangerous individuals do not receive immigration rights — hooked up a nongovernment computer to an external Internet connection at a Vermont center that handles visas for victims of violence and human trafficking, allowing staff to potentially extract or import data to commit identity theft.
Spokesman Christopher Bentley said the overwhelming majority of USCIS staff perform their jobs honestly and with a deep commitment to public service.
“USCIS demands that our employees maintain the highest level of integrity and professionalism,” he said. “USCIS has zero tolerance for criminal activity and employee misconduct, and will take appropriate action to pursue illegal or unethical activity by every means at our disposal.”
– by Aliya Sternstein – NextGov – 06/02/11 – http://www.nextgov.com/nextgov/ng_20110602_9794.php?oref=rss?zone=NGtoday