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US House panel finds gaps in asylum oversight

The leader of a House panel is raising concerns that the Department of Homeland Security does not adequately track when immigrants granted asylum in the United States return to the countries they had fled, calling it a “huge, gaping hole” in national security.

US Representative Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House subcommittee on national security, said he was alarmed that federal officials do not learn that asylum seekers return home — a potential sign their application was fraudulent — until they are already back in the United States.

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He raised the issue at a subcommittee hearing last week in part because of a Boston Globe article about the asylum cases of immigrants linked to the Boston Marathon bombing investigation, including suspected bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

“I was left with the impression that nobody truly follows up or is paying attention to this,” Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, said after presiding over the July 17 hearing . “That’s wholly unacceptable.”

The congressional hearing is the latest to raise questions about the federal immigration system’s role in the Marathon bombings investigation, including the still-confidential asylum claims that granted legal residency to the Tsarnaev family and Tamerlan’s friend Ibragim Todashev, who was killed by a Boston FBI agent in May.

Todashev, a 27-year-old ethnic Chechen like the Tsarnaevs, won asylum from his native Russia in 2008, but was planning to return home for a visit when he was killed. Todashev’s father, a government official in Chechnya, said after the shooting that Todashev would have faced no persecution in his homeland.

The Tsarnaevs’ asylum case has also raised questions, though it remains mired in confusion because federal officials have refused to discuss the case. Many people, including Chaffetz and former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who testified earlier this month on the issue, have mistakenly said the Tsarnaevs won asylum from Russia, partly because family members said they lived there before coming to the United States.

‘I was left with the impression that nobody truly follows up or is paying attention.’

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A federal official told the Globe on condition of anonymity that Anzor Tsarnaev, the father of alleged bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, applied for asylum from Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic. Former neighbors in Kyrgyzstan told reporters that Anzor Tsarnaev visited them about a year ago, after he and his former wife moved to Russia.

Returning home voluntarily could be grounds for revocation of an immigrant’s asylum status, but revocations are rare. Less than 1 percent of roughly 300,000 asylum grants since 1994 have been rescinded, according to the Homeland Security Department’s citizenship office, and only 18 investigators are assigned to probe asylum fraud nationwide.

Advocates for immigrants say many asylum seekers legitimately return home when conditions improve, but others say the journey should trigger an investigation.

Joseph E. Langlois, associate director of refugee, asylum, and international operations for US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that approved the Tsarnaev and Todashev claims, testified at last week’s hearing that officials scrutinize asylum applications upfront to detect fraud.

Langlois told Chaffetz that immigration officials could find out when an asylum seeker returns to a nation they had said they feared if a border official alerts them when the person reenters the United States. He said that such notifications “are not great in number, though.”

Federal officials said they could also find out when a person granted asylum applies for a green card or US citizenship.

After the hearing, Chaffetz said Homeland Security should know when an asylum recipient leaves the United States so that the agency can investigate their travels before they return. Congress ordered immigration officials to launch an entry-exit tracking system in 1996, and again after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, but Homeland Security has not implemented it. Critics say the system would be too costly.

“It’s only if they come back in via airplane that somebody can inquire as to where they’ve been,” Chaffetz said after the hearing. “At that point it becomes almost too late. They really have to connect some dots.”

Chaffetz asked Langlois about the Tsarnaev cases, but Langlois refused to testify publicly about them, saying federal regulations prohibit it.

“We would certainly be quite happy to provide you a briefing in a confidential and classified setting concerning USCIS interactions with the Boston bombers,” Langlois said.

Asylum grants safe harbor to immigrants who fear persecution for political or other reasons outlined in the law. Asylum claims are generally confidential to protect the safety of immigrants and their families, who are often victims of torture, rape, and war, but critics say the secrecy can also provide cover for false claims.

According to Citizenship and Immigration Services, 41,883 people applied for asylum last fiscal year, up from 24,551 in 2009.
Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.
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